Mutiny On The Auntie

I should start this installation of my blog by stating that these are my own views and not necessarily those of the BBC.
Or are they?

Earlier this week I wrote about the importance of “grass roots” campaigning if the BBC’s proposed cuts to Local Radio are to be reversed, or at least limited. I hadn’t seen a huge groundswell of opinion from the audience that they were “up in arms” on the issue. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong places.

I started my broadcasting career in the South West. They’re hardy folk in the westcountry – plain speaking and fiercely passionate about their local community. The feeling you get strolling along the high street in a Cornish town or village is like no other anywhere in the world. By the way, I’m talking outside the tourist season. What? You’ve never been there out of season? Neither, some might suggest, has the BBC’s Director General. Had he done so, he might have seen this one coming.

BBC Radio Cornwall's Pauline Causey

BBC Radio Cornwall enjoys one of the healthiest set of long term audience figures in the whole of the Local Radio network. And it’s Managing Editor, Pauline Causey, has certainly not wasted any time in reminding the DG of this fact. The Guardian discloses an email sent to Mark Thompson as part of a staff Q&A session earlier this week – and Pauline pulls no punches. Here are a couple of extracts.

We apparently cost too much, and don’t have a high enough reach…Radio Cymru … costs £16.1m. It reaches 146,000 people. Radio Cornwall has a budget of £1.6m. It reaches 142,000 people. Last week we were told that English regions will need to cut £27m a year by 2016. 56% of that, £15m, will be cut from local radio. Yet last week you told Shelagh Fogerty [on BBC Radio 5 Live] that ‘the level of challenge both in terms of cuts and efficiencies are not disproportionately high in English regions. You also said we haven’t ended up with local radio at the bottom of the pecking order. Can you please help me understand how this is true?

It’s not unusual for managers to privately express disapproval at changes within the BBC. God knows, I’ve lived through enough of them to see their faces squirming when the next manager up the chain delivers news of “change” – which often means cuts. But Ms Causey is sticking her neck out here – making her voice known. And very publicly saying what many managers at her level are privately thinking.

In particular, Pauline pointed to the example of An Nowodhow – the Cornish news bulletin. It’s currently broadcast on Sunday afternoons – part of the Local Radio schedule that will become a regional programme under the cost cutting proposals. A BBC spokeswoman confidently assured the Guardian. “There are no plans at present to stop broadcasting An Nowodhow – the Cornish news bulletin – on BBC Radio Cornwall.” Well no, of course there aren’t – it’ll go somewhere else in the schedule, so why is everyone moaning?

Well let me point you in the direction of my old colleague John Rockley. Whose latest blog questions whether regional programming on local radio is such a good idea.

Why would anyone living in Chesterfield care about Market Harborough? It’s 70 miles away, if you went in the opposite direction you’d get beyond Harrogate in North Yorkshire; they may as well listen to a national programme. Regional is a handy thing for local government but slightly irrelevant for anything else.

A good point, well made.

In the meantime, the DQF train moves slowly forward – on Friday to the BBC’s headquarters in Northern Ireland. And Mark Thompson appears to have been as welcome as…. ahem… insert your favourite stereotypical Northern Irish joke here. In another Q&A session, the DG said :

If you’re really that unhappy, if you think that you can’t do your best work here then leave – no one is forcing you to stay.”

Unsurprisingly, the National Union of Journalists was quick to respond. It’s General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet:

Mark Thompson showed his complete and utter contempt for his staff today. For [him] to turn his ire on our members, at a time when the BBC is under unprecedented attack and needs strong leadership, calls into question his own position. Perhaps it’s about time he moved on – after all, no one’s forcing him to stay.

None of this is likely to get much public sympathy – on either side of the fence. But the old adage of “divide and rule” might appear to be a little outdated following the stance taken by Pauline Causey this week.

  • The BBC Trust’s public consultation on DQF runs until 21st December. For more information and to take part, click here.

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