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  • Writer's pictureDavid Lloyd

The BBC Chair responds

Updated: Jan 3


I've despatched quite a few tetchy missives about the BBC's local radio changes, including to members of the BBC Board.


You'll recall that when the Trust closed, there were assurances that the Board would be there wagging fingers sensibly if the BBC Executive's behaviour became too W1A.


Indeed, the Charter states that "The Board must uphold and protect the independence of the BBC and make its decisions in the public interest ".


The public interest. That's us. Not them.


I was pleased to receive the courtesy of a reply from the then Acting Chair Dame Elan Closs Stephens. I was less delighted with the content.


The Acting Chair feels that the Board had appropriate insight into the plans - whereas the Board meeting minutes suggest otherwise.


She feels the BBC "carefully and appropriately assessed(ing) the views and interests of the public and audiences, when it has never offered any evidence of such.


She states that BBC management "explained the changes to audiences using our local radio stations themselves”, when invitations by producers to do that very thing were often turned down - and any explanation came far too late in any case .


Whilst I'd agree that many excellent staff are desperately trying to do the best they can in challenging circumstances, I'd disagree with her suggestion that the output of Local Radio has not been damaged. There are many instances where quality has been compromised - and it is quality that the Charter demands.


I did not know whether to laugh or cry with the boast: “I am also confident that our programming will also be well received by audiences.” I look forward to seeing the evidence for that confidence.


She suggested that news bulletin and travel bulletin coverage had not really changed whilst confirming it had.


She suggested that the BBC had briefed Ofcom at all stages through the process, conveniently forgetting the tetchy letter from Ofcom in Feb 23. That suggested the BBC may have engaged but churlishly.

She stated: " At no stage have (Ofcom) suggested that the BBC’s plans breach their regulation or fail to meet the BBC’s mission and public purposes" - despite the fact that Ofcom actually said: "We are considering whether, in light of responses to our consultations on the new Operating Licence and the BBC’s changes to local radio provision, our proposals for regulation of local radio remain appropriate”.


And finally, to those who have been affected personally by the changes, I hate to point out that she says the restructure was carried out “as efficiently and compassionately as we can”. From what I have heard of people's pain, that is either untrue - or casts doubt over the proficiency of relevant parties at the BBC.


The paste below of my letter in response is, as ever, too long to be considered a blog post but I wish to place it on record.


I can only hope that the incoming BBC Chair realises the extent to which the BBC, of which we are hugely proud and believe in, has erred procedurally in this matter. To this end, I have written separately and called for him to instigate an immediate review.






Dame Elan Closs Stephens

Acting Chair, the BBC Board

BBC Broadcasting House.

Portland Place,

London, W1A 1AA.

 

1st January 2024

 

Dear Dame Elan,


I have now had chance to consider carefully your letter to me of 12th December. 


I am grateful you responded in detail as it affords me an opportunity to challenge some statements where you appear to be being misinformed.


Given your role in statute, you will understand accordingly the need to re-consider your conclusions and act accordingly.


Indeed, as you say: “The Board must uphold and protect the independence of the BBC and make its decisions in the public interest. It is accountable for all of our activities including the publicly funded services”. I would add that the Charter requires each member of the Board to act “in the public interest”, not that of the BBC. 


BOARD CONSIDERATION OF CHANGES


1.       You state: “As acting chair of the BBC Board since June 2023 and as a member of the Board since 2017, I can assure you that the Board has had appropriate oversight of the changes to English Local Radio from the inception of the plans, through their development and during the current implementation. The Executive has briefed us frequently and thoroughly throughout this process in our Board meetings.”

 

2.       The minutes of the Board meetings suggest the contrary. (See Annex B and summarised below).

 

3.       After outline discussion in October 2019 and a recommendation that the England committee should return with recommendations, the matter was discussed in Nov 2019 (“partially redacted…on the basis of future publication”) and December 2019 (similarly redacted).

 

4.       I have asked for the redacted detail on several occasions, given they should by now be in the public domain on grounds of future publication; and the BBC is in breach of ICO regulations by failing even to reply to my request.  This breach is being pursued.

 

5.       In July 2020, the Board noted and discussed the revised plans: “and the intention to return to the Board with a second phase of the plan focussing on local radio”. 

 

6.       I can find no evidence that the "revised plans" were discussed subsequently.

 

7.       In Sept 2022, the Board noted a paper providing an update to the Board on the regulatory issues “including modernising the Operating Licence and the expansion of local online news in England”.

 

8.       From October 2022 there are frequent mentions of local radio strategy, largely confined to handling the response to the announcement of the changes.

 

9.       It is incorrect, therefore, to assert that the Board gave “frequent and thorough” consideration to the local radio issues – particularly in the critical period between 2020 and 2022.

 

 CONSULTATION


10.   You state “It is also not true to suggest that these changes have been carried out without carefully and appropriately assessing the views and interests of the public and audiences. The changes are – and always have been – intended to better serve audiences with local services, across TV, radio and online. This has been an iterative process as these changes were proposed after analysing audience behaviour and engaging with audiences which the BBC has continued to do during the development and roll out of changes to local radio and online.”

 

11.   Whilst I am aware of the BBC’s ongoing research programmes, to my knowledge there was no specific research into the impact of these changes on BBC local radio listeners.  The BBC has been asked to produce such evidence and has not even suggested it exists.

 

12.   It is therefore untrue to suggest: “appropriately assessing the views and interests of the public and audiences”.  

 

13.   You will be aware that Section 10 of the Charter stipulates: “The BBC must carefully and appropriately assess the views and interests of the public and audiences, including licence fee payers, across the whole of the United Kingdom.”

 

14.   I am aware of earlier BBC research into BBC local radio audiences – yet this tells of the very relationship between listener and station/broadcaster that the plans have eroded.

 

15.   You say: “BBC management has explained the changes to audiences using our local radio stations themselves.”. This is incorrect.

 

16.   Whilst this did happen on some occasions on some stations, there are several examples where BBC local radio journalists invited senior management on-air to discuss matters – and the invitation was declined. Furthermore, Radio 4’s Feedback programme (produced by an independent) requested interviews many times and was denied.

 

17.   Most importantly, the changes were discussed after implementation has been agreed, not at the formulation stage.

 

18.   Unlike previous consultations run by the BBC Trust – a campaign of on-air announcements across the stations was not scheduled at the time of the Ofcom consultation.

 

19.   The BBC chose not to explain its plans at the time of formulation to the very audiences being served.

 

20.   The BBC’s inaction was not mitigated by Ofcom’s consultations, as Ofcom failed to discharge them in line with its published consultation principles. (Annex C)

 

OFCOM


21.   You state: “We have also engaged with our regulator Ofcom throughout this process, and they have considered our changes in their various documents, including their consultation and decision on modernising the Operating Licence and their annual report on the BBC’s performance”.  

 

22.   Whilst the BBC may have ‘engaged’, it is incorrect to imply that level of engagement was satisfactory, given the letter from Ofcom to the BBC in February 2023:

 

23.   “We have been disappointed by the lack of detail and clarity contained within the BBC’s announcements about the changes to its provision of local content and news”.

 

24.   “We have had to request a significant volume of additional information from the BBC in order to understand the changes and believe some of this could have been avoided had the BBC set out much clearer plans from the start”.

 

25.   “We strongly encourage the BBC to consider how it can improve the transparency around announcing such changes; we expect it to be able to explain in detail how services will alter and what audiences and stakeholders can expect”.

 

26.   The regulator concluded: “if we identify any concerns about the BBC’s provision of local content, we will consider whether we need to introduce further requirements into the Operating Licence”.

 

27.   As above, the BBC cannot lean on the Ofcom consultations in its own defence, given its significant procedural failures (Annex C).

 

28.   You say: “in the BBC’s our Annual Report and Accounts report we stated our plans to share more local radio programme across neighbouring stations outside peak listening hours next year attracted criticism from a number of listeners and audience groups.  In response, the plans have been adapted over recent months to reduce the planned number of shared shows in the afternoon and at weekends”.  

 

29.   As you must be aware, however, these adjustments provided scant real listener benefit.  As an ex-regulator, I believe I can safely recognise token concessions.

 

QUALITY


30.   The BBC’s Public Purposes demand “the most creative, highest quality and distinctive output and services”. This requirement is echoed in the Ofcom Operating Licence. Accordingly, the Corporation and Ofcom must feel equipped to judge what quality broadcasting is.

 

31.   You state: “With regard to your assertion that the output of Local Radio has been damaged, while these changes have required some very difficult decisions, we are confident in the talent, skill and professionalism of our Local Radio presenters, and believe that they are of the very highest quality.”

 

32.   “Staff have also received training to produce high-quality content across all areas of our output. However, we are clearly in the process of a significant change and transitional issues are inevitable. Some of the content aired may also have been affected by the recent industrial action – both the trikes and work to rule. Again, this issue is transitional.”

 

33.   I have huge sympathy with those continuing to work at BBC local stations. These professionals are trying their very best to do a very difficult job in a poor environment.  This is not their fault. However, owing to poor strategy, leadership, management and operational planning at a senior level, the implementation has been shoddy and there are still too many egregious errors.

 

34.   There are numerous cases where news bulletins have been aired over others, significant gaps in transmissions, the wrong audio being scheduled in the wrong areas, plus editorial issues where staff who are unfamiliar with their huge areas have mispronounced local place-names or identified stories as being local when they are not.

 

35.   Whilst occasional errors will always occur, any radio practitioner or listener will agree that there comes a level of frequency or seriousness which becomes unacceptable.  Something which is unacceptable cannot also be of "high quality".

 

36.   How much poorer does the BBC Chair feel things have to be before they are no longer of "high quality"? Community radio stations have been held to account by Ofcom for lesser errors than some of those being witnessed.

 

RESPONSE


37.   You state: “I am also confident that our programming will also be well received by audiences.” You should share the evidence on which your confidence is based.

 

38.   The volume of criticism speaks volumes – and the online streaming levels to several programmes appear to show significant decline. MPs have been critical in Parliamentary debate and DCMS has been critical: “We continue to be concerned over the Digital First strategy at the BBC and how it will impact on the future of radio”.

 

39.    It is self-evident that the new programming is not being well-received; and I invite the BBC to consult and publish research into attitudes amongst current and lapsed BBC local listeners.

 

40.   It is also untrue to say it is too early to draw any early conclusions from the published Rajar figures. Whilst the changes are only now complete – the departures of key personalities on-air started some time ago, as did the significant operational distraction of the changes.  BBC local radio audiences have fallen by a further half a million adults in the last year – and loyalty has been seriously eroded on a format which traditionally enjoys huge loyalty. 

 

41.   It would be incorrect to ascribe BBC’s decline in local radio to a declining appetite for linear radio. Whilst listening habits are changing, other stations targeting older demographics are publishing record high figures – and the weekly reach of all radio remains at 88% - with a predicted 98% tuning-in at least once a month.

 

NEWS


42.   On the reductions in the number and length of news bulletins, you say “I am assured by those leading these changes that the number of bulletins that we produce at the top of each hour across seven days a week has been maintained. As such we produce the same number of built bulletins that we have always broadcast.  As we have developed the programme briefs and in working with the NUJ, some afternoon programmes have taken out half past headline sequences, but they have not reduced the number of stories we cover. Typically, half past headlines have only been a brief recap of the news we are covering in the main bulletins”.

 

43.   “With regard to the duration of bulletins, there has previously been a mixture of durations across the network in the afternoons. The Executive took the decision to have standardised the length of the afternoon bulletins to ensure a consistent service across local radio stations. They are now all three minutes in length.”

 

44.   Your explanation confirms that the duration and frequency of news provided has been adjusted, contrary to the general position of the BBC.  The provision of travel news has also diminished at BBC stations.

 

45.   There was no Operating Licence consultation about these changes in the frequency and duration of local radio news and information whilst, by contrast, the consultation did cover the issue of minutage of TV bulletins in some depth.

 

STAFF WELFARE


46.   You state: “With regard to your comments regarding consultation with and welfare of our staff, I assure you that this is something the BBC – myself, the Board and the Executive – takes with the utmost seriousness. The BBC Board understands that restructuring processes such as this can be distressing for colleagues involved and we have attempted to run this process as efficiently and compassionately as we can.”

 

47.   Whilst change is always unsettling – and I have been at both ends of restructure – it can be handled well. The Corporation’s staff surveys, however, indicate the process has been very poor and trust in management is low. For reasons of confidentiality, I will not share messages I have had from several people at their wit’s end; and several have made public statements. This process appears to have seriously affected the mental health of several employees.

 

48.   It was highly challenging too for the local managers on the ground having to manage staff in complex and ever-changing circumstances for such a long time.

 

49.   The BBC’s own staff are best equipped to judge whether the BBC process has been "compassionate" and "efficient" as you have stated. There is evidence that they feel it has not been.  It is dangerous for you to labour under a misapprehension.

 

50.   If the BBC has genuinely executed this plan, “as efficiently and compassionately as we can”, then the proficiency of relevant parties at the BBC must be called into question.

 

CHARTER OBLIGATIONS


51.   You state: “…with regard to your view that various Charter Obligations have been broken, I would note that since April 2022 we have briefed Ofcom at all stages through the process, as is indicated by references in their documents referred to above. At no stage have they suggested that the BBC’s plans breach their regulation or fail to meet the BBC’s mission and public purposes.”

 

52.   Again, your failure to acknowledge the letter from Ofcom to the BBC in February 2022 in disingenuous. Ofcom said: “We have been disappointed by the lack of detail and clarity contained within the BBC’s announcements about the changes to its provision of local content and news”. “We question how shared programming which will cover such large areas will still be relevant to audience”. 

 

53.   And the ensuing cautionary: “if we identify any concerns about the BBC’s provision of local content, we will consider whether we need to introduce further requirements into the Operating Licence”.  In addition, we are considering whether, in light of responses to our consultations on the new Operating Licence and the BBC’s changes to local radio provision, our proposals for regulation of local radio remain appropriate.”

 

54.   Accordingly, to state in your letter that there is no "suggestion" that the BBC’s plans may breach the requirements is materially incorrect. It certainly was suggested. Ofcom placed the BBC on warning.

 

55.   The BBC also misled Ofcom in the assurances it gave in the process. In Ofcom’s letter to the BBC in February 2022, the regulator wrote: “More broadly, we also asked the BBC how it would continue to ensure that shared programming would still be relevant to listeners, and asked for updated information on the proposed groupings of stations. In response, the BBC has said that it is confident that shared programming will resonate with audiences in the same way that the regional 6:30pm TV news bulletins do (and the majority of shared radio programming will cover similar geographic areas). It has said that the groupings of stations aim to work within recognised regional cultures and identities”.

 

56.   In fact, the BBC assurance above on localness in shared programming is misleading.  BBC TV programmes are short all-speech news magazines – comprised wholly of a mix of stories from across the region. By contrast, putting to one side the differences in the way the media are consumed and engaged with, radio comprises daily presenter-led lengthy music and chat programmes. For the BBC to suggest to Ofcom that this TV approach would be adopted "in the same way" in shared radio programming could never have been correct.

 

57.   The BBC also gave an assurance to Ofcom that that “the groupings of stations aim to work within recognised regional cultures and identities”. the BBC, however, provided little evidence that such cultural and identity links existed, and it would be unimaginable that it could.

 

58.   In my analysis of BBC local radio shared shows, save for travel/news bulletins and what’s on listings (all elements where online/on-air can be substitutable), the content is frequently non-local and even non-regional.  It is often generic content on a topic which would sit equally at home on a national station.  Whilst this may be interesting content in capable hands and would justifiably be some part of the overall offering, it cannot and does not: “resonate with audiences in the same way that the regional 6:30pm TV news bulletins do”. 

 

59.   By way of illustration, one presenter told me “(Presenter X) has been told that he can make no local references in his shared afternoon show”.

 

60.   This suggests the BBC’s responses to Ofcom’s questioning were misleading.

 

61.   For a significant part of each day and the majority of the weekend, BBC local radio is still being funded to spending millions on programmes which are no longer as ‘distinctive’, as required by the Charter.

 

SIGNIFICANT BREACHES


62.   You failed to respond to the point below. Whilst it places a duty on Ofcom – the duty is imposed by the Charter under which you operate, so the intentions are clear.

 

63.   The BBC Charter stipulated that in drafting the ‘first’ BBC Operating Licence, Ofcom must have: “a presumption against removing any of the current requirements which would result in the provision of less distinctive output and services”; and required that Ofcom “consider the case for increasing the current requirements in areas where the BBC has exceeded those requirements”.

 

64.   On the contrary, see Annex B to this letter, which indicates a prima facie case that the first Operating Licence (published 30th Oct 2017) allowed the provision of less “distinctive output and services”; thus not compliant with the Charter. It neither maintained nor increased the demands.

 

65.   Few can argue that the proportion of local programming is not a key plank of how local stations are defined. Indeed, the quantity of local origination/localness has been measured by Ofcom in its regulation of all local radio services (commercial, community) throughout its whole existence.

 

66.   Therefore, the amount of extant local programming at the time of the Trust/Ofcom handover should have been safeguarded in the first Operating Licence.  Ofcom erred by not safeguarding that element; and thus allowing the freedom to localise less.

 

67.   Given the first Operating Licence was not compliant with the Charter, it would appear to render any consultation on a second Operating Licence invalid.

 

68.   It is clear too that Ofcom failed to adequately protect news provision in the First Licence which demanded the paltry “news and information of particular relevance to the area and communities it serves at intervals throughout the day.” This was remedied a little by the second Licence.

 

69.   The Licence is impenetrable to licence fee payers and impossible to enforce. Are listeners expected to add up the amount of local hours across a whole year? How does Ofcom check that that the amount of local hours were broadcast, save from reliance on assurances from the BBC itself?

 

SUMMARY


You say: “I hope this letter reassures you that the Board and I are intent on the BBC providing the best local radio service in England that it could offer.” 


Alas, it does the contrary.


Despite all evidence, it suggests you have yet to grasp the seriousness of the errors; and there remains a belief that both the strategy is sensible and that it has been discharged well.


I would question whether any well-informed person can possibly honestly hold that view.


The evidence suggests that the BBC fails to understand why radio is valued by its audience. Licence fee payers expect better.


The BBC Board and Ofcom have erred in their duties.


As I have stated too, the failure of the BBC Director of Nations to grasp satisfactorily the rudiments of local radio broadcasting is alarming (my documented conversation with him on May 30th 2023).


The BBC could easily have realised its objectives through more sensible operations of radio and online news; and by more efficient operation of radio as is enabled by today’s technology. 


You have presided over the chapter where local radio has been reduced to a shadow of its former self.  Its value has needlessly been seriously eroded on your watch.


The ability of the network in England to generate programming which is compliant with the Charter’s Objectives has been reduced.


·         To reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations and regions.

·         To authentically represent and portray the lives of the people of the United Kingdom today, and raise awareness of the different cultures and alternative viewpoints that make up its society.

·         To help contribute to the social cohesion and wellbeing of the United Kingdom.

 

The BBC Board must commission an immediate independent review; and I shall be asking the new Chair to do this.

 

Yours sincerely

 

 

David Lloyd



 

Attachments ( sent to the BBC and available on request)


Annex A – BBC Board minute analysis

Annex B – Ofcom Service Licence failures - summary

Annex C – Ofcom Service Licence failures - Failure to adhere to Ofcom Consultation Principles and Gunning Principles Questions on Ofcom's BBC consultations:



Further related blog posts:


The impact of changes on broadcasting quality and training across the industry: The silent killer (davidlloydradio.com)

Rebuttal of the BBC's local claims: Clinging to the wreckage (davidlloydradio.com)

Indefensible defining of neighbouring areas: Some very peculiar neighbours (davidlloydradio.com)

Why radio really matters: Why radio matters (davidlloydradio.com)

Account of my interview with the Director of Nations “I think we’ve run a very fair process” (davidlloydradio.com)

This was always going to happen The funeral of local radio (davidlloydradio.com)

 

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