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.

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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