COVID-19 continues to take its toll on local journalism and content as the BBC looks to make regional cuts in England.

Local journalism and news outlets have struggled for years as competitive pressures mount and advertisers and audiences move online. Now the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the crisis, leading to very real fears for closures, the creation of local news deserts and the implications for local democracy. Even larger regional providers are facing significant pressures.

The scale of the issue has been brought into sharp focus in recent weeks, with fears that the BBC will cut regional programming across England in an attempt to find £125m in savings this year.

The public broadcaster has been forced to “prioritise” resources following a significant hit to its commercial profits due to the pandemic’s impact on production. The virus has also delayed the introduction of the licence fee for most people over the age of 75, a cost the BBC will have to shoulder following a government decision in 2015.

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Programmes facing the chop include the award-winning current affairs show Inside Out – which has 11 different regional editions – as well as the BBC’s regional Sunday morning political programmes, which have been merged.

While so far it has only been confirmed that Inside Out’s autumn run has been cancelled, serious concerns have been raised about its long-term future and the lack of an alternative investigative show that effectively holds power to account at a local level. Jobs could also be at risk as well as the show’s role in nurturing new journalistic talent.

Responding to the proposals, more than 100 celebrities, arts, politics and science personalities have signed a letter to BBC management calling on the corporation not to cut its regional content. Organised by the National Union of Journalists and addressed to current Director General, Tony Hall, and future Director General, Tim Davie, the letter emphasises the current necessity for quality in-depth investigative journalism. It goes on to say:

“If these cuts were to become permanent, they risk damaging English democracy by the failure to provide an important platform for those voices in our communities who need and want to be heard.

Even when faced with financial pressures we urge you not to reduce regional programmes and to defend a vital element of public service broadcasting not available anywhere else.”

The cuts come despite high audience ratings for regional content during the pandemic. Politicians have also called for the programmes not to be cut.

A BBC spokesman said:

“Local and regional broadcasting is in the BBC’s DNA and we’re especially proud of how our services have performed during recent months.

“The pandemic has forced us to prioritise our resources, so we’ve cancelled the autumn series of Inside Out and are continuing with the single political programme for England through to the summer.

“The BBC does face very real financial challenges so naturally we are looking at what savings might be possible across the BBC.”

The additional £125m savings drive is on top of the £800m in efficiency cuts the corporation has committed to by 2021/2022. Just last week the BBC announced a voluntary redundancy scheme for public service employees based in the UK.

Header: BBC head office, London. Credit: IR_Stone/iStock