Thursday, 1 December 2011

Namechecked in the House

I know exactly why Jeremy Hunt MP did this, and so do his sniggering colleagues.

 Jeremy Hunt loves BBC Surrey by nickwallis 

But that doesn't mean it isn't strange and wonderful to have your name mentioned by a Secretary of State in the House of Commons.

He said: "There are numerous examples which we've heard this afternoon, across the country, of where BBC Local Radio has filled a gap that would not have been filled by anything else, and I think in line with what other Hon. Members have said I do need to mention the excellent work done by BBC Surrey, which I visited recently, including the excellent Nick Wallis breakfast show." - Jeremy Hunt MP, Thu 1 Dec, 2011.

The mention, whilst extremely welcome, was gratuitous. Members of Parliament know that if they namecheck a specific local newspaper in the House of Commons there is a 99.9% chance they will appear in the paper they have mentioned (probably with a photo), and the coverage of their mention will almost certainly be favourable. 

I haven't heard the full debate on BBC Local Radio that led to Jeremy Hunt mentioning my name, but as he infers in the above clip, his parliamentary colleagues were almost certainly queuing up to mention their local radio station because they knew by doing so, they would make the bulletins on the radio stations they mentioned. Hence the knowing laughs in the background when Jeremy Hunt mentioned BBC Surrey.

It's not a conscious or pre-meditated "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours", nor does the extended coverage of the mention come from any pathetic sense of gratefulness on behalf of the publication or media outlet which gets its brief moment in the spotlight. It's just the way these things work. 

If someone who has a high profile endorses your work it is likely that people who already like you will be interested in it. Report it. Make a trail using it. Put it on the cover of your book or your billboard, RT it on twitter. Write an article about it. Anyone in this situation who gets all bashful is a fool.

The important thing to note is why my name was mentioned by a Secretary of State in the House of Commons. Although it may have been done for cynical reasons, it didn't happen spontaneously.

The debate in the chamber was about the future of BBC Local Radio, and it was called by the veteran Labour MP Austin Mitchell. He has concerns about the scale of cuts an internal BBC review (called Delivering Quality First or DQF) is going to impose on BBC Local Radio. Where did his concerns come from? Not out of thin air.

Since I started doing my show, I have been in regular contact with an extraordinarily committed listener who goes by the name of Darcy Sarto. He is passionate, articulate and very funny, and he cares an awful lot about BBC Local Radio. In his spare time he is involved with a group called the BBC Local Radio Forum, which has lobbied incessantly to get all the people who say they care about BBC Local Radio to do something about it. He is very well aware of the potential implications of DQF for local radio, and he sees it as his business, as a licence-fee payer and listener, to be an advocate for BBC Local Radio.

Whilst chatting (off air) with Darcy about DQF, I suggested the biggest problem that BBC Local Radio had was not enough movers and shakers listen to it. For many and varied reasons, a lot of influential people listen to BBC Radio 4 and/or 5live.

If there were a "Listen to BBC Local Radio Day", which simply asked everyone to try their local BBC station for a few moments, whether it be MPs, local councillors, charity bigwigs, NHS chief executives, police chiefs, business owners, shop workers, commuters, schoolteachers, mums, kids, celebrities, whoever - then it would raise the profile of BBC Local Radio, prove to people who'd never listened what a vital job BBC Local Radio does and it might even get us a few more regular listeners. It would also be something that the BBC hierarchy could get behind - why wouldn't they support a listener-generated campaign to ask everyone to tune in to BBC Local Radio?

Darcy agreed and suggested the date - Thu 1 Dec - the birthdate of the founder of BBC Local Radio, Frank Gillard. Poetically resonant and conveniently within the timescale of the current BBC Trust consultation into DQF. Perfect.

I am ashamed to say I did very little thereafter. Darcy and his friends did all the running - they got to enough MPs to get the debate called, and they ensured that the biggest news story coming out of DQF was the effect it may have on local radio. It won some significant public statements from people within the BBC, not least Mark Thompson, the Director General, and Caroline Thomson, the Chief Operating Officer who told the Voice of the Listener and Viewer group that the BBC had been "surprised" by the response to the Local Radio proposals.

Before we go any further, I need to state, for the record, that I have no opinion on DQF, nor on the way the BBC chooses to go about setting its budgets. I know that if there is a reprieve for BBC Local Radio, some other department will lose out. It's not my place to pontificate even if I did have an opinion.

If, however, you have a view on BBC Local Radio, and you want that view to count, please contact the BBC Trust. They are reviewing the proposals in DQF, and as a licence-fee payer, what you have to say will make a difference.

Here's the link. You have until 21 Dec 2011 to make your contribution. Please spread the word.

In the event, not many MPs attended today's debate, but the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, given his brief, was more or less obliged to do so. I have no idea of his real feelings on BBC Local Radio. Although he says I'm "excellent", I have no idea how many hours (minutes? seconds?) of my show he has listened to.

But he knew he would hear lots of other MPs talk passionately about their radio station, and so he made sure, at the very least, that he knew my name. 

And please be in no doubt that however cynical I may seem, it was rather thrilling to hear it said in such a rarified setting.


  1. Ok I suppose I'd better try not to sound bashful then.. but am going to have to spread this over a couple of comments.

    Thank you for your kind words, I'll take yours over Jeremys any day of the week. It was exceptionally funny hearing him mention you, for entirely the contextual reasons you've mentioned, even funnier that you didn't believe me when I told you. Wish I had heard the show on Friday morning, I might give it a listen again, as my very dear best friend said to me, it was like the Wallis Ego Express was at full steam whilst the good ship Dignity was out of the harbour and making for the horizon.

    And I hope you know that was said and is recounted here, with a good deal of affection for you. I think perhaps Bashful is one of the lifeboats?

    Whatever has been achieved, not sure it's everything you credit us with, would not have been possible without the support and hard work of the most wonderful and dedicated listeners. It's not that we see it as our business, we see it as everyones business and possibly something people should be more concerned about than that thing they didn't hear Jeremy Clarkson say.

    I can't recommend the debate highly enough, its available here

    And the coverage in Hansard begins here:

    There's now three weeks until the consultations close and it's probably a good time to point out some of the things we've had to put up with over the last few months, not least wall after wall of silence or obfuscation from BBC management and the BBC Trust. A rather sorry attempt to intimidate us by one particular member of BBC management who took exception to our Twitter acount. Banned from John Myers blog for taking issue with him over his contributions on behalf of management on DQF day, we've made up now, although what he was employed to do on that day was a rather naughty management ploy. Banned (for life!) from Digital Sly for upsetting a member of BBC staff and failed attempts to hack the forum.

    The idea of the listen day was something we had toyed with months before the actual DQF announcement but it got filed, so anyone who might be reading this who wishes to finger point can rest assured it probably would have happened without any discussion between the two of us. That said there may have been no need for it had the BBC Trust and the management showed any sense of responsibility towards the listeners. Eight weeks into the consultation and my mother and father who listen to BBC Kent most mornings knew nothing about DQF. Why? Well because someone in senior management has made the editorial decision that the BBC Trust trails should be played no more than twice a week. Who made that decision? So far I've asked Mary Picken (Head of Comms for English Regions) and Jason Horton (Head of BBC South). Silence. And why that decision? My correspondence with the Trust is laughable if you've read it, I'd be reasonably worried if they were responsible for sitting in judgement on my job. They've been quite complicit up until now. Asking the BBC to introduce more local services - in response to a need they saw in licence payers - only to throw it out under pressure from commercial interests. They rubber stamped the sharing trials from the Strategic Review and conveniently the review of local radio began on DQF day. Oh and their trails are poor too.

  2. We are also aware that some of the Regional heads have disciplinary procedures ready for anyone seen to be supporting any listener campaigns and that, at the same time, some of their staff are running their own leafleting campaigns, simply to give listeners the opportunity to be consulted, which is theirs by right. For anyone reading this and warming up a waggy finger we know these things, but not from you.
    The threat to discipline staff if they tell the truth and inform and educate their listeners?

    Context is everything, so I will also say Mark Thompson outlined these current plans way back in February 2010 in an interview with the Times. So for Mr. Holdsworth on Feedback or Jason Horton interviewed on the BBC Solent Breakfast programme to point to the licence fee settlement as justification for these cuts, is either disingenous or ignorance. This has been a long time in the planning. Stations are not just going to be hit in the areas they have earmarked for sharing, journalists are going to lose their jobs. For a greater context on local journalism I can suggest people read Nick Davies book Flat Earth News

    Anyway, despite the best efforts of some, the listen day is something we count as a success, a couple of stations managed to embrace it in their own way. And of course we learn a lot from the way others behaved to.

    I could go on but will just encourage people to take part in the local radio consultation here, which contains a question relating to DQF:

    The DQF one here:

    Sign the petition here:

    And listen to the excellent Nick Wallis Breakfast show on BBC Surrey.

  3. I support what Darcy has said. This has been a very hard campaign, and I confirm that our personal user accounts were hacked into, we have had facebook comments removed on a daily basis etc etc. I have now had to up my security settings yet again!

    But I have to say that it was worth it. The MPs who spoke on Thursday(not J Hunt) were genuine and passionate about their local stations. It was not a name check operation, they were representing democracy. Which is the purpose of BBC local radio.