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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty