Exclusive:BBC boss Rhodri Talfan Davies criticised for suggesting online service more ‘professional’ than local radio

The remarks by Rhodri Talfan Davies were described by one MP fighting local radio cuts as “insulting”

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An executive overseeing controversial cuts to BBC local radio has been criticised for comments he made suggesting that the corporation’s online service is more “professional”.

One Labour MP fighting the cuts told NationalWorld it was “insulting” for Rhodri Talfan Davies to suggest local radio staff were any less skilled, while the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said it gave the impression they were the “poor relations” of BBC output.

What’s happening to BBC local radio?

Under changes announced in October last year, £19 million of funding will be moved from local radio to online and multimedia content. The BBC says this will modernise local output and deliver better value for money to licence fee payers.

As a result, around half of the BBC’s 39 local stations will share an afternoon drivetime programme during the week with neighbouring outlets - while regional late-night shows will be replaced with one programme broadcast across England.

Dozens of MPs have raised concerns about the changes - arguing they will damage local communities with a disproportionate effect on older people who don’t use the internet and therefore can’t get their news online. More than 170 organisations have signed a petition organised by the National Federation of the Blind of the UK, urging BBC Director-General Tim Davie to reverse the cuts because of their impact on people with visual impairments.

There has also been significant unease about the process to decide which presenters will host the new, smaller number of programmes. Existing staff had to reapply for their jobs by submitting demo tapes - even though, in some cases, they’d already been on air for decades. The BBC said it needed to ensure a level playing field so all applicants were judged in the same way.

NationalWorld previously reported that - despite BBC denials - staff were threatened with losing redundancy pay if they spoke publicly about the changes.

What did Rhodri Talfan Davies say?

Davies is the BBC’s Director of Nations. He agreed to speak to radio industry consultant (and former head of BBC regional and local programmes for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire) David Lloyd, who’s critical of the way the cuts are being implemented. Lloyd wrote up their conversation in a blog post published on Tuesday (30 May) - and shared a record of the chat with NationalWorld.

During their exchanges, Davies expressed frustration at suggestions he’d seen on social media that if the BBC wanted to increase its local online content, it could get local radio staff already covering certain stories to publish their scripts on the website. He said:

What you can’t do - and forgive me, I read this stuff on Twitter sometimes: ‘can we just get the radio journalists to press a button and print their stories?’ I mean, online is a professional service.

Lloyd asked Davies if he knew “how angry” such comments made BBC local radio staff feel - because they implied “radio folk are not really good enough to play a part” in a “multimedia newsroom”. Davies did not directly respond.

What’s been the reaction?

NationalWorld spoke to a number of BBC local radio staff about the comments. One manager said they were “livid”, while another journalist said Davies had shown “such arrogance and disregard” for radio colleagues.

Labour’s Diana Johnson - one of ten MPs in the Humber Estuary who wrote to Tim Davie demanding a meeting to discuss the cuts - told NationalWorld: “It would be insulting to imply that the professional standards, qualities and skills of BBC local radio staff is in any way lower than anyone working for network or online services at the BBC”.

“It’s just a shame that the worth of those working outside London and other metropolitan centres appears to be so undervalued and misunderstood by the current management”.

Tim Davie has agreed to meet 10 Humber Estuary MPs to discuss local radio cuts Tim Davie has agreed to meet 10 Humber Estuary MPs to discuss local radio cuts
Tim Davie has agreed to meet 10 Humber Estuary MPs to discuss local radio cuts

Paul Sieger, the NUJ’s broadcasting organiser, also told us: “NUJ members in local radio have been made to feel like they are the poor relations of BBC Local ever since the BBC revealed their plans for Digital First”.

He added: “Rhodri’s comments clearly don’t help and give the impression he doesn’t understand the skills, experience and knowledge that local radio journalists already have”.

How has the BBC responded?

In a statement to NationalWorld, the BBC said: “The exchange reported is about a suggestion that a full local online service can be made by simply publishing radio scripts online.

“Instead, we are building a full multi-media news operation in each of our 39 local bases to provide a tailored news service across TV, radio and online. Our goal is to deliver a brilliant local service across all platforms - offering news, information, companionship and all the colour of local life”.

What happens now?

Last month, NUJ members rejected amended plans from the BBC on the way the cuts would be delivered - and will go on strike for 48 hours from next Wednesday (7 June). Journalists are also “working-to-rule”, meaning they won’t stay on duty beyond their contracted hours.

The corporation held a video call for all local radio workers last week to discuss the cuts and the results of the latest staff satisfaction survey. Footage of the call - leaked on social media - shows some of those taking part reacting with a laughing emoji when one executive described the “positive changes” he hoped to make to local radio.

In an email seen by NationalWorld, the BBC said it was “disappointing” that a “very small minority of colleagues chose to disrupt the call” and called for future debate to take place with “mutual courtesy and respect”.