BBC plans will hijack and homogenise local radio

Shutting down LGBT, Irish and Jewish community radio programmes in Manchester won't even save any money.

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.

The view through the gate at Broadcasting House in London. Photograph: Getty Images

Nichi Hodgson is a writer and broadcaster specialising in sexual politics, censorship, and  human rights. Her first book, Bound To You, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is out now. She tweets @NichiHodgson.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.