BBC studio

No local news is bad news, especially during times of crisis.  

In September 2019, Mark Thompson, former director general of the BBC and current chief executive of the New York Times, called for a dramatic shift in policy and investment to save Britain’s rapidly deteriorating local news outlets. At the time, 245 community news titles had been closed in Britain since 2005.

“A society which fails to provide its different communities and groups with the means to listen and come to understand each other’s pasts and presents shouldn’t be surprised if mutual incomprehension and division are the consequence. If you doubt that any of this connects to real-world politics and national wellbeing, you need to pay more attention,” Thompson stressed in response to the demise of regional news.

Today, in the wake of a deadly pandemic, the former BBC director general’s words bare greater veracity than they did when he spoke them less than a year ago. In paradox to Thompson’s call to bring greater investment in local news to nurture mutual comprehension and limit division within communities, is the BBC’s passage to becoming a precursor in the steady downfall of local news.   

The BBC recently announced it was to cut 450 jobs in its English regional TV news and current affairs, local radio, and online news. Regional TV and online news teams will be merged, and the BBC will fold its online editorial hub in Birmingham. The cuts are expected to make the BBC £25m in savings by 2022, part of the corporation’s pledge to save £125m this year due to the financial pressures of the pandemic.

The job losses come as the BBC prepares to end the universal free TV licence for over-75s. The move will see over three million households have to pay the £157.50 annual fee from August 1.

Local news and its dedicated coverage of the health crisis have put reporters on the frontline of the pandemic response. The collapse of regional news comes at a time when communities need it the most.

The rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus naturally prompted a torrent of questions from confused and anxious citizens. Local news outlets, in print, TV, radio and online formats, have been fundamental in reporting crucial timely issues to confused and often underrepresented communities, at a time when intense muddle and disjointedness is coming out of Westminster.

Drawing attention to the duplicity of a recent statement by the BBC which said it was “strongly committed to local and regional journalism”, Julian Knight MP, chairman of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, said the BBC was “at odds” with its pledge to do more journalism outside the south east.

This decision is a strange way of demonstrating that commitment,” said Knight.

A survey by Pew Research Centre shows around six in ten people follow news about the coronavirus outbreak at a national and local level equally. A quarter admit to paying more attention to local news, particularly in relation to news about Covid-19.

Irrespective of the value of regional news, the BBC is taking the axe to it, making painful cuts to jobs and stripping communities of invaluable local stories and information.

For some, the harsh cuts to regional news shows both elitism and short-sightedness from the BBC. Sharing this sentiment is a former producer at the BBC.

“BBC local radio and BBC news are more than just programmes. For many, they are real community support hubs – especially during these difficult times. On top of this, they reach audiences that mainstream news programmes don’t,” the anonymous ex-BBC producer told me.  

“It’s heart-breaking to see those community networks decimated at a time when they have never been so important. It shows a real lack of audience insight and goes against the BBC’s own strategy to promote and represent the regions.

“There is a real whiff of arrogance from the top to callously cut the output that is so important to everyday people in their local communities,” they added.

Making cuts to regional news outlets in the likes of Birmingham, not only deprives people of important community news, but it quashes jobs and expertise at a local level and is poised to build a wider gap in Britain’s regional divide in the jobs market.

The BBC’s move to MediaCityUK in Salford Quays in 2011 was, in its own words: “[In response to the] needs to better reflect the breadth and depth of our culture and be representative of all those who fund it. BBC North will help meet the commitment to our audiences to get as close to them as possible.”

By cutting regional jobs, the BBC has been blasted for “turning its back” on the likes of the West Midlands, where 52 jobs will be lost. These relatively underrepresented communities, compared to the likes of London and MediaCityUK in Salford, will inevitably bear the brunt of the cuts, intensifying unbalanced skillsets up and down the country.

No justification

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) says there is “no justification” for the BBC’s choice to disproportionately axe local news jobs in regions like the West Midlands.

Responding to criticism to the job cuts, a BBC spokesman said the need to cut costs meant “difficult decisions” had to be made.

In condemnation of the BBC’s elitism towards namely London and MediaCityUK – its two most high-profile digital hubs - the West Midlands’ mayor Andy Street referred to the job cuts in the district as an “incredibly frustrating” example of regions being underrepresented by the BBC and overlooked in favour of London and Salford.

“The closure of BBC England’s online subbing hub in the Mailbox in favour of a new desk in Salford is particularly disheartening, as it was a clear sign of the corporation’s commitment to the BBC outside of London and Salford,” said Street.

Rather than shifting policy in favour of local news networks and giving it the investment it desperately needs, the BBC is creating the very society which “fails to provide its different communities and groups,” that Mark Thompson warned of.

As we have seen with this toxic pandemic, being able to consume news and information locally is paramount to ironing out citizen anxiety and apprehension. The BBC’s decision to discontinue many of these channels will negatively impact local jobs and create greater regional skill disparities. It also risks crafting greater community incomprehension and division, at a time when civic understanding and unity is needed more than ever.