I speak not only in my capacity as secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, but to represent my constituents. The NUJ has circulated a briefing to all Members of Parliament who have expressed an interest in local radio. I will refer to elements of it because it sets what the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) said in context.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It is interesting that on this particular subject we have come together over the years on a cross-party basis to exert an influence on the BBC as best we can. Our debates in this House have exerted an influence: hon. Members who have been around for a while will remember previous debates in which we have fended off onslaughts on BBC radio.
Let me put our concerns on the record—I hope the BBC is listening. The current plans mean that most of the afternoon and evening output will be shared. Overall, BBC local staffing is expected to reduce by 48 posts. After 2 pm on weekdays, the BBC will produce 18 afternoon programmes across England. Local stations will be forced to share information. What will that do? Exactly as the right hon. Gentleman says, it will seriously diminish a service that is highly valued by listeners and plays a role for all in underpinning local democracy by holding us to account and reporting on what is happening— not just with MPs, but with local councils and local agencies.
As the right hon. Gentleman says, there is example after example of local BBC stations providing a conduit of information during crisis after crisis. From weather crises and covid to accidents and other unfortunate incidents, they provide the information people rely on. Why are they important, as against other stations? Because they are seen as a reliable source of information and they provide a vital service on which all our communities depend. The cuts mean that there will now be just 40 hours a week of guaranteed local programming.
Let me reiterate the role that constituents have told us BBC local radio does. It connects communities. It provides local news. It provides reportage of sport, entertainment and religious services. It has been the bedrock of the BBC’s role as a public service. Interestingly, it is not just us saying that, but the BBC itself. In its latest annual report, the BBC boasts about how local radio
“delivered real value by keeping people safe and informed through challenging times such as Storm Arwen, where audiences in the North East were left without power for weeks.”
The BBC itself gives examples from the pandemic, when many people were isolated in their homes. The BBC itself says “it makes a difference.” That is why we are bewildered when 5.7 million people listen to local radio and it comes under attack once again.
There is quotation after quotation from people who may not be working in the service at the moment and may therefore be more independent. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that people do not want to put their jobs at risk at this stage. The former voice of BBC Radio Suffolk’s afternoons, Lesley Dolphin—who was very well known to a lot of people—wrote this to the director-general of the BBC:
“BBC managers are proud that they have journalists on the ground in every county, but local radio is so much more than a news service—it is embedded in local communities and gives people a sense of place, a chance to celebrate heritage and art. It will be impossible to do that if programmes are shared across a wider area.”
When we debated this issue recently, early in November, there was huge cross-party support for local radio. One Member said that local stations
“provide a lifeline for news and education, mitigate against rural isolation and support people’s rural mental health.”
Another said that it was
“a great incubator for new talent”
in his area, and a third described it as
“one of the crown jewels of our public sector broadcaster.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2022; Vol. 721, c. 774-778.]
The importance of local broadcasting becomes even clearer when all of us are reporting the decline in local newspaper circulation in our areas. The BBC local radio service has stepped into that gap to an even greater extent to ensure that there is local reportage, holding us all—at every level of representative democracy—to account. Press Gazette has reported that 265 local newspaper titles have gone. The BBC says that it is pursuing a digital-first policy, chasing younger viewers, but the NUJ and others have put forward alternatives so that broadcasters can improve the whole system more effectively by working differently and using technological solutions. Unfortunately, the BBC has not engaged in that discussion constructively enough.
I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about staffing. All BBC local radio staff have now been told that their jobs are at risk. They have been told that the managers will “roll out” the plans, which means that some of those staff will not know their futures for up to a year. We can imagine the sense of insecurity that that creates.
During the November debate, the Media Minister, the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), said the Government were
“disappointed that the BBC is reportedly planning to make such extensive cuts to its local radio output.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2022; Vol. 721, c. 764.]
The view that we can express to the BBC is that this is a cross-party issue. It is certainly of concern to the Opposition parties, but it is also of deep concern within the Government. I will not let the Government off the hook, because I want to put on record my opposition to the freezing of the BBC licence fee, but in the context of the resources that the BBC now has, as the right hon. Gentleman said, there must be some element of prioritisation for the valuable role played by BBC local radio.
Let me quote from another broadcaster most people will recognise, Fi Glover, who has been a prominent broadcaster over the years. When she was interviewed recently on “The Media Show”, she said:
“There has never been a more important time in the dissemination of information to have a strong local news network. If you can’t tell the story of the people around you, who you know and see every day then into that void can fall really unpleasant things. Once that part of the forest has been cut down, it won’t ever grow again.”
So what did she think of these plans? She said,
“it is bonkers.”
I agree with her completely. I hope that the BBC is listening, and I hope it will think again.
Let me say this on behalf the of NUJ: it stands ready to be involved in any consultations or negotiations to find an alternative way forward, which I think the majority of Members would also seek.