Is the BBC pushing Hearts and Minds onto the brink of extinction?

Last Thursday Eamonn noted on Twitter that he hoped BBCNI’s flagship current affairs programme Hearts and Minds would not fall foul of the cutters axe in the latest round of BBC cuts. Right across the UK, regions are being seriously hit, with savings being made by merging traditional regions, into larger less coherent entities.

Slugger’s understanding is that Northern Ireland will not be taking as large a hit as elsewhere, but that nonetheless savings are almost certainly in the pipeline, not least in the area of current affairs programmes tailored specifically for covering local politics in the widest (ie not just Stormont) sense.

These are necessarily programmes that have limited value to the wider network but have huge value regarding the maintenance of local democracy in Northern Ireland. The decisions to cut being driven by budgetary pressure from Westminster rather than Stormont.

And to be fair to Jeremy Hunt, he has been trying to create some new space in the system for other, more commercial players to come into the market. His Local TV initiative for instance, is he suggests an expression of commitment to “the regeneration of local democracy” for instance, by providing “TV debates for people who want to be Mayors’ and filling one of the few gaps in the UK TV Market..

But returning to the BBC and Hearts and Minds, if, as some inside Ormeau Avenue suspect or fear, one of the few strong brands to have established itself over the last generation is allowed to go to the wall, there are few independent resources either currently in place or likely to be teased into existence that either can or will replace it.

And we know from past experience that once a programme brand is killed off it is very hard to rebuild, or even recover. Think of ITN”s move from the Ten O’Clock News slot? Or the loss of reputation of ITV after the axing of World in Action; and to a lesser extent, that immortal centre of journalistic excellence, Weekend World.

With regard to that later, in a short profile piece for the next edition of Village Magazine, I have argued that one of Slugger’s key advantages over the mainstream media is that we are able to synthetically recreate the kind of institutional memory, that the mainstream media (whether broadcast, or print journalism) is abandoning on a massive scale.

That would be another loss were Hearts and Minds thought superfluous to the corporation’s requirements: not just the break up of an established team and authority of voice, but the sense that journalists and production staff can be endlessly recycled and modularly plugged in where ever senior management need resources.

God knows the BBC needs much greater flexibility, and the capacity to do much more with a lot less. In that regard they might learn from the flexibility and creativity of UTV in recent years (though I must declare an interest here, given I’ve been working on digital strategy with UTV via Slugger Consults)).

Despite the potential for such creativity, hyperlocal initiatives like Local TV cannot cover the shortfalls in regional capacity. To be blunt, losing Hearts and Minds is, Eamonn has also pointed out, is one of the few genuinely combative journalistic enterprises that puts local politicians on their mettle.

Killing it may reduce the amount of corporate risk taken by the local BBC. It may even please some politicians who don’t relish the inconvenience of having their decisions questioned on mainstream television, outside of election time.

But once sundered, the corporation will find it very hard to re-assembly. And politicians will find themselves with even fewer opportunities to justify and legitimise their democratic mandate. What do you think?

The programme’s twitter tag is #bbchm.

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  • we are able to synthetically recreate the kind of institutional memory, that the mainstream media (whether broadcast, or print journalism) is abandoning on a massive scale.

    I’m afraid you’ve lost me here. What does this mean?

  • Drumlins Rock

    think it means we on Slugger are much better at “whataboutery” than the BBC is 🙂

  • Local TV (eg Alan Partridge in East Anglia) is usually awful. And indeed it is. But one thing that BBc Norn Iron can claim with a certain amount of justification is that its Current Affairs output has been a credit to it.
    While Current Affairs doesnt justify the hyperbole it is not as woeful as so called Norn Iron comedy.

    But in a post Conflict setting together with budgetary considerations and the impact of other forms of Media….it is hard to justify local BBC having Hearts & Minds, The Politics Show and Stormont Today.

    The BBC Norn Iron “region” or constituency will remain intact but it seems only reasonable that one of the three programmes noted above has to go.
    After all why should reducing constituencies, ministeries, MLAs etc be an issue if the over-generous allocation of current affairs programmes doesnt take a “hit”.

    Hearts and Minds seems too lazy a formula. A big Thompson Interview, “If You Ask Me”, a lighter story and that guy in the taxi.
    But really even the title seems dated. “Hearts & Minds” might have been appropriate in a conflict or immediate post-conflict scenario but really we have all moved on in a way that the programme itself and its attitude has not.

    Even Noel Humphreys seems fatigued by it.
    “Stormont Today” might not be popular with those who think we have been (almost normalised) but along with the Politics Show and of course Spotlight, it seems that only nostalgia and habit keeps “Hearts and Minds” on the air.
    We are oft told that Elections are dependent on turnout to carry legitimacy.
    I expect that viewing figures for Hearts & Minds dont justify its existence.

  • OneNI

    H & M thrived in the days of constitutional crisis and petpetual peace processing however, partly due to the dullness and ineptitude of the Executive, the programme is so drab now that I increasingly dont bother to stay up to watch it in its post 11 o clock slot

  • The Raven

    “….if the over-generous allocation of current affairs programmes doesnt take a “hit”.”

    Are you kidding? It isn’t generous enough. If there is one reason why there should be more of this sort of programme, it would be the very ineptitude of the Executive mentioned by OneNI.

    People simply aren’t educated enough about the political process – to whit, I would say the very turnouts mentioned by fitz should evidence that. What was the last one? 54% across four or five parties, with a percentage of spoilers that threatened to take us into minority-minority government?

    No, what’s needed is more, at key times, and with a reinvigorated formula – not more erosion of something approaching a semi-educated/educating format. If the BBC can no longer be bothered to be a standard bearer for this, then what is the point of having any political programming at all?

  • A google search for ‘hearts and minds’ brings up a Scottish programme about Clowndoctors and Elderflowers – which has a certain resonance with the local version. It’s vision is to cheer people up – which would be quite a good idea after they’d watched our local version.

    “For a moment everyone forgets they’re in Northern Ireland hospital”

  • “what’s needed is more, at key times, and with a reinvigorated formula”

    Funny you should say that Raven; there’s nearly enough material up in the Kingdom of Moyle to run a whole series on its own!

  • Mick Fealty


    I’m sorry not to have got back to you earlier.

    I mean synthetic as in ‘the combination of two or more parts, whether by design or by natural processes’, but also in the ‘artificial’ sense: ie as opposed to being purely reliant on human memory. See this thread, for a further hint at what I was trying to get at..

    If you don’t sustain a common team, you have no way of generating sustained human memory for the stories you handle. In this 24 hour news world, it is this that’s getting missed more than anything else.

    Killing off the brand is a marketing problem. But for me the human issue behind the brand is where the real price may be paid; if the Beeb do choose to go down this route. The decision is not due until the end of November. So there is time to test the waters of public opinion before the red pen gets deployed.

  • Mick Fealty


    ‘Local TV’, as in this Westminster initiative

  • “I expect that viewing figures for Hearts & Minds dont justify its existence.”

    fjh, it would be very interesting to see the viewing figures set alongside those for the Politics Show and similar programmes and to view the trends.

    I haven’t watched H&M for ages; I got out of the habit. I detected a tendency to operate in the Paxman mode when the presenters and their adversaries fell well below the standards of those who appear on Newsnight.

  • jonsey

    What programmes do UTV actually make? At least the BBC in Norn Irn still produce local programmes.

  • Mick Fealty

    Okay Jonesy, I know mentioned UTV, but considering I am arguing the Beeb should not cut H&M, I am not sure what you are saying.

    Is it that if we get more PSB output on the BBC than commercial television, then we ought be grateful? AKA, never mind the quality, feel the width?

  • I have to agree with Nevin. There was a time I would have watched Hearts & Mind but the trailer to the Show recorded around the evening newstime is actually really all that needs to be seen.
    Noel Thompson stands facing camera while a politician sits at the table behind him “On Hearts & Mind tonight I will be talking to…….” and essentially that interview is little more than an extended version of something which has been on the news. In Depth? Hardly. Just longer.

    And “If you ask me”……..well um……I didnt ask him/her. And it seems all a bit repetitive. Just the tired old “why cant our politicians get together and just……..” Well generally speaking they HAVE got together.
    Actually the Trailer for the show is usually a pretty good reason NOT to watch it.
    They might actually get better viewing figures if they didnt do a Trailer. We might actually watch it just to make sure that we didnt miss anything.

  • “H&M: A spotlight on the week’s hot topics in the world of politics at home and abroad”

    This all seems to me to be a bit superficial; almost a desire to sex-up what passes for governance here.

    I’d like to be better informed about all aspects of governance rather than view a tussle between a presenter and a few often fairly mediocre politicians.

    There’s so much going on behind the scenes that never sees the light of day yet absorbs a lot of our money but with limited accountability.

    Does it all have to be studio-based? An unannounced visit in the taxi to the ‘Thursday Club’ or the Chief Executives Forum might be quite entertaining – and informative 🙂

  • Local hack

    H&M is a quality piece of television worthy of any broadcaster – that aside the BBC NI’s local output leaves a lot to be desired.

    For example just before tonight’s H&M at 7.30 was a documentary on NI families losing weight – how is this different to last programme made about people losing weight with Stephen Nolan and the week long programmes about weight loss again with Stephen Nolan ??

    And come on! Have you ever watched the laughable (Pun alert) attempts at humour with Belfast FM, Sketchy and to a lesser extent Give My Head Piece – which had its moments – the output after news at the local BBC is pathetic.
    Which is a shame from an organisation which can hold its head up very high for its original programming

  • Nunoftheabove

    When I do watch it I set myself a solemn challenge to switch over/off before that infuriating ballbag McGarry comes on at the end. That’s a licence free non-payment consideration offence.

  • ThomasMourne

    Hearts & Minds is a talking heads programme suitable for steam radio. Why is vision necessary? We know when politicians are being dishonest – when they answer a question – we don’t have to see their give-away body language.

    H&M also tends to employ the same ‘experts’ on a regular basis – do they have a contract with the BBC?

  • “Stormont Today” seems better at getting newer experts, lobbyists and hangers on from the Stormont corridors

  • Only time H&M gets a view is waiting for This Week. Wouldn’t have to wait for This Week if H&M wasn’t on.

    Seriously, someone actually watches ‘Stormont Today’. Is that in a forlorn expectation that someday it might surprise in not being like yesterday’s, or last week’s, or….

  • DC

    Re Stormont today – firstly, I think it is more a reflection of the poor grade of debates being had (or lack of) and the somewhat predictable issues being raised by our politicians in Stormont itself, rather than the way the show itself is pulled together and presented.

    Hearts and Minds less so – because it did take it to the politicians and sock it to them whenever they were clearly being ridiculous at times – Noel Thompson is a definite heavyweight when it comes to verbal sparring with our dunderheaded politicians. He is a clear winner every time – well almost every time.

    But even making our politicians sound and look ridiculous however right it is that they must be exposed as such can become boring after a while – the BBC needs to become more creative with the show and move away from just critiquing the politicians by trying to shape new electoral preferences, by building up smaller parties which the producers judge to be going with the grain of change.

    If H&Ms goes, I suppose it gives less air time to our existing MLAs and politicians – which mightn’t be a bad thing.

    Mind you I’d far rather see Nolan kicked into touch, the guy’s a hypocrite as he says he’s concerned about bringing news to the public whenever he isactually concealing news himself. Regardless of the legal way in which he is doing that.

  • Mick Fealty


    I wonder if there just is a problem with the solid state nature of our politics?

    It’s natural enough for politicians to complain of ‘dunderhead journalists’ as much as people like DC would cast the blame in the other direction.

    The media cannot just be a convenient adjuct to government (unless we want to store up a lot of trouble for ourselves). But if political media is less popular then what does it say our about our politics.

    Are we heading towards the kind of 18% turnouts the unions are getting, which the programme covered this evening?

  • “which the programme covered this evening?”

    It’s now online

  • aquifer

    Organs of the state expert at subversion, failing to understand how feeble the grip of democracy is around here. Their coverage of the peace processing was also a stretch for their accountants.

    Would they rather train a new intake of trainee reporters, watching sectarian dissidents punch through media indifference with a few old school bombs and bits of people thrown in?

    What about putting politicians in with advocacy organisations and industry experts to defend their policies in different areas?

  • HeinzGuderian

    I really am not interested in H&M’s,30 long minutes of what passes for politicians,avoiding questions.
    While we are on about BBC cuts,they could start with the 30 minute news programme a’ 6.30pm.
    There are 2,maybe 3 worthy news items at best,then 20 minutes of ‘filling out guff’.
    Sports……………least said,sooner mended about that.
    Weather………which is,on the most part,wrong.
    5 minutes. 1 presenter. jobs a good un. 😉

  • Thanks Mick. I’m still not sure I’m completely with you. But I think the distinction that you’re drawing is that, with 24 hour news, stories are chewed up, spat out and forgotten about, before there’s a chance to digest, debate and log them for further reference?

  • Mick,

    The media have a role to enquire and report on ‘news’. Our politicians conspire to make all things bland and uninteresting to avoid detailed examination of what they are/are not doing. Yes our politics serves us poorly, and so does the media. On sales of print media, I think the ‘heading towards 18%’ is already very evident.

    All Jim Alister has done over this past few months is hit a few themes and gone digging for info. Frankly there is journalistic gold on that there hill that the media is simply to chummy to go for – to cosy in concensus, not wishing to ask the wrong questions? Perhaps that is being unkind or generalist, but not entirely unfair.

  • antamadan

    Noel Thompson is great though. Shuda gone for Pres.