The BBC is a broadcasting bastion of equality and diversity, willing to put community needs before commercial success – or so it self-deceives. Not so long ago, the Asian Network and BBC6Music radio channels were saved from cost-cutting measures by campaigners who accused the ‘corporate media barons’ of betraying their audiences. Now the Beeb has come up with another such scheme that completely undermines its ethics and lets down local licence fee-payers. Only this time, there’s actually no money to be saved.
In 2006, three Greater Manchester MPs called on parliament to protect three community radio programmes hosted on BBC Manchester (then known as GMR- Greater Manchester Radio) that were facing the chop. The programmes in question were Gay Talk, It’s Kosher, and The Parlour - dedicated respectively to the local LGBT, Jewish and Irish communities. The then Lib Dem MP for Rochdale, Paul Rowen, who tabled an early day motion, and fellow yellows John Leech and Mark Hunter, joined a cohort of campaigners and the shows were saved.
Six years later and the programmes have different names but are once again under threat. As part of a cost-saving, streamlining measure, LGBT Citizen Manchester, Jewish Citizen Manchester and Irish Citizen Manchester are to be replaced with a three-hour syndicated show called All Around England. Despite LGBT Citizen and Jewish Citizen Manchester being the only dedicated representations of either minority across BBC Radio, and Citizen Irish now the longest-running Irish-specific show (at 27 years, no less) on BBC radio, the programmes will not be rescheduled for broadcast anywhere else on either BBC Manchester or the national network.
Earlier in the year, the BBC Trust, which must approve all of the corporation’s spending, rejected proposed cuts of more than £15 million to local radio submitted by the Executive as part of its ‘Delivery Quality First’ (DQF) savings strategy. A report on local radio, authored by an independent media consultant John Myers, concluded that the maximum savings that could be made without affecting quality were around just £9 million. The Executive revised its plans and the Trust then approved them. But Delivering Quality First, cited as the reason for the change to Monday evening scheduling hardly applies in the case of these community programmes where the presenters and programme makers are all volunteers, working with a budget of less than £70 a week. How then can the long-established, expertly informed and almost entirely cost-free LGBT, Jewish and Irish Citizen programmes be anything other than excellent value?
John Leech is back on the campaign trail and, on behalf of his constituents, has written to Director General Mark Thompson requesting that the BBC justify the decision. Thompson’s response, says Leech, is "frankly ridiculous". Citing cost savings as a core reason for the decision, Thompson also apparently asserts that mainstream BBC radio programmes will be able to absorb the content of the community shows in question.
There is an argument within the organisation that dedicated hours marginalise rather than incorporate minorities. But the BBC does not apply this logic to the Asian network, which is to receive a £1 million reinvestment as part of the same DQS strategy. Surely a combination of both more mainstream and dedicated coverage is what is needed. Debates within the LGBT, Irish or Jewish communities are unlikely to be the focus of a Today programme debate, and it’s hard to believe that issues such as lesbian health, or how to negotiate Shabbat in 21st-century Britain will be covered elsewhere at all.
What’s more, there is a sense that some minorities deserve more coverage than others. The gay, Irish and Jewish communities have played an integral part in local Manchester life since the 1800s, as have the Chinese, Asian and Black communities. Yet only the programmes dedicated to the first three minorities have been deemed extraneous. Back in March, Broadcast magazine reported that the BBC planned to plough the £4 million it saved in reduced retransmission fees from BskyB back into local radio. But these much-loved community programmes are clearly not deserving candidates for the freed-up funds.
When barely a week goes by without a media debate on gay marriage, and in the year that London hosts World Pride, the axing of Citizen LGBT seems a particularly bizarre move, if only in terms of topicality. The success of commercial LGBT radio stations such as Gaydar may act as a disincentive to launch a programme on the national network (the last such show, Out this Week, which won a Gold Sony Award in 1995, was axed four years later and has not been replaced since). But the audience demographics of commercial and local LGBT radio are quite different, with local listeners tending to be over the age of 45. Considering that Myers’s report on local radio concluded that, currently ‘the biggest loser is the older demographic’, this only seems to support the case for protecting Citizen LGBT.
Elsewhere, the BBC seems overly anxious to the point of obsessed with its gay-friendly credentials. In 2010, it commissioned both an internal report and a public consultation into LGB representation. And its current diversity strategy makes 24 references to ‘gay’, another 24 to ‘trans’, while just three to ‘Jewish’ and none at all to ‘Irish’.
The BBC’s plans say as much about the hijacking and homogenising of local radio as they do about the BBC’s inconsistent approach to diversity. "It’s completely oppositional to the government’s idea of localism", says Leech, who has been approached in particular by many of this Jewish constituents, now demanding a meeting with the corporation. The LGBT and Irish communities have yet to similarly assemble. In the meantime, Leech is preparing to table another early day motion.
If the BBC is determined to streamline Monday night local programming with its syndicated Radio England swap-in, it should at the very least honour its commitment to diversity by offering each of the specialist community shows a DAB or online-only radio slot, or moving them to the weekend where Indus and Chinatown (the programmes dedicated to the local Asian and Chinese communities) remain unscathed. This is an organisation that prides itself on representing its licence fee payers. It is danger of forgetting thousands of them exist at all.