Community Media Discussion - Protecting Local Voices

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This week in our Community Media Discussion, we’ll be talking about the cuts to BBC Local Radio, and what questions we want MPs to ask the BBC about why they are limiting the role of local radio in England. To take part, sign up at Pateron and we’ll send the Zoom link.

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On the 1st December, MPs of the DCMS Committee will be asking BBC executives to explain changes they want to make to BBC Local Radio in England. MPs will be challenging the BBC to justify their reasoning and planning in making cuts to local radio services in England. MPs acting on behalf of their constituents will be asking what the implications are for such as widespread and deep cuts to a vital part of the local media infrastructure.

Critics point out that the BBC has been reducing its commitment to local radio for years. Nick Coffer, writing in The Guardian, says that while BBC local radio has its roots in the communities that they serve, the cuts that have been experienced recently, by many local radio stations, have gone unchallenged. As Nick points out,

“Now, barring a few exceptions, your local [BBC] radio station will only be local from 6am to 2pm on weekdays and for sport at the weekend. Remaining shows will be mostly shared across vast regional patches or will become national shows. Under the proposals, someone living in Aylesbury will be hearing a drivetime programme featuring the Norfolk coast, 150 miles away.”

It has been suggested that these cuts have been made to seem inevitable because of the BBC’s obsession with being ‘digital first’ policy. This policy means that many long-established services will be phased out, with any savings being used to fund the supply of news and information content online first. Of course, we live in an increasingly digital world, but not everyone wants to have to engage with digital platforms to access local media, even though many people are simply unable to afford to go digital to do so in the first place. How this will be exacerbated by the increase in the cost of living is largely unknown

The BBC, like many other media providers, now treats local needs as nothing more than the provision of information and news. Local information is like a notice board, with news and locally relevant being provided as ‘information bullets’ that are produced discretely, and with little regard for the culture that a community embraces. Simply supplying news and information from regionalised hubs, does little to encourage identification and social bonding with a place community. Nor do information updates do anything to facilitate the expression of identity or the discussion and deliberation.

I find this debate wholly bemusing, particularly as local identity is recognised as a vital part of the Levelling Up process. Social capital was a big part of the white paper, with the UK government recognising that “not everyone shares equally in the UK’s success.” And that “while talent is spread equally across our country, opportunity is not.” The UK government is seeking to “challenge, and change, that unfairness,” by giving “everyone the opportunity to flourish,” regardless of where they are based. Surely, then, our media should be included in this vital process?

It is ironic, perhaps, that in a time when the UK government is recognising the importance of social capital in securing wellbeing and prosperity, the BBC may be actively undermining the ability of communities to represent themselves, talk among themselves, and foster their own sense of identity based on local determinants of what can and should be included in locally produced radio programmes.

The question I would like MPs to ask, then, is what analysis has the BBC undertaken to provide evidence that their decision to cut local radio in England is justified? Has the BBC done any kind of social capital or equalities impact assessment in relation to the levelling up requirements of all parts of UK governance – which surely must include BBC local radio? If they have done this impact assessment, when is it going to be shared publicly?

I would also like to know what assessment has been undertaken regarding the impact these change may have on other local media providers? If we are to avoid falling into a spiral of fatalism, like the local news media industry has suffered, then organisations like the BBC the responsibility to ensure local media provision is viable, and that communities have the capacity for independent local content production, as well as local distribution and broadcasting.

The BBC is our main bulwark against the sometimes malign international provision of international media. Look how easy it is for Elon Musk to destabilise Twitter. The changes that the international technology corporations can make to their services without consultation, either nationally or locally, is staggering. We know that Twitter has not made an impact assessment of the changes that Musk want to bring about, but he is free to do this because he owns the platform. Musk doesn’t even have to worry about the share price of Twitter, given that he now owns the whole of the company entirely.

In a world without stabilising media institutions, how can we expect local independent media providers to find a sure footing? Surely, the market has to be fair, open and transparent? But what commercial impact assessment have the BBC, or Ofcom and DCMS for that matter, undertaken to identify who will be affected by the changes the BBC are making?

Do we need to start to make alternative arrangements locally to maintain and enrich local discussion and information provision? I’m baffled that the BBC has no requirement for them to consult residents and stakeholders, and can act without consideration for the longer-term interests of the people who use BBC services? Who was consulted in local authorities? Who was consulted in the health services? Just who was consulted in the education providers? Perhaps the BBC has been a law-unto-itself for too long, and now needs to be given a fully accountable social purpose supporting the aim of social change and levelling up?

For me, this whole debacle raises questions about what the purpose of Public Service Broadcasting is, and who can be expected to provide long-term and meaningful content to communities and places across the whole of the country. If these changes can be made without any form of equalities or impact assessments, how do we know they are not being done for other reasons? Executives wanting to get jobs with Netflix or Disney might inform this decision more than the needs of the public?

The question we need to ask more generally, then, and certainly independently of the BBC, is what do we want the value and benefit of locally provided media services to be? If the BBC can’t or doesn’t want to provide local services, who else might fill the gap? Nick Coffer raises a vital point:

“Many of the weekend shows that face being cut focus specifically on underrepresented communities. According to the proposals, popular local African-Caribbean and Asian shows risk being axed, with their slot becoming a single, all-England show. If the BBC does not broadcast these kinds of shows and tell these kinds of stories, nobody else will.”

However, there are many independent media providers that are interested in making these kinds of programmes and telling these stories. Each day, for example, community radio volunteers demonstrate that local services can be produced by communities themselves. With an increase in targeted and purposeful investment in training and editorial support for a greater inclusion of a wider range of voices, we could have a much more vibrant local media culture here in the UK.

But the mindset of government and the regulators has to change first. Local media has to be respected, invested in, and recognised for its diversity of supply, decentralised modes of development, and competing points of view. So, instead of being continually overlooked, we need MPs to think how community media can work better in practice. I hope the MPs looking at these proposals realise that there is an active alternative. All community media needs is recognition and respect for what it does.