John Whittingdale – 2022 Speech on BBC Local Radio

The speech made by John Whittingdale, the Conservative MP for Maldon, in the House of Commons on 8 December 2022.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on obtaining this debate. It is also a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I do not often agree with what he says but, apart from a couple of sentences, I agreed with practically every word.

The BBC spends something like £4.1 billion each year on public service content, of which £477 million—just over 10%—is spent on radio. A quarter of that, or around 3% of the BBC’s total spend, is spent on local radio, yet what BBC local radio provides is hugely valued by a very large number of listeners. It is an essential and widely trusted local information service.

I have listened to and appeared on BBC Essex over many years. The station’s presenters, including Dave Monk, Sadie Nine and Sonia Watson, are familiar friends to many of my constituents. People share their living room with them, and their news reports are trusted. That was particularly the case during the covid pandemic, when all the surveys showed that people relied on and trusted information from local media more than information from almost any other source.

But it is not just about news. BBC local radio does a tremendous amount of community events to support voluntary organisations. Just a few weeks ago, I presented a Make a Difference award to one of my constituents in Essex who had been recognised by BBC Essex for her remarkable, life-saving bravery.

The BBC’s mission is to be distinctive, and one of its public purposes is to serve the diverse communities of all the UK’s nations and regions. BBC local radio does both. The requirement to be distinctive is something BBC local radio meets better than a lot of the rest of the BBC. Nobody else does what BBC local radio does. There are plenty of very good local radio stations—I have Heart Essex, Radio Essex and community stations such as Caroline Community Radio in my constituency—but they are predominantly music-based. They do not pretend to provide the kind of very localised talk-based content that only BBC local radio provides.

I accept that this year’s licence fee settlement is difficult for the BBC, but £159 represents a lot of money for households, particularly with the rising cost of living, so it was the right decision to freeze the licence fee. That has put pressure on the BBC, but local radio is a tiny proportion of its expenditure, and the BBC tells us that it is not cutting the amount of money it spends but is redirecting it, so £19 million has been taken away from radio and put into online news.

I spoke to Rhodri Talfan Davies, the BBC’s director of nations, about why the BBC made that decision, and he told me it was because people no longer listen to the radio to get their news and because people, particularly young people, are increasingly going online, and the BBC somehow has a duty to follow them. I think that is profoundly mistaken for two reasons. First, there is still a significant audience for radio, particularly among the elderly population, who often cannot get out. They rely on the radio.

Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)

I recognise what the right hon. Gentleman says about elderly constituents who depend on local radio. Angela Kalwaites does a fantastic show on BBC Radio Devon covering stories from the county’s faith communities. Some of my constituents who listen to her show are frail and elderly and can no longer get themselves to their local church or chapel. They tune in to her programme to get that connection with local people. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this move would hit some of our eldest constituents hardest?

Sir John Whittingdale

I agree. Many of our elderly constituents rely on radio and are less familiar with online. They will not necessarily go on to the BBC News website or a commercial website. They enjoy the fact they can listen to local news content from people they know well. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead and the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington have both said, this is now going to stop for a lot of the country at 2 pm. We are lucky in Essex, as it is going to continue until 6 pm on weekdays, but after that we will become part of a regional network, with a show that covers Essex, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northamptonshire and Three Counties Radio, which means another three counties, as it says on the tin. So that makes eight counties. Eight counties is not local radio. This will result in a significant reduction in the amount of local content, at times when people want still to be able to access that.

Secondly, instead of providing for local radio, the BBC is going to increase its spend on local online news content, yet that area is already well supplied. Local news publishers more and more are providing online content. Existing print-based newspapers have websites and there are now many online-only publishers, such as Nub News, which I referred to in the questions this morning. They are operating in a challenging and competitive environment, and are under tremendous economic pressure. They already see the BBC, which provides content for nothing, as a major competitor. The latest Ofcom survey showed that, when people want to go online to access news content, 62% go to the BBC website, 34% go to Google and 10% go to any local newspaper site. So already local commercial providers feel that the BBC is a threat and that is why Frances Cairncross said in her report that the BBC needs

“to think more carefully about how its news provision can act as a complement to, rather than a substitute for”

private news provision. Yet this, the area where the BBC is going to invest more, is bound to have an even greater competitive impact on commercial news providers. So I hope that Ofcom, which has a duty to look at the impact of the BBC’s activities, will examine that. I hope it will also look at the operating licences for BBC local radio and, if necessary, strengthen them to make sure that they continue to provide genuine local content, not local content across eight counties.

If the BBC wants to support local news provision, there is an easy way in which it can do so. When I was Secretary of State, I played a small part in the creation of the Local Democracy Reporting Service, where the BBC pays for local journalists who are employed by local news providers to collect and distribute local news content across all the local news providers. That scheme has been a huge success. It is welcomed right across all the local newspapers. The BBC acknowledges that it is a great success. So, if the BBC wants to put more money into local news provision, it should do it by increasing its support for the Local Democracy Reporting Service, which works with local newspapers, rather than by increasing the amount of money it spends competing with local newspapers.

It is not for us here or for the Government to tell the BBC how to spend its money, but the message that will go out this afternoon is that the BBC has got this wrong and it needs to think again.