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Defending the BBC

Musicians’ Union General Secretary Elect Naomi Pohl looks at the challenges facing the BBC, and why union members must come together to fight for our public broadcaster’s future once again.

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By Naomi Pohl Published: 14 March 2022 | 3:46 PM Updated: 18 March 2022 | 6:51 PM
Three young musicians performing on a stage at BBC Introducing, synth, keyboard and microphones are present.
"It is impossible to imagine anyone in this country not connected with music in some way through the BBC."

In January, the Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced that the BBC licence fee would be frozen until 2024 and then could be abolished in 2027. For musicians, the entertainment unions and the wider music industry, this was chilling news.

The BBC is the biggest employer and engager of musicians in the UK; it issues tens of thousands of contracts annually and its output is unique.

The time has come once again for us to lobby and campaign to maintain the BBC in its current form.

Protecting what makes the BBC unique

Future funding models mooted include a subscription model, part-privatisation or direct Government funding. However, while the BBC has increased its commercial activity significantly over the past 20 years, there is so much it does that isn’t driven by commercial interest and which could wither on the vine if its funding is less secure.

We’ve seen this in other areas of the industry; when funding becomes insecure and an organisation has to develop a more commercial model, then some of its most culturally valuable work is shelved. An organisation can lose what makes it truly unique. I have seen this happen many times and I know MU members have.

The wonder of the BBC

Let’s just indulge for a moment in the wonder of the BBC – a broadcaster that is envied around the globe.

BBC News, Sport, CBBC and CBeebies, the World Service broadcast in over 40 languages, national and local TV and radio, iPlayer, the best live music broadcasting in the UK, the BBC archive, BBC Parliament and BBC Education. There’s the BBC Asian Network. Radio in the Welsh language and Gaelic. It makes accessible content for viewers and listeners with disabilities in a way that no other broadcaster does.

For musicians, the fact that the BBC has five orchestras and the BBC Singers makes it entirely unique and irreplaceable. Not to mention Jools Holland, Strictly Come Dancing, Radio 1, 1Xtra, 1 Relax, 1 Dance, Radio 2, Radio 3, 6Music, Radio 2 Folk Awards, the Proms, BBC Young Musician of the Year, BBC Introducing, and live coverage of Glastonbury.

So what can we do to campaign? Members may remember the threat to BBC 6Music and the Asian Network in 2010 which resulted in public protests. The union was involved in a cross-industry campaign and worked with trade unions Equity, the Writers’ Guild and BECTU in co-ordinated action.

There were more than 2,500 complaints within the first week of leaked news about the plans to close the services, there were two major public protests, an early day motion to Parliament and the MU held a lobbying event in conjunction with UK Music and the other unions.

Music services must be maintained

During the BBC’s charter renewal process in 2015, the music industry came together once again with the Let It Beeb campaign. When the campaign was launched, the then CEO of UK Music Jo Dipple said:

“Music services MUST be maintained. Without these services there would be far reaching cultural and economic implications for the UK.”

“Music plays an integral part in all our lives, both professionally and personally. It is impossible to imagine anyone in this country not connected with music in some way through the BBC. Peel Sessions, Top Of The Pops, The Official Charts, Live Lounge, Desert Island Discs, The Proms, Essential Mix, Glastonbury and Later… just a few of the ways that the BBC has helped define music in our lifetimes.

“The BBC’s activity impacts on every musician and every music business professional. It employs our songwriters, artists and composers to help bring its programmes to life. It uses music as a key narrative tool for iconic shows as diverse as Doctor Who, Match of The Day, Planet Earth or EastEnders.

“It supports many of the UK’s musicians, orchestras and performers and also showcases the power of live music through its coverage of the Proms, Glastonbury, sessions and other live events.

BBC Introducing has created a platform for grassroots local music to reach the masses, which for many artists can provide a vital first step onto the ladder.

“It is vital that the BBC continues to give its audience direct choice and access to a unique diversity of music, songs and performances to match their own personal inclination, whether that is pop, rock, jazz, blues, classical, grime or techno.”

A key part of the Let It Beeb campaign was the involvement of musicians and music fans who shared their own experiences of the BBC and how it had positively impacted them in their lives and benefitted their work.

The time has come to fight for the BBC’s future again

The time has come to fight for the BBC’s future once again and we will need your involvement. This is a fight to maintain work and opportunities for musicians, to uphold British culture and to protect the diversity of the BBC’s output which is unmatched by any commercial service.

As MU General Secretary Horace Trubridge put it when Dorries made her announcement:

“Freezing the licence fee is a drop in the ocean in terms of tackling the cost-of-living crisis and will directly harm job opportunities. It might be better for the Government to focus on the real problem, which is spiralling home energy bills."

Help to #ProtectOurBBC

Catch up with the union’s reaction to the BBC funding freeze and take action to protect the BBC on our dedicated BBC campaign hub.

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