In the past couple of weeks, there have been several worrying reports about plans to significantly change (and in some cases axe) radio stations and regional TV programmes in our region.
We at Lib Dems for the Heart of England are deeply concerned that if the government fails to act, many areas will be left with a weaker media offering. This is important in our politics because how else will our local government officials be held to account by professional journalists? Local radio is an essential means for residents to engage with services and activities in their area, as well as a primary source of local news. Losing this tool would devastate my constituents’ sense of connectedness to their area.
After graduating in Broadcast Journalism from Nottingham Trent University in 2002, I worked for a group of local commercial radio stations in the Midlands for five years from 2004 to 2009. I was a news reader and reporter and covered a host of important local stories and, over those years, interviewed a number of high-profile individuals on matters of interest and concern to our listeners; including then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and then Opposition Leader David Cameron.
I know how beloved local commercial radio stations are and how much they rely on them for quality, accurate local news and information.
There has been a tendency over many years for larger radio companies to buy up small commercial stations and then, over time, to make them less and less local. The latest example of this will reportedly see the Bauer group network programming on a host of ‘local’ stations they recently acquired, including a number in the Midlands, with just a ‘regional’ Drivetime programme, rather than one which is truly local.
Not only will this, as the group admits, lead to redundancies but will almost certainly mean that an important local community voice will be not as it once was.
Things change and in a free market that will always be the case. But, our group argues, surely Ofcom, the regulator of the sector, should be able to ensure the ‘Breakfast’ and ‘Drivetime’ programmes on a local station should come from the area it is serving.
Bauer state that ‘local’ news bulletins and other information will continue to be provided and I very much hope that is the case.
But will that mean local journalists in each area are able to cover the stories that matter to people in the vicinity and can hold local political leaders and others in authority to account? Or, rather, will someone in a far flung newsroom conduct interviews over the phone or via an ISDN line with people in an area they’ve never been to and know pretty much nothing about?
Well, time will tell on that I suppose.
Bauer is far from the only radio group to have made a change like this and certainly shouldn’t be singled out. But it is the latest in an increasingly worrying trend which may see pretty much the complete demise of what was once Independent Local Radio.
There’s also worrying reports about the future of regional programming on the BBC.
The Guardian reports the Corporation, facing difficult economic times and an uncertain future, may ditch its BBC One regional investigative strand ‘Inside Out’ and axe its regional Sunday morning political debate programmes.
Though we appreciate the BBC is faces significant budgetary pressures, we believe such a move would seriously bring into question its often stated commitment to all the nations and regions of the UK. It is particularly important investigations at a regional level, covering stories which likely wouldn’t get an airing on nationwide programmes, continue. It is also important that voters can see and hear from MPs, councillors and others in their region discuss matters important to them.
More than enough political coverage comes from Westminster.
For the BBC to drop its one political TV programme which airs regionally for the sake of saving money would, we believe, be an affront to our democracy and leave viewers and listeners less informed than previously.
I have written to Daisy Cooper MP, Lib Dem Spokesperson for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to make three recommendations:
That Ofcom tightens its regulations to ensure at least Breakfast and Drive time programmes on local stations are broadcast from the locality they broadcast to.
FM licences should be opened up to community stations (whilst retaining professional standards.)
The government ought to guarantee the BBC licence fee until at least 2030 and, in turn, the BBC needs to guarantee its long-term commitment to all of the UK’s nations and regions.
As we come out of lockdown, it is important my constituents are well informed and supported and a thriving local media presence needs to be a big part of that.
Lib Dems for the Heart of England will continue our campaign to #SaveMidlandsMedia.
If you’d like to be part of it and find out more about our other work and sign up for our regular e-newsletter, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or our interim Chair Michael Mullaney at email@example.com
Mathew is Head of Outreach at Liberal Base and co-founder of Liberal Democrats for the Heart of England. He is also a former broadcast journalist, Liberal Democrat parish councillor for Barwell, Leicestershire and an executive member of the Social Democrat Group. He Tweets @HulbertMathew.