Why we should save the opt-outs

Branch chair Kate Griffin explains why regional news services are important for Oxfordshire. This post originally appeared on her blog.

The BBC is currently considering axing three of its regional news services. The local “opt-outs” for Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Jersey (plus surrounding areas) may be closed as part of the BBC’s money-saving drive, misleadingly branded “Delivering Quality First”. This blog post was written to answer some of the more common questions about the proposals.

What exactly is an opt-out?

Local broadcasting stations are said to “opt out” when they stop broadcasting from the central “feed” and start broadcasting local content instead for a limited period – for example, for a half-hourly local news programme. So the stations providing regional content, such as BBC Oxford, are known in the industry as “opt-outs”.

Clear as mud? What I’m trying to say is: “opt-out” is a rather confusing industry term for the simple concept of a regional broadcast news service.

Which areas are under threat?

The three news services under threat are:

  • BBC Oxford News, covering Oxfordshire, Swindon, parts of Wiltshire and Buckinghamshire
  • BBC Cambridgeshire, covering Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire as well as parts of Norfolk, Suffolk and Northamptonshire.
  • BBC Jersey, covering all the Channel Islands.

Why is the BBC considering closing these services?

To save money. The projected savings are:

  • For closing BBC Cambridgeshire: about £1.4 million
  • For closing BBC Oxford: about £1.1 million
  • For closing BBC Jersey: about £300,000

To put these figures in perspective: until he left the BBC, Jonathan Ross was earning £5.6 million a year. Anne Robinson is reportedly on £3 million and Jeremy Clarkson trousers £1.8 million.

What will happen if we lose these services?

If the opt-outs are shut down, the areas they cover will have to get their BBC television news as part of a much bigger “super-regional” service. For example, Oxfordshire will have to get its news from BBC South Today, which covers a huge area including Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Berkshire and parts of Sussex, Surrey and Dorset. One BBC Oxford news viewer complained on the Support BBC Oxford TV Facebook page that South Today is just “endless stories about yachts in the Solent and seaside towns”.

Without more tailored news coverage, a lot of important stories in these areas will be missed. Gawain Little of Oxford & District Trades Council commented in a press release: “Without good local news coverage it difficult to hold people in authority – politicians, councils, private companies – to account. Closing down BBC TV Oxford will create a ‘democratic deficit’ and increase feelings of apathy and helplessness in the current political and economic situation.

This is doubly true now that Newsquest Oxfordshire, which owns most of the newspapers in Oxfordshire, is cutting staff numbers and dragging its heels over pay. Newsquest Oxfordshire confirmed recently that Oxford Times editor Derek Holmes, who recently left, will not be replaced. Oxford Mail editor Simon O’Neill is now (theoretically, at least) editing the entire suite of Oxfordshire newspapers. (Ironically, BBC Radio Oxford ran a story about Newsquest Oxfordshire’s cuts on the same day that the Oxford Mail splashed on the cuts to BBC Oxford.)

Are the cuts a done deal?

No. Far from it. We don’t even know yet if they’re what the BBC calls a “firm proposal”. If there’s enough public opposition, they won’t happen. If you don’t want them to happen, you can:

Kate, what business is this of yours?

I’m chair of the Oxford & District branch of the National Union of Journalists, which means it’s my (sadly unpaid) job to stick up for other journalists when their jobs are under threat. I also feel very strongly that good-quality local journalism is worth fighting for. And like a lot of British people, I’m very proud of the BBC. Other countries look to our BBC as a model; we shouldn’t be jeopardising that world-famous quality to save relatively small sums of money.


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