Local journalists use Radio Leeds anniversary to highlight cuts to its service

  • 26 Jun 2023

Their concerns were echoed by MPs from all parties, the length and breadth of England, in a House of Commons backbench debate.

The 55th anniversary of the first BBC Radio Leeds broadcast was marked by members of the National Union of Journalists, as they continued to call for the damaging proposals to drastically cut local programming to be halted.

Members of the union's Leeds and West Yorkshire branch gathered outside the broadcaster's Leeds office on Saturday 24 June to celebrate the station’s birthday, with original BBC Radio Leeds team member Michael McGowan invited to blow out the candles on the cake.

The NUJ is in dispute with the BBC plans over plans to cut local radio output by almost half making many popular presenters redundant, cancelling shows and forcing local stations to share content across larger regional areas.

On the proposed cuts to BBC Radio Leeds, Michael said: "Now is the time for the BBC to get to grips with public service broadcasting and expand, not reduce, its local radio network. Listeners to local radio deserve better than cuts to valued local programmes, and BBC management must rethink its plans."

Branch members had written to their MPs to share research highlighting serious anomalies in the local output quotas contained within the operating licence overseen by Ofcom, as well as raising worries about the regulator's own transparency and thoroughness.

The briefing was circulated before a debate in the House of Commons on the BBC's plans for local radio, during which MPs from all parties queued up to support their local radio station, to call on the BBC to change it plans and for Ofcom, the broadcasting watchdog, to “do its job” and enforce the BBC’s remit to licence fee payers.

Sir Mike Penning, Conservative MP for Hemel Hempstead, who had called the debate proposed the following motion, which was unopposed: “That this House calls on the BBC to reconsider its decision to reduce local news output from local radio journalism which will have a negative impact on communities across the UK, reduce access to local news, information and entertainment and silence local voices.”

He made reference to the NUJ’s “excellent” lobby of Parliament on Wednesday 7 June, the first day of a 48-hour strike by journalists working for local radio, regional TV and online. MPs were able to speak to local reps and get a briefing on what the cuts would mean to their local station. Sir Mike said:

“As we look at where these proposals will go, we see that it is absolutely imperative that this House sends a message to the BBC hierarchy, as well as to the workers of the BBC, including journalists, runners and junior people in offices, that we will not tolerate the undermining of local radio in our constituencies.”

The MPs talked about the importance of local radio for democracy.  Liz Twist, Labour MP for Blaydon, said:  

“We all know that it is a foolish politician who underestimates local radio journalists and their ability to hold power to account.”

Bob Seely, Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight, said:

“BBC reporters who serve their communities have a passion and a drive to report what they see as the truth about the workings of the council, the NHS and their MPs.”

Lia Nici, Conservative MP for Great Grimsby, said:

“We talk about levelling up, but if we want to do that, we should make sure the BBC has to level up and keep our local BBC radio services. Once we have lost it, we will no longer see proper democratic reporting.”

They agreed how important local radio is for older and vulnerable people. Emma Lewell-Buck, Labour MP for South Shields, said:

“As a fee payer, I am angry that my views were not sought, but I am angrier about the loss of jobs and talent at the BBC that these changes will cause, and the loss of service to my fantastic constituents. Digital exclusion in the north-east is the highest in England. The north-east is the region with the highest proportion of disabled people, and my area of south Tyneside has the largest elderly population in the north-east, a group who have already been battered by the changes to the over-75s licence fee.

“Those are the very groups who not only listen to local radio but rely on it the most. When the BBC’s director general appeared before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, he said that the changes were “critical for local democracy”, but when it comes to the north-east he is simply wrong—these changes are quite the opposite.”

Anna Firth, Conservative MP for Southend West, said:

“On the topic of elderly people, 8 per  cent of my residents in Southend West are over 80, and for them, our local BBC Essex radio is a lifeline. I also want to mention how important our local radio is to our disabled and partially sighted community… blind campaigner Jill Allen-King OBE is now in her 80s, but she has been a BBC Radio Essex fiend ever since she went blind on her wedding day more than 50 years ago.”

The MPs argued that Ofcom, the broadcasting watchdog, had failed in its duty. Andy Carter, Conservative MP for Warrington South, said:

“This House expects Ofcom to regulate the BBC and robustly hold to account the management of the BBC for delivering local services. Ofcom has written to the BBC saying that it is not certain that its own rules for regulating local radio are robust and sufficient. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for Ofcom to stand up for this House, and for listeners and viewers?”

They explained how important local radio is to rural communities, particularly where they cannot access commercial stations because of the lack of signal.  Helen Morgan, Liberal Democrat MP for North Shropshire, said:

“People who live in a rural area like North Shropshire want to know what is happening in North Shropshire. As much as they bear no ill will to the people of Stoke or Wolverhampton, they are not that interested in what is going on there. The lifeblood of every fête, charitable event or local football match is that the organisers can get on local radio and tell people that those events are happening.”

Matt Rodda, Labour MP for Reading East, said:

“Local radio is a much-loved companion and a comfort to people in need, people who are isolated in rural communities, and other people who are perhaps disabled, elderly or at home on their own. It is a wonderful medium, particularly for older residents. It is hugely valued and should not be forgotten.”

Many spoke up in support of BBC staff, criticising the process where many have had to apply for their own jobs. Robin Walker, Conservative MP for Worcester, said:

“The BBC should also be paying attention to its staff. I have rarely been one to speak out in favour of strikes, but I have to say that I have every sympathy with members of the NUJ who have been striking and protesting, because they have not been consulted and have not been listened to. In fact, local journalists who work incredibly hard, and who are a key pipeline for future talent into the BBC nationally, are not being listened to in this space. I think that absolutely needs to change.”  

They expressed anger at the BBC’s failure to consult on the plans. Rachael Maskell, Labour MP for York Central, said:

“The BBC has failed to consult and it has been insensitive to listeners and staff—this shameful episode has left them ignored and hurt. The BBC must apologise.”

John McDonnell, secretary of the NUJ’s cross-party Parliamentary Group, said:

“It is depressing for most of us who are advocates of public sector broadcasting to have to come back to this debate so often. There is genuine anxiety among many staff that we are seeing a whittling away of local radio services so that eventually BBC management will prove the point that it wants to prove: that the services are no longer supported and therefore unnecessary. It will then close them down altogether. That seems to be the strategy: to make the service unsustainable, cut by cut.

 He added: “London needs a specific service due to its range of ethnic diversity, its differing levels of affluence and poverty, and the scale of its vulnerable audiences. In all our discussions with the broadcasters, we have made the point that local radio is not just about news; it is about companionship as much as anything. There has been no acknowledgement in our discussions with the BBC of the digital divide, which has been brought out by the data. People are angry that this has been driven through without consultation, as the director general admitted in front of a select committee.”

Stuart Andrew, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Department for Culture, Media and Sport, replying for the government, said:

"The fact that we have heard contributions from Hemel Hempstead, South Shields, Bootle, South Swindon, Great Grimsby, Kingston-upon-Hull North, Worcester, Wansbeck, Waveney, Reading East, Totnes, York, Hayes and Harlington, Southend West, Strangford, New Forest, Watford, Isle of Wight, Slough, North Shropshire and Blaydon shows the nationwide concern on this issue."

He said ministers had met the chair of the BBC board and the director general to express their concerns and they had made it clear that the BBC must continue to provide distinctive and genuinely local radio services, with content that represents communities from all corners of the UK. The minister added:

“We are very clear that we expect the BBC to be far more transparent with audiences and the government about changes to its content and services. That is a requirement in the BBC’s updated operating licence, which came into effect in April. We expect Ofcom, as the regulator of the BBC, to robustly hold it to account, especially in the delivery of its mission and public purposes. Ofcom has set out what it expects the BBC to do in reviewing the impact of the changes and meeting the audience’s needs, and is commissioning new research to understand audiences’ needs and the value they get from these local services. As the minister for equalities and for loneliness—areas I have great passion for—I will certainly pay further attention to this issue.”

Read the debate in full

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