MPs have joined calls for the BBC to halt plans to make radical changes to local radio provision. MPs from across the political divide were united in their support for their local radio stations, calling on BBC bosses to reconsider the changes. Worcester MP Robin Walker contributed to the debate, criticising the plans which could see the schedule for BBC Hereford and Worcester massively reduced.
Under the plans, most BBC Local Radio stations will share programmes after 2pm on weekdays and all weekend (apart from sports commentaries). Local Radio programming will be reduced from around 100 hours a week per radio station to 48 and, in some cases (where there are no sports fixtures to cover), just 40 hours a week. Only programmes from 6am to 2pm on weekdays will remain local. After 2pm on weekdays the afternoon/drivetime programmes will be shared between stations, reducing their ability to cover stories and local features and to have travel updates from their areas.
Initial proposals involved merging BBC Hereford and Worcester with Warwickshire and Coventry. Following an intervention from MPs including Robin, BBC bosses proposed merging Hereford and Worcester with Shropshire, Staffordshire and Stoke. Robin criticised the plans as a further step in the wrong direction.
“The proposals would also be detrimental to the BBC’s work as a public sector broadcaster on equality grounds. I question whether the BBC has ran proper equality tests on the impact of what it is doing. I recently joined blind campaigners outside No. 10 Downing Street to present a petition on this issue, which was also presented at BBC headquarters in W1A, and I do not think that has been responded to in detail by the BBC. Local radio stations are trusted voices, which are trusted by our constituents because they are local voices, and they are also trusted by people who miss out on digital and people who are isolated, lonely and living on their own, whether for reasons of disability, age or digital exclusion. These are audiences that the BBC should absolutely be going out of its way to serve.
“We have heard about proposals for timing changes. The BBC will say that it is keeping local radio for the most important part of its listenership and the most popular part of its readership, but that misses the point. If we take away the journalists who are covering news for key periods of the day, we will lose key local content that does not then find its way to digital. We all know that events in our constituency—whether political or educational, or about volunteers doing great work—do not just take place between 7 o’clock in the morning and 2 o’clock in the afternoon. In fact, most educational stories are likely to take place during the afternoon when people have more time to talk about them. A lot of politics takes place later on in the day and feeds into the evening shows. These are the things the BBC should be paying attention to.
“The BBC should also be paying attention to its staff. I have rarely been one to speak out in favour of strikes, but I have to say that I have every sympathy with members of the NUJ who have been striking and protesting, because they have not been consulted and have not been listened to. In fact, local journalists who work incredibly hard, and who are a key pipeline for future talent into the BBC nationally, are not being listened to in this space. I think that absolutely needs to change.
“Talking of listening, the BBC says it has listened on some of its regional proposals and changes, but from a Worcestershire MP’s perspective, it has actually made things worse. It was originally proposing to put together programming from Hereford and Worcester with programming from Coventry and Warwickshire. That, from a Worcestershire perspective, is difficult—it would not necessarily be as local as it was—but vaguely understandable. The BBC has changed that now, and has taken away the idea of combining us with Coventry and Warwickshire. It is now suggesting combining Hereford and Worcester with Shropshire, Staffordshire and Stoke. My constituents do not feel that the news in Stoke is terribly relevant to them, and I am sure my Stoke colleagues would feel likewise.”