Sunday, 28 June 2015

Auntie, It's Time To Do The Right Thing.

This time, we didn't say it. Our MPs did.

Lots of discussion, since I last posted on the BBC's continued and very deliberate under-funding of broadcasting in the Midlands; not a lot of action. Well, not if you ignore what Cameron and Milliband both said at election time.

There's few signs that BBC powers that be are thinking of changing. But the issue won't go away. It's another elephant in the BBC room, lurking darkly, ignored in the hope that it might quietly leave. But this week, there's been a major development. MPs have stepped forward. Parliament has debated the issue. 

This was prompted by the Birmingham Post campaign, led by the extraordinary Graeme Brown, who picked up on the work done by the Campaign For Regional Broadcasting.

I went to the debate. It was fascinating.

Westminster debates

Anyone can go to Westminster to see how it works. You need to pick a debate, find out where it takes place - not all of them take place in the House itself - get there early, and go through airport-style security. That done, you find yourself in the Palace Of Westminster. Amazing. Democracy in action, literally. I sat in the visitors area and listened.

Big beasts from both parties attended. Lots of them, from across the Midlands, East and West. There were far more than you see in most TV parliamentary coverage. And they emphatically agreed that the present gross under-funding in our region (see the graph below) is not acceptable. Actually, that's putting it mildly. The figures, diligently unearthed by the Campaign, were repeatedly cited. And, glory be, the sense of despair and outrage felt by local broadcasters, license fee payers and creative forces in our region is shared by the region's MPs. If you find that hard to believe, check out the transcript here.

If you read the transcript, you'll find some murky stuff. When Pebble Mill was closed, a document - a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ - was drawn up to reassure both the BBC and the Birmingham Council that all would be well. However, it emerged, in an exchange between the MPs, that neither the City Council or the then Director General had bothered to read it. And so the West Midlands was left to flounder. Murky or incompetent? You choose.

Cross-party support

I found the cross-party support astonishing. For example, Jack Dromey, a solid Labour MP who represents Erdington, attended. So did Andrew Mitchell, from Sutton Coldfield, the neighbouring (very) Tory constituency. I doubt that they see eye to eye on much, if anything. But they did here. Andrew Mitchell's speech - a clip was shown on Tuesday's BBC Midlands Today - nailed the issues. 

Figures from CRBM

The core points, raised by the Campaign since 2013, and more recently aired anew in the Birmingham Post and the Birmingham Mail, are:
  • The BBC takes huge sums of license fee money from its Midlands region, and returns barely a twelfth of it to be spent locally. That's less than 9 percent. Every other region (apart from the South, which gets 45%) gets at least 50% of the license fee take to work with. 
  • £948 million each year is raked in from West Midlands licence fee payers. Nearly a billion pounds from every year of your money. And last year we got a meagre £80 million back.
  • This has led to a catastrophic collapse in production in both the East And West Midlands.
  • Not only is this wrong, it feels like a deliberate slap in the face, costing the regional economy over £400 million each year. Over a decade, we are talking billions. 
My main beef is that the BBC paymasters simply don't care about Midlands talent; they only want our money. Take music in our region. As brilliant a muso as you may be, your best and pretty much only shot at significant airplay exposure right now is a meagre two-hour Saturday night slot on a local BBC station - a station that largely caters for much older audiences. Ah, but if you were pitching hard in London, Glasgow or Manchester, where there are network shows, it might be a different matter. Drama and TV production staff feel just as strongly about parallel restrictions. Training institutions, who of course would never overtly criticise the BBC, are privately frustrated at the lack of career opportunities available for talented graduates. It goes on.

Tin Hat time at BH

So all of this has unleashed a lot of venom aimed at the BBC. It can't be pleasant for them, given the bile already pouring at the BBC from elsewhere. But the BBC is an institution very much worth fighting for. It's not perfect; it's had its share of lurid scandals; and much output is not for me. I really could not care less about Strictly, Top Gear, or The Voice. But that's my choice; others adore that stuff. However, I quite understand how a bunker mentality can develop. The constant carping from the Times and the Mail must make for difficult reading. Naive pronouncements from the likes of Martin Sorrell can't help.

So, despite the fact that the only regional riches the BBC seem to care about are of the folding variety, there's still a lot of love for the old girl. Reassuringly, debate venom was reserved for the decisions which led to our under-funding, not the institution. Both sides of the house were clear in their defence of the BBC. Gisela Stuart was especially eloquent in her arguments for the BBC to recognise our talent. Gisela gets it. She insightfully pointed out that the Beeb needs to commission programmes in our region, not just parachute talent in from London 

So... what now?

The issue has jumped up the agenda. It won't just go away, not after this. Midlands MPs will take the case on, and it will land on the desk of the Culture Secretary. This ties neatly in with the BBC Charter Renewal process, which is imminent. 

It's way too early to celebrate. But I'm tempted, four days after the debate, to ask 'What if...?' What if, glory be, there finally was a change of policy? What we finally do get properly funded BBC commissioning and production action in our region?

It's not going to be an instant thing. And if this welcome but still theoretical u-turn actually happens, we need to demonstrate an obvious and juicy creative scene for the Beeb to work with. The Midlands, East and West must show a steady flow of imaginative, adventurous and creative work. It can't just be worthy; it can't just be deserving; it has to be indisputably excellent. And the work it creates has to be able to travel beyond our boundaries.

I don't doubt, not for a second, that this is possible.

Are we at that point? That's open to debate. We know that the region delivers fantastic music. But our music scene operates on tiny margins, powered by the dedication of musicians, promoters, venues and supporters who work together to push things forward. I'm pretty sure that every other sector boasts that same dedication and suffers the same constraints zero or lousy money, disappearing funding, and the ceaseless, demoralising and exhausting scrabble for grant money to realise projects. However, music is immensely flexible. The same goes for writing, painting, drama and poetry. Film? Televised work? Sculpture? Not so sure. Yet.

But we know too that the web-powered flow of ideas is stronger than ever before. We know that digital tools have empowered pretty much everyone. That brings me back to my earlier point. The talent and the potential is there to furnish the BBC with content.

Disconnects and barriers

That said, there is a disconnect, a barrier to overcome.

For all the good work, most people work in isolation, huddled over keyboards and mixers, or playing to handfuls of people, and they do all their admin and marketing and fundraising on top of all this. The digitally empowered scene is fragmented. And we need to scale up.

So I come back to Radio. Radio is collaborative, now more than ever. The days of taste-maker and personality DJs handing down wit and wisdom in lofty isolation are largely gone. That role was an accident of history; now everyone does their own playlists. The role survives only on the networks, and there it's very much a team effort. Right now there are no main network sequence music shows (DJ strands) done in the Midlands, and a scant few specialist shows produced locally. The Asian Network does originate shows in Birmingham - but they've just lost a major show to London, which our MPs were particularly concerned about. 

The new breed are already here. But we need a bit of bedrock.

This could change. I talk regularly with different groups who want to 'do' radio. Some are highly impressive people with great ideas. I'd love to see those ideas take flight. But for that to happen, a vast amount of background work is needed, over and above the relatively simple task of making a programme or two, or sitting behind a mic with your laptop for a couple of hours.

No, what is needed, for all those brave or mad ideas to flourish, is a broad and supportive creative bedrock on which they can grow. That's what I mean by collaborative. That's where we need to scale up. We need the infrastructure to go with a creative climate which acknowledges possibilities and offers pathways to progression. Scaling up gives us the opportunity to take an idea and test it on audiences, with discussion and debate. In short, we need critical creative mass.

And that happens when the pathways to progress both exist and are clearly marked, for all to see.

Your call, Auntie. 

So it's over to you, Auntie. Here's a wild thought: Spend some money on programmes and programme makers in the region. Take a few risks. Believe in your license fee payers the way they believe in you. And watch things flourish as a direct result.

Start with a few decent network radio shows up here, using those lovely new studios we paid for, now gathering dust in the Mailbox. Put some money back into BBCLR so they can do more in their markets, and be pro-active in a wider range of areas. In fact, BBCLR is a great place to start, and probably the most efficient use of license fee money I can think of. 

Gisela Stuart specifically cited the diversity and youth of the West Midlands. You should check out that. It's crying out to be heard, bursting with potential and creativity, and you have the stations and networks for it.

It's very nice to know your HR teams are on their way. Thanks a lot for bumping up the proposed spend by another £30 mill or so next year. But that's still tiny, maybe making the local spend up to eleven or twelve measly percent of the total license fee take. Every other BBC region does at least four time better than that.

Next steps? 

We all need to be thinking about the next ten percent, and the ten percent after that. If you don't believe me, just ask a Midlands MP. Ask any one of them. Or have a chat with the splendid Steven Knight, who has let it be known he wants to get a LOT more of Peaky Blinders 3 filmed in Birmingham

Ed Vaizey, who as (take a deep deep breath)... Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries), Department for Culture, Media and Sport... is taking all this forward. Maybe he could be gently reminded that Peaky Blinders 1 and 2 was shot in... Leeds. It's never been a Birmingham series. That's the sort of thing that rankles. I'm not talking about the show's quality - I'm a big fan - but attempts to pass it off as being our region's production are met with hollow laughter in the town it portrays.

We've still got a way to go. But this was a good week for Midlands media.


Campaign For Regional Broadcasting
Sign the petition at
The full debate in Hansard

The Birmingham Post Campaign

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1 comment:

Martin Jones said...

Excellent article Robin - measured and comprehensive.

The Midlands is the Cinderella region of the UK. Like our football teams I think we are regarded nationally as a bit of an embarrassment/irrelevance.

The region has been the victim of inept politicians - local and national (especially our MPs) - and disinterested policy makers. The only time a Government of any political hue takes any interest in is during elections.

London is a different world completely, a city-state. I spend a lot of time in the North-West where sport, media and arts seem by contrast to be flourishing. Manchester is clearly thanks to eg Media City, 2002 Commonwealth Games, Man Utd, etc the UK's 2nd city. And that regrettably from a proud adopted-Brummie!

I come from South Wales originally a region that illustrates how things can be transformed. Regional political devolution if it ever happens might offer a way forward.

It is going to be a long haul although hope does exist through the BBC Charter renewal and licence fee negotiations plus rumours such as this:

Time will tell.