At the Society of Editors conference, Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, was at pains to be friendly to the Press. For example, he stressed that local newspaper journalism simply could not be further removed from the alleged phone-hacking activities at the News of the World. Those of us who work in the regional already knew this, but it’s nice to hear it from someone else.
But there were other moments in his speech which left me confused about where the BBC stands locally. He suggested that the proposed cutbacks at the BBC wouldn’t hurt the quality of journalism, thanks to making better use of material gathered locally, nationally and internationally.
He went on that the BBC’s main concern shouldn’t be defending allegations of bias, but making sure that the voices of people across the UK were heard and reflected on the BBC.
That, he said, is why the BBC was committed to moving up to Salford.
Obviously, I write this an outsider looking in, but his sentiments appear to be a bundle of contradictions. You can move a whole chunk of the BBC up to Salford and there’s no guarantee at all that the content produced by the BBC will reflect the UK anymore than if it was all produced out of London.
That’s not to say the move to Salford is a bad thing – the economic boost to the North West is one benefit – but lets not make out it’s going to make the BBC more representative. It takes more than just being based in state-of-the-art offices in Salford to actually reflect other parts of the country.
Indeed, when Peter Salmon, Director of BBC North, was defending the decision to move Waterloo Road from Rochdale to Scotland, he said:
“At the heart of every story, in each of the seven series, Shed Productions, the scriptwriters and the actors themselves ensured that the characters involved were very real and utterly believable.”
Having just watched the last episode, in which the headteacher was seemingly killed by a spurned-lover-cum-colleague after she found out he was having it off with another teacher, whose husband, also a teacher, wasn’t best impressed and ran off to Ireland with his two kids, who are also pupils at the school – but not pupils who saw the headteacher almost kill a thuggish teenager, I think we can all agree that Waterloo Road’s characters are far from ‘very real’ – even in Rochdale.
Waterloo Road is what it is – far-fatched, light-hearted entertainment – not a reflection of the town it is filmed in. If it is supposed to be ‘very real’ then we have a problem.
If, as Lord Patten says, the BBC is determined to get more views from more parts of the country on air, it needs to do two things.
The first is to think again about the cuts it is making to local BBC output. While Radio 4 – the elitist end of the BBC if ever there was such a thing – survives unscathed, BBC local radio is facing big cuts and reduction in output. Local BBC radio isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – in fact some shows most certainly fall into the ‘minority listening’ category. But if you’re going to get the voices from across the nation, then you need to be serving those people well. And whereas you could probably get Radio 4 and Five Live to share more, there’s nowhere else at the BBC to provide the sort of content that will be lost from local radio.
The same can, of course, be said for The Politics Show and Inside Out, the regional current affairs ‘magazine’ show. The former, I believe, is set to go altogether – and with it, the only real regional in depth look at politics on telly. Inside Out, I believe, will see its resources slashed. Inside Out is perhaps the only regional TV output which generally does break stories on a regular basis – BBC FOI stories regularly reference back to it, while BBC Breakfast regularly features stories from the regional programme.
You can have the entire BBC based in Salford, Lord Patten, but if you aren’t making the local programmes, then you aren’t reflecting the nation.
Of course, there could be a good reason why the BBC believes it can hack away at resources locally and still produce strong output – the regional press, which often feels like the unpaid, unrecognised research arm of the local BBC. Lord Patten conceded that the BBC often follows the agenda of the national press, but the same can also be said at a local level.
Which brings me to my second point. For a very long time, the BBC has relied on the local Press – and I would imagine hyperlocal sites now too – to hear those voices Lord Patten says are so essential for the organisation’s future. Lord Patten also said the BBC and press worked well together – claiming the BBC got a lot of stories from the Press, but gave some back too. That may be true at a national level, but there’s precious little giving back at a local level, if indeed any.
I would suggest a good way of giving back at a local level would be to start recognising where stories come from, both financially and in terms of giving credit where it is due. If it’s truly committed to giving local communities a voice on its stations, then it needs to recognise the part of the industry which actually makes that happen – and which I suspect it will rely on more in the future.