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BBC Local Radio

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2023

I will call Gregory Campbell to move the motion and then the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the BBC’s role in promoting locally-based radio reporting.

A few years ago, a previous Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), gave the standard mantra that the BBC constantly uses:

“The BBC should always have the editorial and operational independence to decide how best to serve its audiences”.

I think most people would subscribe to that, which is why I describe it as a mantra. None the less, the Government have a duty to ensure that the BBC acts in the best interests of the licence fee paying public, which is why I am grateful to have been granted the debate. I am also grateful that the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee alluded last week to the subject matter that I raise today, which is the downgrading of my local BBC radio station, BBC Radio Foyle, which serves Londonderry and the north-west.

It may surprise some people—hopefully not too many—that I raise this subject, as I am sometimes described as an arch-critic of the BBC. My view is that when the BBC does well, I wish to acknowledge that, and when it deserves criticism, I am more than content to offer that. I will leave others to judge on that basis whether the description of arch-critic is accurate, given the number of times I have either criticised or praised the BBC. That is a matter for another day.

I was first interviewed on BBC Radio Foyle not long after it opened in 1979, which seems like an awful long time ago. In fact, when I think about it, it is an awful long time ago. There are a number of changes that I wish to see applied to my local radio station, but its downgrading is not one of them. Last week, at the sitting of the DCMS Committee that I have alluded to, the director-general, Tim Davie, was asked about the downgrading of Radio Foyle. He responded:

“The savings plans we have announced affect many different people and teams within BBC NI…This is a painful saving, but we believe we should be investing more in digital and be doing more across the whole of Northern Ireland in terms of developing the production sector and other things.”

Many of us would make the point that local radio is often a lifeline when things are difficult locally, and the past 24 hours are a classic example. At home, we have had exceptionally bad weather—frost and snow—with roads difficult to navigate and schools closing between last night and this afternoon. That all happened in the geographic area of Londonderry, Limavady and Strabane, in the north-west of Northern Ireland, which is right in the middle of BBC Radio Foyle’s catchment area. This morning, the very programme that the BBC is seeking to axe was able to carry information live to listeners in the catchment area who would be affected by road and school closures so that they could take action, either to avoid roads that would be closed or to ensure that their children could move to another location rather than navigate difficult roads to schools that were going to be closed. All in all, the very day that we are discussing the issue is a day that shows the importance of a local radio station. Along with the downgrading of the station and the axing of the very popular breakfast-time programme, on between 7 am and 9 am, the hourly news bulletins are to go, according to Mr Davie.

There is a concern in some sections of the community that the BBC decision is part of an anti-Londonderry bias. I want to make it clear that that is not a view I share. If it was BBC radio in Enniskillen, Portadown, Newry, Newtownards or Ballyclare, my view is that the BBC may well have come to the exact same decision. I believe it is a cost-driven decision, not a bias against a geographic location of Northern Ireland. If it had happened in their area, I would expect local representatives to do exactly what I am doing now and stand up for a local radio station in their community.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing the debate. He has been an advocate for the BBC. Perhaps he is not always in favour of it, but today he is speaking very much in its favour. As my colleague is aware, the promotion of Ulster Scots is a passion of mine. Although I do have many an issue with the BBC and its so-called impartiality, I have been pleased by the time given on local radio to Ulster Scots and Irish music celebration. Does my hon. Friend agree that the removal of those avenues of access leaves that essential cultural programming homeless and ensures that the BBC retains the title of being a mouthpiece for a politically motivated agenda, rather than inspiring an uplifting programme?

My hon. Friend is indeed right. I hope the Minister will be able to help with seeking meetings with the BBC to try and ensure that those types of programmes are reflected on a local basis.

The issue is that local radio stations very often give a voice to local people. If it was left to a more centralised BBC—in England a London-centric approach, or in Scotland a Glasgow/Edinburgh-centric approach—we would find that the further afield areas in the geographic location are not covered. That is the fear that there is in Northern Ireland about this decision: that there will be a centralisation of all reporters and researchers in the Belfast area and at Broadcasting House in the centre of Belfast.

What about when events happen 40, 50 or 80 miles beyond the confines of Broadcasting House? Remember, Northern Ireland is quite a small place, and as I have discovered—I may well discover again when I go back home—the Glenshane pass is a very impassable road whenever the weather is bad. That may well be a reason, or perhaps an excuse, for not sending a reporter over the Glenshane pass to locate a school, hospital or some other story when another one is more easily accessible five miles down the road.

The hon. Member is making a great speech. The issues he identifies with the Glenshane pass are exactly the same as those my constituents might face with the River Severn. Just as for him, the idea of a reporter based in Belfast being able to report the weather out near Londonderry is crazy, from the perspective of my constituents who spent the weekend carefully listening to radio bulletins about the level of the River Severn, where it would flood and which roads would be closed, the idea that we could lose that weekend programming to Birmingham is absurd.

I agree with the hon. Member in totality. I remember a number of occasions when people in Belfast who were unfamiliar with the local terrain would refer to the locality of—Hansard may have some difficulty with this— “Magherafelt”. That is not the pronunciation. Local people wondered, “Where on earth is this Ma-geer-a-felt?” It is actually Magherafelt—that is the local pronunciation. That happened because people were unfamiliar with the local terrain; local reporters would not make that mistake.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. In relation to Magherafelt, some people may well say that that mispronunciation does not affect them. One of the areas is that I am concerned about is cost-cutting. When there is a big sporting event that everyone wants to be at, BBC Northern Ireland, for example, will send a delegate, even though other BBC delegates are there, sitting two rows down from them in the press area, reporting back to the BBC on exactly the same thing. Why do they all have to be at such major events?

My hon. Friend severely tempts me to go down the road of criticising the BBC. On another occasion I will glad succumb to that but I will resist the temptation today, although I acknowledge his concern.

The BBC has made its announcement and indicated that it is now embarking on a consultation process. I hope that in her response, the Minister will be able to indicate that the Government intend to make representations to the BBC to ensure that the motion is reflected in the actions and decisions of the BBC. BBC decision making is often driven by what it describes as the cost-effectiveness of its output. Although I support a cost-effective decision-making process, that should not be at the cost of locally based reporting and knowledge driving the agenda so that the BBC more accurately reflects all aspects of geographic area it represents to its listeners and viewers.

I hope that will be the outcome of the consultation process, and that whatever it decides to do, it will have heard what has been said in this debate and outside, that it will listen to what local people are demanding and that it will say, “We have decided to review this.” Hopefully, the BBC will overturn the decision and ensure that the local radio station is there to reflect the needs, concerns and wishes of local people in the geographic area represented by that radio station.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Twigg. I have an interest to declare as I worked for the BBC for many years and am occasionally in receipt of very small cheques from said organisation.

I am an ardent supporter of the BBC and, probably uniquely in this place, have visited the studios of most BBC local radio stations. As I toured the country, I went to those wonderful places where local people reported on local news and, more importantly, told local people that I was coming to their town in a show very soon. It was important that they understood exactly why I was there, what I was doing and how important it was for the local community.

I believe that the BBC should not become entrenched inside the M25. We need the BBC to have local reporters in local towns—people who grew up there and understand the community. The BBC is the flagship of the UK’s news and media, and it is in charge of local reporting, importantly doing so with honesty, clarity and, above all, impartiality. It has a unique position and it directly affects and improves local people’s lives.

I thank the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) for securing this important debate. As has been mentioned, people become isolated, but with BBC local radio they feel connected. They feel they have a friend coming through the speaker, talking to them about issues around them, such as snowfall or the inability to cross the Severn.

Plans to cut the BBC locally have been fought with outrage in my part of the world. I have been contacted by many constituents who listen to reporters from different brands of local radio. Even a local respected Member cannot understand the current proposals and completely opposes them. The national BBC does a very fine job reporting as impartially as it can, but it does not hit home in the same way as my local BBC radio station, BBC Radio Essex, which people hear and understand. They say, “How would I know about the traffic queues on the A12 if it was not for local radio?” The A12 is frequently at a standstill and we all need to know about that. I make this appeal to the BBC: do not cut those services, find a way to keep it local. Centralisation is a cut, in a sense. There will be fewer reporters on the ground to cover local stories, especially as we have a problem with local newspapers at the moment. They are dying and their staff are being reduced. Local reporting is becoming increasingly important, and radio is the last bastion of honest, local news media.

My hon. Friend is making an important point about the supply of the next generation of national journalists. They typically start their career in local journalism, whether that is the local newspaper or local radio station. As someone who has been on BBC Radio Essex, as my hon. Friend will know, whenever I have been on it has always been very local-centric. When I was a councillor, it was useful to go on that radio programme to talk about local issues, because I knew it would all be relevant to the listeners.

I take my hon. Friend’s point absolutely. BBC local radio is a training ground for our national reporters, as in the old days repertory theatre was for the likes of me. The loss of local radio stations is a damaging decision from the BBC. We know that the BBC is operationally and editorially independent from Government, as we are so often reminded, but that does not mean that Government can just be quiet and allow that to happen. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments and hope that the BBC reconsiders its position.

Thank you, Mr Twigg, for your chairmanship of this debate. I am grateful to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). Passionate views have been expressed in the Chamber, and also across the House in recent months, on these decisions by the BBC. I apologise for missing the Backbench Business debate on the matter. I was unfortunately taken down by covid, though I rather sadly watched it from my sickbed, and listened to all the comments that were made.

Since its first local radio service was launched in the ’60s, the BBC has played a vital role in promoting locally produced radio reporting. In my view, as I have said in the House before, it is that distinctive and precise local content that makes it a true public service broadcaster, with that unique relationship with the public that follows. Important radio appearances by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) about what will be on at the local theatre, along with the local traffic report and so on, are what make an authentic and true public service.

Today, the BBC’s 39 local radio services in England reach 5.8 million listeners a week. They have a huge reach which is incredibly valued by people across our nations. We have heard in this debate how valued those services are. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) made the point that BBC local radio can be an important incubator for local talent, training those skilled broadcast professionals who go on to feed our creative industries and important broadcasting sector.

I want to recognise at the outset that the BBC’s announcement towards the end of last year of changes to radio services in Northern Ireland has caused concern in Government. It was raised by the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) with the Prime Minister in November last year. More recently, the Mayor of Londonderry and Strabane wrote to the BBC’s director-general Tim Davie to invite him to the city to discuss the BBC’s plans. I am not sure whether that invitation was taken up. I note the request made of me to try to facilitate meetings, and I will happily look into that. Mayor Duffy also wrote to the BBC chairman, Richard Sharp, and stressed the importance of BBC Radio Foyle in the community.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) reiterated to the BBC directly the concerns that have been raised in the Public Accounts Committee.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, and thankful to the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) for securing the debate. Tim Davie has offered a number of meetings to some of us. We would like him to come to Derry to see the impact of the cuts, which in my view will end up closing the station.

He will not get to Derry today, because most people in Derry, and even the airport, are totally snowed in. People right across our community have been tuning in to Radio Foyle this morning to find out whether the schools were closed, whether roads were open, and whether they could move around the town and greater area. That would not happen if Radio Foyle did not exist. It is absolutely clear that the intention behind the cuts is to end up without Radio Foyle. Does the Minister agree that without locally connected broadcasters, we will not be able to have the same connection to the BBC and the same valuable public service broadcasting?

I hope my memory does not fail me, but I think there are something like 650 BBC roles in Northern Ireland, of which 36 will be cut. I understand that some of the concerns are about whether those roles will be disproportionately removed in areas such as Derry. Concerns were raised about the geographical sensitivities of some of the job losses, which I appreciate the hon. Member for East Londonderry does not share, but such issues are deeply sensitive in the context of Northern Ireland, and I do understand them.

The hon. Member for East Londonderry said that there has been a mantra from the Government about the operational decisions made by the BBC. Equally, I understand that there are various levers in our relationship. The BBC is a public service broadcaster, and I assure him I met the director-general and the chairman to raise some concerns that have been brought to my attention by Members of different parties. We have various mechanisms in our relationship with the BBC, one of which is the mid-term review. The way in which the BBC organises its resources across the organisation is not directly within that remit, but we are looking at issues of impartiality and at the extent to which the BBC’s moving into an online presence has an effect on the commercial radio market. All those questions are up for grabs, and we take them seriously.

Last week I met the chairman of Ofcom to discuss this issue and others. Ofcom is the regulator of the BBC and has a role in holding it to account. I do not think it has quite the same level of concern that we in this House have about the changes, but the BBC’s public service essence comes down to how it responds to parts of the market that are not being served by the commercial sector. That is why people support the licence fee: the BBC provides some unique services that would not otherwise be provided, and local content is vital.

The Government want the BBC to succeed as an incredibly important British broadcaster that has a wider impact on the creative industries. In so far as we have an involvement in its “digital first” policy, which is what it wants to move towards—that is part of the justification for the changes to its local radio input—I want to have a wide-ranging conversation with the BBC about that strategy. It is about how we support the BBC to thrive, but also how we ensure that its fundamental public service broadcasting operations, such as those in radio, are not undermined as part of the shift. It is understandable and necessary, but I emphasise that we need to ensure, particularly for those who are served primarily by radio—older listeners and listeners in certain geographies—that people are not neglected in the shift to digital that all broadcasters are having to undertake.

I do not have the power to direct the BBC on where it places its resources, but these points are all elements of broader conversations I have with the organisation as a Minister. I try to reflect the sentiments, feelings and strong passions of this place when I have my conversations with the BBC.

I appreciate the sentiment about independence, and the point about commercial pressures being removed by the licence fee being part of the BBC’s set-up. Most importantly, I would have thought that the BBC would be talking to older people, who may not be able to access digital things. Older people in my constituency—I include myself—would be pleased to know they would still have mainstream online BBC services.

It is necessary to ensure that the BBC is uniquely able to access audiences who may not be moving online in quite the same way as the majority of audiences. That is a key role for the BBC. The charter requires the BBC to provide distinct content that reflects and represents people and communities in all corners of the UK, and that extends to all socioeconomic groups and age groups. We believe that local content that is relevant to audiences is incredibly important in the BBC’s public service remit. Again, it is the public service remit by which we hold the BBC to account, and it is part of the discussions when it comes to deciding the licence fee and so.

The BBC has an “Across the UK” strategy that includes important content production commitments, such as a pledge to increase the BBC’s out-of-London spend for both radio and music to 50%. In May 2022 we embedded that target in our framework agreement, requiring 50% of expenditure on network radio and BBC Sounds programmes to be made out of London by the end of the charter period. I hope the communities that Members represent will start to see that benefit.

The charter requires the BBC to work collaboratively and partner with other organisations in the creative economy; we see that in things such as the local news partnerships, which have been raised by the DCMS Committee. The BBC supports Two Lochs Radio, Britain’s smallest commercial radio station, which produces public interest journalism in the Gairloch and Loch Ewe areas of Wester Ross in Scotland. That is the kind of unique thing the BBC can do with its spending power and reach, which is reflected in the kind of content produced in Members’ constituencies.

As of July, 180 media organisations were supported by the BBC as part of local news partnerships, and that collaboration is incredibly important. I have made it clear that I am disappointed that the BBC is planning to reduce that local radio output. I have also made clear my disappointment at the proposed changes to the output in Northern Ireland, including cuts to BBC Radio Foyle. As the hon. Member for East Londonderry will be aware, BBC Radio Ulster—including Foyle—reaches nearly a third of radio listeners in Northern Ireland, and it is an incredibly important part of that media landscape.

I met the BBC’s leadership at the end of last year and expressed everybody’s concerns, and that meeting has been built on; following the issue being raised in Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister met the director-general and the chairman of the BBC. The Secretary of State has also written to the BBC to remind it of its responsibilities under the charter and to express our concern that we received notification of the changes only on the date they were made, rather than receiving any advance notice; that makes an urgent question rather difficult to respond to.

The DCMS Committee has been looking carefully at the BBC and its planned changes to local radio. I always appreciate the work of the Committee and its valuable contributions. I have asked the BBC for advice on how it will manage major local incidents that require a dedicated rolling news service, given its important responsibilities under the charter to support emergency broadcasting; the weather has been referenced in the debate, and providing that information is a valuable part of what the BBC does.

Beyond the BBC’s role in promoting locally produced radio reporting, there is its role in the wider local media ecosystem. Local commercial radio stations, such as Radio Clyde and Downtown Radio, reach 43% of adults every week, and most have licence obligations to provide local news in peak hours, which again provides trusted content. When I raised the issues about cuts to broadcasting with the BBC, I was told that it would protect the local news bulletins and the distinct content for each of the stations in question. I wrote to hon. Members who had spoken in the UQ to set out some of the BBC’s response to me; I hope they received those letters.

We want to ensure that everything we do supports community radio stations, and various provisions in the media Bill—which I know everybody is keen to see—will support the wider radio ecology. I hope to be able to provide further details on that Bill in due course. We are providing financial support for technical trials of small DAB broadcasting technology and to license small-scale DAB networks. I hope that that assures hon. Members that not only do we support the BBC in what it does in local radio, but we are looking at how we can have a thriving grassroots commercial and voluntary radio sector at the same time, so that the withdrawal of the BBC does not lead to a large gap in local content.

We all agree that the BBC is a national asset; its centenary year has allowed us to reflect on just how much it has contributed to lives on both a local and national level, and how much it is truly valued by our constituents; the reaction to these radio changes really underlines that point. We want the BBC to continue to succeed for the next century, and that requires it to change, but not at the cost of some of its fundamental public service broadcasting responsibilities. I reassure hon. Members that I have been consistently making that point to the BBC’s leadership, and I want to work with them to ensure that, as the BBC moves into new broadcasting challenges, it does not lose its very essence and the public support that underpins its funding model.

Question put and agreed to.