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BBC strike special Part Two: The Effects

November 15, 2010

My apologies part two and three of this report have been delayed – I have been down with a bad cold all week. I still feel this report is relevant to ongoings events and so I hope you are able to read part two and part three which will be here soon.

Midlands Today presenters stand on the picket line in Birmingham. Image from Midlands TUC

Although the strikes did not have full union support, the effect would be felt, as although only accounting for 1 in five of the BBC staff as a whole, the NUJ represented nearly all it’s journalists, including key figures such as Huw Edwards, who had on earlier dates lamented the possible impartiality of strikes which coincided with party conferences. In this second part of the three part indepth look on the BBC strikes, I look at the effects the strike had and the PR attempts to paper over the cracks and the NUJ’s response and the response of the media outside of the BBC.

The Effect

As men and women across the nation woke up Friday morning they found a changed landscape to their viewing and listening.  BBC Breakfast was not on air, Radio 4’s Today show was gone (replaced in some parts of it’s broadcasting by twittering birds – The Guardian), Nicky Campbell and Shelagh Fogarty were notably absent as freelancer Iain Payne explained on their morning show.  And this was just the beginning, especially for the more notable aspects of the BBC to which the public were likely to notice first and foremost – especially when they also found news bulletins were cut to 10 minutes instead of their normal programming length.  In Scotland, whole programmes were off air and were replaced instead with a wider broadcast of Five Live and Five Live in itself sounded normal until you realised that Victoria Derbyshire’s programme was a recording of older episodes as was Richard Bacon and Simon Mayo’s Radio 5 broadcast although he still carried on with his Radio 2 programme, because that was not a news programme.  Other programmes were replaced instead with “specials” – interview programmes with sporting stars.

Online, BBC’s news website was hit.  Although at first glance one would see some stories appearing, in reality news indexes were not updated, stories were not updated as events transpired – and this on a day where three major news worthy incidents took place – a cement lorry crashed over a bridge onto a moving train below, a light aircraft crashed in Surrey and a major factory fire with multiple explosions also happened.  Where normally stories on the indexes would have been updated including comments from services on scene, eyewitness and updates as conditions of victims and disruption of services such as travel were given out, this did not happen.  In fact looking at the plane crash incident at the time of writing, the story has not been updated since 17:19 on 5th November – the light news item, carrying only three small paragraphs and little information, on a normal news day would have been updated various times – now it, as many other stories remain sparse – not what readers would normally see on a site which boasts mass readership figures from unique viewers daily – unique viewers fell to just 800,00 on a friday, well below the average of 2 – 5 million dependant on the news stories of the day.

Sky News noted the scrapping of programs and the appearance of freelance journalists and editors to replace regular newsreaders and journalists.

Radio Four’s flagship Today programme, the World At One and PM were all hit, and freelance staff and non-union journalists worked on the TV news channel. (Sky News)

Mark Thompson in an internal email made much of the fact that only 1 in five members of staff were on strike and while this is true, he is merely glossing over the facts – the NUJ is a union of journalists – those in during the strike days were accountants, senior managers etc – but of the 4,100 NUJ members – journalists – there was a near 100% walkout.  Lucy Adams earlier in the day had tried to make much of the fact that the NUJ were alone, but she made a number of “faux-pas” – while firstly claming that BECTU supported the BBC’s final position on pensions, she neglected to mention that BECTU are awiting the Pension review findings in early 2011 and have warned that should the touted deficit of £1.5 bn be lower, they will reballot members.

It is worth making the point that the vote by BECTU, UNITE , The Musicians Union and Equity to accept the proposals is subject to us going back to the BBC seeking further improvements if the deficit following the triennial review is less than £1.5 billion. If the BBC refuse to talk then we will be balloting our members for industrial action.(BECTU)

Not all of BECTU’s members are happy at this time with the unions position on the strikes and some have already left to apply for membership to the NUJ in order to be able to take part in the strike. David Gallagher, who was joint branch secretary, Joti Brar, Tim Clarke, and Ben Toone explained in an email to collegues:

“The pensions issue is the most shocking and unreasonable assault ever made by BBC management on their staff.” Because: “The current proposals mean a huge and unacceptable cut to the pensions of existing scheme members, and the imposition of inadequate stock market-dependent pensions for all future staff.” (Workers-United)

Meanwhile Lucy Adams also noted on BBC’s Radio Five Live that non-union members were also supporting the final pension plans – as non-union members have never been balloted on this, it is hard to see how Adams is so sure they support this.

The point being Adams suggestion that the deficit for the pensions currently stands at £1.5 bn is unknown – the reason it is unknown is because the trustee’s report on the deficit has yet to conclude.

Perhaps one of the biggest coups the strike caused was the wholesale removal of BBC 2’s flagship braodcast Newsnight. Whilst Thompson tried to downplay any removal of programmings as some programmes were “lost” and that there was no blackout and while there may not have been a blackout outright – tweeting birds and no flagship news programmes or truncated bulletins because no reporters were on hand to report from the scenes as usual can hardly be downplayed as “lost”.  Jeremy Dear of the NUJ likened Mark Thompson to Saddam Hussein’s Comical Ali:

“When Mark Thompson says that this strike is having no effect on the BBC’s service, it’s a bit like Comical Ali standing outside Baghdad airport saying there are no Americans in Baghdad as the troops swarm in,” (The Guardian)

As well as the denial that the news was being massively affected, Thompson was facing problems from within his own camp.  Helen Boaden who is director of news and a member of the BBC’s executive board, stood in for absent news presenters and read out bulletins on the radio, but expressed her own concerns at the way the pension fiasco was being handled by Thompson.

In an article in The Guardian the day before the strike started, Boaden admitted her reservations:

Helen Boaden, the director of BBC News and a trustee of the corporation’s pension scheme, told a colleague that it would have been “much, much better” if management had waited to find out how much the actual pension deficit is before making changes to staff’s pensions, in an internal email seen by MediaGuardian.co.uk.

“I think it would have been much, much better if the BBC had waited for the deficit to be properly assessed and then worked with the [pension] trustees to come up with a viable, long-term plan for addressing it and the ongoing demographic challenges,” Boaden wrote.

As the article goes on to say this contradicted something Thompson had said in a global email:

“Some have argued that it would have been better if the whole question of pension reform had waited until after the formal valuation of the pension deficit had taken place. But the whole point of introducing the reforms now was so that the reforms could themselves be taken account of in the valuation process,” (The Guardian)

Although the strike had a calculable effect on broadcasting, the desire for strike was one that the unions had hoped to avoid – instead they hoped for a stay on any decision made until the trustee’s review is published in 2011.  This is also supported by other senior BBC managers, the trust itself and the unions – and as I have pointed out in my previous blog post, even BECTU although in some ways agreeing to the current deal have said that should the deficit be below £1.5 bn as Thompson is claiming, then ballots will be sent out again.

As Thompson said the people this strike affects the most is the viewers, the license fee payer – although saying that all BBC members of staff are license fee payers too.  However for Thompson to use that as a silent threat against the unions is disengenuous.  Of course the unions know this – although disruption was key to make a point, no one wants to be on strike and no one wants to loose pay – what the NUJ wanted seemed so simple – to talk, to delay any knee jerk policies being run through which would only work in the short term but that in long term effects would leave members in retirement even more reliant on the state.

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