This blog post captures interesting topics arising during the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s evidence session which took place on 1st December 2022 as part of the 'work of The BBC' enquiry.
The DCMS Select Committee is a group of MPs from all major political parties who hold the work of the UK Government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to account and deliberate on the key issues affecting the associated sectors. The Committee regularly publishes reports that receive formal responses from UK Government - like this one that draws on several policy recommendations made by Culture Commons earlier in the year.
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DCMS Select Committee
'The work of the BBC' evidence session
Thursday 1st December 2022
Rhodri Talfan Davies, Director of Nations, BBC
Jason Horton, Director of England, BBC
Context for the session
The BBC recently announced changes to the way it would deliver BBC local radio programming across the UK. 39 local radio stations will amalgamate into 18 stations that will have a more regionalised reach.
The proposals hope to lead to an £11m per year reduction in spend on live local radio – seeing £7m per year saved and the other £3m moving over into new audio content that sits within the wider audio output (inc. podcasts and BBC Sounds content).
The BBC stated that the overall objective of the proposed changes was to strengthen local radio through a redistribution of spend following detailed analysis of where spend can have the most impact.
The BBC explained that decisions had been made based on the performance of existing radio stations, the footprint of overall programme coverage, as well as a variety of regional identity considerations (for example, Leeds, Sheffield and Bradford has been brought together to create a “Yorkshire” offering).
The BBC hoped that by making careful and strategic changes to local radio output, the net effect would result in more impact on local audiences than there currently is. The BBC also stressed that their plans were about driving a higher standard of programming in all local and regional content.
Throughout, the BBC described the very difficult financial situation the BBC found itself in following considerable 30% real terms cuts imposed by UK Government as the backdrop for the rationalisation of the local radio services.
Several MPs on the Committee raised their concerns about specific local programmes in their own areas that would fall foul of the BBCs planned changes to local radio. The BBC representatives were unable to confirm exactly which programme would or would not be staying, but that they would be consulting with local teams throughout the processes and that the exact plan they have published would not necessarily be the one they move ahead with.
The Committee raised concerns about the suitability of the makeup of the BBC local radio regions. They raised the Southeast of England region including Sussex, Surrey, Kent and London - a substantial geographical area with very different needs. MPs suggested the BBC could have designated the new regions in a more “modern” way, as opposed to following historical BBC regions. The BBC accepted there were many ways in which the regions could have been drawn up but pointed out that the decisions around the makeup of the new 18 regions were very nuanced.
The BBC suggested that it was unlikely that there would be movement on the number of new chosen regions (18) but that the ways in which the “pairings” of the areas into regions was organised could still be adapted as consultation continues.
Cuts to local areas
The Committee proposed that the changes to local radio provision was effectively being seen as a “cut” to local funding. The BBC robustly refuted this characterisation, indicating that whilst cuts of 30% had to be made across the board within the BBC, the real terms spending cuts on local service overall had been just 15%.
Many MPs on the Committee shared that they had received large amounts of correspondence from their constituents about cuts to their favoured local radio programmes on a Sunday morning (one of the time slots that will be affected by the proposed changes). MPs suggested that the optics of such a move i.e. removing services that are often closest to the licence fee payers was not well thought through. The BBC pointed out in response that no cuts to local services would be taking place and that the plans were about rebalancing the spend in new local areas that can draw on improved content from further afield.
The Committee pointed out that commercial radio is not currently meeting the needs of local communities in the ways that BBC local radio does, pointing to the very few commercial radio operators operating in local communities and their lack of investigative journalism. The Committee also pointed out that the commercial world does however cater well in the online space – the very area the BBC says it wants to move its audio activity into.
The BBC acknowledged that the BBC Charter is clear that its’ services must serve local communities, but that if communities are moving to online services, that is where the investment and provision should be bolstered. The BBC explained that growth in digital news and on demand streaming consumption is being seen highest in over 55 year olds, and that in this respect, the tide is now turning on the demographics who are accessing online content.
Impact on audiences
The Committee raised their concerns about older people in their constituencies losing out and becoming increasingly isolated due to several barriers to accessing digital content. The BBC responded saying they felt they would be able to continue to cater to older people because high quality content will be available through the radio at all hours of the day and night. The BBC acknowledged there are older audiences who won’t turn to digital news or can’t access digital audio content for wider reasons including affordability and broadband connectively.
The BBC reminded the Committee of the critical role it played getting isolating older people and their families through the pandemic. The BBC described the important role that radio often plays in terms of companionship for older people, which will still be there from 6am to 10pm, just now working on a regionalised basis. The BBC argued that the fact that the areas are larger does not necessarily mean they cannot still connect with different communities or produced relevant content.
A member of the Committee stated that older members of the Irish Community in their constituency had been in touch because they were unable to access their favoured Irish community focussed programme because it had moved online. The BBC confirmed that community programming will maintain the level of spend, but will be engaging with presenters and producers to see how those programmes might be more broadly accessed in future as part of the new plans.
The Committee asked how the BBC had consulted with older people. The BBC confirmed that they regularly engage with older people (and other demographic groups) directly and through market research, including local radio listeners; these engagements often reveal a hierarchy of wants and needs which the BBC said had been considered when drawing up the plans brought forward.
The Committee pointed to their evidence session earlier in the week with Martin Lewis in which he stated he prefers to appear on traditional linear programmes as opposed to more diffuse on-demand platforms, due to the level of engagement and concentration from audiences. It was suggested that this demonstrates that not everyone wants to engage on digital on-demand platforms.
The rumour that all community focussed programming would be combined into just one BBC Sounds podcast was clarified as being entirely false. However, the BBC were open that they could not confirm that there would not be changes to the way in which community programmes were broadcast in future. The BBC also pointed out that people from minority communities were not just represented on community programmes, but also on their mainstream and flagship shows right across the network as presenters and producers.
The Committee pointed to the Black Equity organisation open letter signed by prominent international figures like David Harewood and Adrian Leicester who raise the issue of there being no dedicated channel for Black people seeing 3.2 million uncatered for; the committee point out that there are other offerings for minority groups e.g. Bengali programming on satellite.
The Committee went on to outline that recent audience satisfaction surveys saw 47% of Black and minority ethnic audience members stating they felt the BBC was effective in reflecting them, and 27% felt that the broadcaster was not representing them well. The BBC pointed to the step change in representation of these communities within drama and other areas, as well as the concerted efforts of Tim Davie (the BBC General Secretary) in setting targets for 20% of all staff being from Black and minority ethnic communities by 2030.
Late Night Shows
The Committee raised that late night live radio shows being cut could have a negative impact on vulnerable people and that, due to the slim operation needed to run such shows, the savings are likely to be very small overall. The BBC acknowledged that the late-night presenters and producers are incredibly close to their listeners and are very talented, but that difficult decisions have had to be made. The BBC explained that whilst the cost of individual programmes was low, the replication of such shows across many local stations stacks up to a large cost overall. The BBC reiterated that most of the audience comes between 6am and 2pm and suggested that they would like to replicate some of those late-night programme formats, but at a regional and national level where possible.
Impact on workforce
The Committee raised the issue of all ‘BBC Introducing’ presenters and producers being on redundancy notices. Several Committee members pointed to moral in local BBC radio being low because of potential redundancies. The BBC explained that there is a formal staff consultation taking place and that large numbers of staff were technically “at risk” because of the way that local and regional presenters and other staff fit into three very broad employment bands. The BBC confirmed that it will be moving to providing a regional based ‘BBC Introducing’ programmes and it is hoped that the current teams will want to stay and potentially move into other roles, but that some positions will likely be lost.
The Committee raised an issues that the BBC seemed to have stated that the staff affected had been brought into “formal consultation” as part of the proposed changes, but that the BBC had also stated in the evidence session that there is unlikely to be any considerable changes to the plans laid out; it was pointed out that this could well mean a meaningful consultation was not actually taking place, an issues that the trade unions may pick up.
The Committee suggested the proper way to make the proposed changes would have been to consult with staff before publishing a concrete plan and stating there would be no significant changes. The BBC stated that they had always been clear when the ‘Digital First’ strategy was released some time ago that reductions to local radio provision was on the table.
The Committee raised recent press coverage suggesting that black and ethnic minority community audiences and workforces would be disproportionately impacted by the BBC plans for local radio. The BBC flatly refuted the claim, stating that there is no evidence of a disproportionate impact on those communities would be created, again reiterating that investment in community programmes is being maintained.
The Committee pointed out the Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity’s recent report called ‘Diversity of Senior Leaders in BBC Radio News’: just 6% of local BBC leadership and 8% at the national level news and current affairs teams saw black and ethnic minority communities represented; the BBC declared their desire to do more to tackle this problem and that they would like to see a more representative workforces across the whole of the BBC. The BBC shared that they have run several ‘New Voices’ schemes in recent years to promote diversity within on- and off-air positions and that a growing apprenticeship scheme was being run across all departments with a concerted effort to improve diversity.
When asked, the BBC stated that the BBC Board included 2 Black and ethnic minority people out of 12, and the Committee quoted an internal BBC report that there was no single black person in a leadership role in the BBC’s production department (the BBC felt this to be factually inaccurate and committed to writing to the Committee following).
The Committee raised levels of salary for senior managers, which could be seen as “out of touch” during a cost of loving crisis: for example, one MP pointed out that half of the BBC’s top Executives had taken pay rises, and some as high as 40% in the previous year. It was also stated that one of the evidence panels was paid £260,000 per year - nearly 10 times what local journalists affected by the new plans earn. The BBC responded that over the last five years they had significantly reduced salaries of Senior Executives. Senior Management role costs had also been reduced by 20-30% in the last 6 years. The BBC also pointed out that colleagues in Senior Executive roles would earn far more outside the BBC.
Impact on the Devolved Administrations
The Committee asked several questions related to the provision of local radio in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The BBC explained that, by and large, the three nations have national stations and there are no local radio networks affected. Where there are local radio stations in the nations (e.g. in Orkney and Shetland, Scotland), they will be maintained.
The Committee suggested that programming of BBC Scotland could be eclectic (with a suggestion that this was not a complement!). The BBC pointed out that radio Scotland had evolved considerably over the last 10 years and has sustained its audience reasonably well. The BBC confirmed that there are no plans to deliver local programming beyond the current provision currently in place as the provision in place now was largely successful.
The Committee raised the cultural sensitivities around local radio provision in Derry and in Belfast. The BBC stated that there were a whole range of very difficult decisions that the BBC was having to make (including to the World Service); at the moment because of the freeze of the licence fee the BBC faces a £400m funding gap because the freeze is happening at the same time as incredibly high inflation; this has driven a prioritisation towards online.
The Committee asked if the Prime Minster had been in touch with the BBC following his commitment to do so in this week's Prime Minister’s Question Time following a question on cuts to BBC Radio Foyle by a backbench MP. The BBC confirmed that the Prime Minster had not yet, to their knowledge, been in touch.
UK Government consultation
The Committee asked why the BBC had not consulted with the UK Government on the plans for local radio. The BBC confirmed they had provided the UK Government with their proposal in advance of the publication of their publication. The BBC also acknowledged that talking the relevant Ministers through their plans in more detail beforehand could have been helpful. The BBC was also clear, however, that as operational decisions, the BBC were not obliged to ask permission to make the proposed changes.
The Committee asked if the BBC’s funding difficulties stemmed from the point at which the UK Government mandated the BBC to take responsibility for the licence fees for over 75s. The BBC confirmed that taking a 10–12-year period together, the changes had resulted in a 30% real terms cut to the BBC’s budget.
The Committee stated that the transition from ‘Inside Out’ to the ‘We are England’ programme had led to a number of failings related to editorial decisions and the quality of investigative journalism and that this seemed to contradict the approach from the BBC to bring more investigative journalism to regional programming by amalgamating areas.
Maida Vale redevelopment
The Committee raised the ongoing case of the Maida Vale campus – once a home to parts of the BBC’s operation, with a rich cultural heritage. One MP suggested the BBC now has the opportunity to sell the building following the BBC’s unsuccessful effort to oppose the Historic England Grade II listing. The MP urged the BBC to consider the role of creative and cultural stakeholders in the area to take over the building rather than selling to the highest bidder. The BBC were unable to comment in any meaningful way as the most appropriate staff were not giving evidence and the negotiation was commercially sensitive.