The BBC turned 100 at 6 o’clock on Monday 14 November, to be as exact as the pips on the Today program. Quite an achievement and one ‘auntie’, as the BBC has become affectionately known, has spent the past year telling us about repeatedly.
BBC turns 100
Speaking in November last year, chief content officer Charlotte Moore said the centenary year was going to be “a huge treat for audiences of all ages from massive sporting events, comedy, entertainment, drama, arts and music to documentaries assessing all aspects of the BBC’s history”. Adding that, “BBC 100 will celebrate and reflect on the unique role the BBC plays in the lives of audiences across the UK as our much-cherished national broadcaster from its creation right up to the present day”.
Little did she know that 2022 would turn out to be the sort of year where it feels like a whole century has played itself out in the space of 12 months.
In short order we have gone through three prime ministers, more cabinet members than you can shake a stick at and, in the shape of the Queen, lost the only other national institution that came close to matching the BBC in longevity.
You might think that having reached such a significant milestone the BBC’s future was certain, the assault on local radio services, which has been hidden behind the centenary hoopla makes this listener not so sure.
BBC cuts announced
Appropriately, on Halloween it was announced that programming on all 39 networks will be cut back. They will broadcast their current schedule from 6am to 2pm, after that programmes will be shared nationally. At a stroke, dozens of journalists, many of whom have spent years building up a relationship with their audience, along with other staff, saw their jobs go up in smoke.
The reasoning behind the change is that more people access radio through the internet that the good old wireless in the corner of the drawing room, although Rajar, the body that monitors radio audiences, recorded 5.8 million people still listened to local radio. Quite a few more than do to Radio 1, which isn’t under threat.
Rhodri Talfan Davies, the sinisterly named ‘head of Nations’ said the plans he described as “ambitious and far-reaching”, would help the BBC to “connect with more people in more communities right across England – striking a better balance between our broadcast and online services – and ensuring we remain a cornerstone of local life for generations to come”.
I am a very long way from convinced that they will. In fact they could if not kill the BBC entirely, then certainly turn it into a tamer and less representative organisation than it needs to be.
Anyone who thinks local radio is just a safe concoction of football results and phone-ins about the best recipe for Yorkshire puddings needs to think again. It is home to serious journalists who have spent years learning how their part of the world ticks, a vital resource in a media that often spends too much time talking to itself.
Power of local journalism
That local knowledge came into play with devastating accuracy when a day of car crash interviews with local radio stations torpedoed the premiership of Liz Truss. She would have got an easier ride from journalists who are, as the Americans put it, based ‘inside the beltway’.
Maybe that is what lies at the root of this assault on local radio, our political class, most of whom view the world outside the leafier parts of London in the way medieval map makers did, as a fearful place where dragons might live and are alarmed by journalists doing their job – meaning asking awkward questions.
They would much prefer to work with the metropolitan and often patrician BBC based in London where they can rely on being asked dolly drop questions by presenters who they meet at cocktail parties. That isn’t what the public deserve, not at a time when the economy is tottering towards a crash and politicians on both sides of the house are showing the leadership skills of rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming truck.
What we want is a BBC with roots sunk deep into where we live and has presenters who sound like us, as well as doing all the big-ticket things it has spent the past year patting itself on the back about.
It is a truism that no politician would ever try to privatise the NHS because doing so is one of the few things that would bring a quiescent British public out onto the streets.
If we value the best of the BBC, then maybe we need to be similarly robust when it comes to defending local radio.