Members of the National Union of Journalists at BBC Northern Ireland are voting in a consultative ballot for industrial action over plans to cut 36 jobs in the province.
There’s been particular concern about “disproportionate” staff cuts at BBC Radio Foyle in Derry-Londonderry, where eight journalist posts are being removed, resulting in the loss of the station’s breakfast show and hourly news bulletins.
Earlier this month, around 250 people attended a public meeting in the city to voice their opposition to the changes at Radio Foyle.
Negative reaction from the local community has featured regularly in the local press since the corporation first went public with its plans in late-November.
NUJ members are said to have been angered by the BBC’s lack of consultation and its refusal to provide information on the costs of running Radio Foyle, the potential impact of the cuts on stress, and on equality.
Union representatives have described the tone of management as “confrontational and disrespectful towards the union”.
“The consultative ballot is a response to an ill thought out plan which would be bad for journalism, bad for BBC Radio Foyle and bad for public service broadcasting in Northern Ireland. We need genuine engagement conducted in a proper manner and in a spirit of respect which frankly has not been evident so far. As in England, NUJ members are anxious to protect the local services and to maximise employment. We also need political commitments to protect local radio across the UK.”Séamus Dooley, NUJ assistant general secretary
On Thursday, BBC director-general Tim Davie appeared before the Public Accounts Committee at Westminster. The deputy chair of the committee, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP, questioned the BBC boss on behalf of local MPs Colum Eastwood and Gregory Campbell.
“It is an issue that is felt very strongly locally and it is a long way from Belfast. It is a very separate community out there,” said Mr Clifton-Brown.
He went on: “…you have 650 staff in Belfast whereas you only have 20 in Derry, so it seems a little disproportionate to cut off The Breakfast Show which a lot of local people rely on.”
Mr Davie replied: “…I am going to sound a bit like a broken record, but we have to make choices in terms of where the audience impact is versus where our money is and where the future is going.
“With regard to Foyle, this is a painful saving, but we believe we should be investing more in digital and doing more across the whole of Northern Ireland in terms of developing the production sector and other things. We think there are better ways of using the money.
“The Foyle is an opt-out from Radio Ulster. I totally take your point that there are differences in the community there, and they need to be served.
“What we are protecting – there will be debate about whether this is enough, and clearly many feel it is not – is three hours of opt during the weekday, including a full half-an-hour news programme for that area, which is 137,000 people. We are continuing that.
“We are consulting with our staff to May. I note your comments and thank you for raising them.”
The director-general said there were no plans to implement any further cuts at Radio Foyle: “We are committed to keeping the three hours of programming, which is the half-an-hour news programme and, I think, two other programmes. The Mark Patterson Show and The Sean Coyle Show will both be kept.”
He added: “That is a commitment until we have to keep reviewing things. That is a commitment for the next period. We have no plans to go beyond that – absolutely not.”
PICTURED: protests outside BBC Radio Foyle headquarters in Derry-Londonderry in late-November, shortly after the job cuts announcement. COPYRIGHT: BBC.