So – it’s a week or so since the BBC announced its programme of cuts, ambitiously entitled Delivering Quality First. And perhaps the most noticeable aspect of the exercise – which will see 2000 staff lose their jobs – is that nobody appear to be “up in arms”. At least for now. That may change as the true impact of the cuts becomes apparent to the audience.
Yesterday I was personally involved in a bit of mis-reporting – not on my part, I should add. In my role as a rep for the National Union of Journalists I designed this leaflet for my colleagues to distribute to friends and family. By lunchtime The Guardian was reporting that staff were handing out the leaflets to visitors at my own workplace. Not true – but perhaps there’s no such thing as bad publicity?
The Guardian described it as the first “grass roots reaction” by staff – linking my publication to a quite separate one drawn up by workers at BBC Newcastle. Since this blog went to press the Guardian have corrected the inaccuracy. But it’s a key phrase, “grass roots”. And it’s just this kind of reaction that could eventually decide the future of Local Radio and other BBC services earmarked for the savings.
Unlike 6 Music, there are no station closures planned. But the reality is that significant parts of off peak output will no longer be local. That means less time to hold decision-makers and those in power to account – and, ultimately, fewer journalists and presenters to do the “grass roots” stuff – sifting through hefty agendas, cutting through press release spin. All at a time when commercial radio is doing less and less local news, and many local newspapers are suffering sharp declines in their circulation figures.
On that basis, it might be argued that people aren’t interested in local issues. Except that BBC Local Radio pulls in 7.2 million listeners per week – compared to Five Live’s 5.5 million. And it’s commonly said that BBC One’s 6.30 regional news shows have more combined viewers than any other news programme on any UK network.
Of course, the harsh reality is that savings have to come from somewhere. But the period between now and Christmas is effectively the only opportunity for the Licence Fee payers to have their say. Critics may deride the BBC Trust consultation as a token exercise. Yet the Trust has, in the past, shown that it reacts to audience opinion. It holds the BBC to account in the same way that Local Radio holds those decision makers to account. Each needs the other in a democratic society.
So whatever protests, organised campaigns and industry talking heads emerge in the next few weeks, there’s one thing that perhaps counts above all else. Grass roots.