Anyone would think someone had died. No, it was just the screams emanating from the BBC once reality had set in and the BBC management announced how it was implementing its 20 per cent cuts. In typical BBC fashion they have gone for the soft targets and put off the difficult decisions. Instead of actually sitting down and thinking “what is the BBC for and what should it do”, it has come up with cuts which at first sight look crass and cackhanded - and hit many of the wrong people and departments. I mean, how ludicrous is it to banish business bulletins from the BBC News Channel? And to decomission Five Live’s only investigative programme. And to chip away at various bits of newsgathering. I could go on.
Now, here’s a question for you. Which BBC Radio programme employs 54 news journalists? Today? No, they have 16 reporters. PM? no, guess again. WATO, I hear you say? No. Wrong. Unbelievably the answer is, wait for it, Radio 1’s Newsbeat programme. While you recover your composure let me tell you that Radio 1’s news output is composed of half hourly 30 second bulletins and two ten minute news programmes at lunchtime and teatime. Yes, ladies and gentlement, that’s where your licence fee goes. It’s the unique way the BBC is funded, you see. Now let me give you the good news. The number of news journalists on Radio 1’s Newsbeat will be cut to 34. Not this year, you understand. Or indeed next. No, there will be a phased reduction from 2013. To 34. Now, I work in a commercial radio station’s newsroom every day of the week. To produce thirty second news bulletins and two ten minute news bulletins takes a fraction of 34 journalists. I know. At LBC we do it every day, and the bulletins are a damned site better than the ones produced by Newsbeat. What on earth do these 54 journalists do all day? Because no one can tell me they are all fully employed.
I see it on 5 Live all the time. Each programme will have a production team of 8-12 people. Some more. You never get a sense of urgency at the BBC. No one ever runs in the newsrooms. They amble. It’s the same on the News Channel. It doesn’t fell like a newsroom. It feels like a morgue. Even when I have been there when a big story is breaking, there isn’t the same palpable sense of urgency, of excitement that you get at Sky, or at LBC.
This isn’t an attack on the BBC. It’s an attack on the way the BBC is managed. And in true BBC fashion, the cuts that have been suggested are misdirected and don’t hit the right targets. Why has Radio 4 escaped any budget cut, yet the axe has fallen on 5 Live? Why does BBC1 escape largely unscathed, yet BBC2 is hit? Why not merge BBC3 and BBC4?
And as for BBC local radio. Well, don’t get me started. In some way it its own worst enemy. It has lost its sense of direction, with a succession of senior BBC managers not really knowing what to do with it. BBC local radio’s job is to do what it says on the tin. Be local. Not regional. Local. And yet in future afternoon and evening schedules will be combined in regional groupings. In a sense it is only mirrroring what is happening in the commercial sector, but it is not the BBC’s job to do that. Saldy BBC1 went down the road of aping ITV1 many years ago. Now the same is happening to local radio. That’s not to denigrate commercial local radio at all. In commercial radio it is all about branding. National brands took over locally a long time ago, with breakast and drivetime shows the only ones with local content. Radio Broadland became Heart in Norfolk, and so it was all around the country. Indeed, it has boosted local commercial radio audiences. But BBC stations are not there to directly compete - they’re there to offer a public service. If I am in Norfolk and listening to BBC Radio Norfolk, I want proper local output, not some networked morming show presented from Colchester throughout East Anglia. If I am in Kent I’m not especially interested in an afternoon show hosted from BBC Radio Surrey or Sussex. Local radio ought to be a jewel in the BBC’s crown, yet it is being taken for a ride. There’s a serious danger that in 10-20 years it won’t exist. And that would be a tragedy. Radio listenership is on the up. It is the one form of media which the internet hasn’t ravaged. People like local radio. They often view it as a friend, a companion. And it is. Shelagh Fogarty, in her weekly diary, wrote that “it’s all about family, companionship, wellbeing - easily as Reithian as education, entertainment, and information.”
A lot has been said about the 25% cuts about to be imposed on BBC London. I should declare an interest here as a presenter on LBC, which competes for audience with BBC London. It seems ridiculous to me that the BBC thinks it cannot sustain a 24 hour radio station in the nation’s capital, but it appears that its afternoon and evening programming will be shared with a greater London region. Its nightly sports programme, with local football coverage will go. In addition, it will axe Sony award winning Danny Baker’s afternoon show. Astonishing. How to kill a radio station in one easy lesson. Don’t get me wrong. BBC London has a lot of fat which could be trimmed. It has a budget several times that of LBC yet has only half the audience. Something wrong there somewhere, wouldn’t you say?
Any organisation facing cuts of 20% is going to have to make decisions which are painful and with which many will disagree. It seems to me that the BBC management have taken the easy way out and cut the areas of least resistance. That’s not to say these cuts won’t be painful in the areas concerned, but they have concentrated the cuts in areas which are not in a position to fight back. How courageous.