The voice of the region must be heard

On today of all days, just about the most unlikely campaign imaginable is the Guardian’s “ Save the BBC” blog. Defending the £3.4 billion a year corporation may seem absurd but a closer look shows what the Guardian is arguing for is the need to protect the BBC in tough times like today, when it’s tempting to milk it as a cash cow. The argument goes that the BBC acts as the guarantor of a great part of British journalism and programme making. Well yes, but look at the contrast between the BBC and UTV. In today’s news, the expected programme of UTV cuts are under way: “Staff at UTV are being offered voluntary severance as the company faces “significant” job cuts”. Over at the BBC, the Nations and Regions directorate is being scrapped as a cost cutting exercise: “The controllers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – Ken MacQuarrie, Menna Richards and Peter Johnston respectively – .. will be promoted to directors in their own right.. The BBC said the changes, due to be implemented by April, were part of its “continuing drive … to help ensure it fully represents the nations, regions and communities across the UK”.

The rhythm of life at the BBC down the decades continually moves from centralisation to devolution and back again. Despite the revival of the high sounding “Director “ title for the local heads, the changes mean savings and more central control. The move also means the retirement as director of nations and regions of Pat Loughrey, a former BBC NI head and a notable champion of NI and all-Ireland programme making.

Overall, there’s a real threat to local journalism and programme making after years of comparative plenty. While the locals are never satisfied, the representation of NI and Ireland as a whole on UK national and international airwaves has never been greater and has diversified successfully from the treadmill of Troubles coverage. Some off this is now in doubt – how much, remains to be seen but the future scene is looking more and more like a BBC near-monopoly. This is unhealthy in itself and bad for the Corporation, as it attracts envy. BBC savings don’t begin to compare with the plight of commercial broadcasting and local newspapers. The Corporation may have seen off pressure from the media regulator Ofcom to hand over its commercial arm to cash-strapped Channel 4 but is still being attacked for invading space that regional and local papers could occupy – a sore point with the Belfast Telegraph among many others. The Guardian’s verdict:

“ The CEO of Trinity Mirror Sly Bailey, was the latest to hit out last week. She said the BBC’s plans for local broadband sites were “a threat to the development and diversity of the local media sector online and potentially to its print-based cousins”. A lot of this rhetoric can sound like crocodile tears – like commercial radio before them, regional newspapers are as much victims of their owners’ incompetence and the structural challenges of the digital age. The BBC makes a convenient scapegoat to mask their own strategic failings.”

Certainly the regional press have been slow to catch up with the internet. Cash poverty is not the whole answer, some are ruthlessly profitable at the expense of staffing and quality. There’s room here for co-operation between the BBC and the papers in the very local broadband sites. Would it not benefit local media all round to plan to new websites with the local press and co-host them?

Flexibility and co-operation will be needed if the regional voice is to continue to be heard as loudly and distinctively as it has been up to now.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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