Roger Bolton, veteran broadcaster and former host of BBC Radio 4’s Feedback programme, has criticised the BBC for leaving behind its responsibilities to train young journalists and media professionals.
Appearing on the latest episode of PodPod, the broadcaster and media journalist spoke about the rising use of independent contractors by the public broadcaster as a result of budget contraints, and the potential impact it could have on the corporation’s output, as well as the wider industry.
“The BBC will remain, and should remain, a major force, but because of financial cuts, it's abdicated, in my view, its responsibility for training,” he said. “But what they should be saying is because we're using all these people - they’re not staff members - who is training them legally, on legal issues and other things, and they should be putting very significant resources into an independent training organisation.”
For 23 years Bolton presented Feedback, the weekly programme which aired complaints and other comments sent in by listeners around BBC radio programmes, but was let go in August 2022 with “no explanation” despite his desire to continue.
Less than a month after being fired and now free from BBC constraints, Bolton launched his first ever podcast - Beeb Watch - with his producer and former colleague, Kate Dixon. The podcast takes on the same format as Feedback but instead examines the issues that are facing the corporation and public service broadcasting as a whole.
“ITV is wondering whether it should stay a public service broadcaster, Channel Four has avoided privatisation, but only just… and so there's a crisis going on,” said Bolton. “There needs to be a debate and none of the major players in this want a debate that involves the public; they'd rather get on and deal with what they want, and so we hope to be able to open it up a bit to the public.”
Although Bolton and Dixon continue to be supporters of the BBC, the podcast gives them the freedom to explore and criticise these issues, and examine how they affect public broadcasting. They also set out to shine a light on “the inevitable impact of the squeeze on BBC finances”. The BBC has been under budgetary pressures for some time, and according to Bolton, this is part of a deliberate strategy by elements within the Conservative government who are opposed to the BBC.
The strategy, he says, is to freeze license fees for two years and then peg price increases to the overall rate of inflation, rather than the rate of inflation for the broadcaster’s costs. The result is more financial pressure, which leads to cuts to the BBC’s services and operations, often not fully disclosed to the public.
Because independent and freelance production staff can be brought in on a contract basis as and when they’re required, Bolton said, they present a more ‘financially convenient’ option than full-time staff, with no ongoing commitment from the corporation. However, he noted that this presents a risk that these workers aren’t being adequately trained in legal and technical matters.
“The BBC primarily should recognise that so much of its output is now dependent on indies and freelancers that it can't abdicate a role in training,” said Bolton. “I think there's a scandalous dearth of training available for young people in this country, not just technical, but journalistic, legal and whatever, and the BBC is moving out under the great financial pressure and leaving, it seems to me, a massive gap.”
“Sooner or later, young people, through no fault of their own, will fall into this hole, and then the broadcasters will condemn them for doing it. Well, that is just hypocrisy of a high order.”
“The BBC is absolutely vital and that’s what I’m very concerned about,” added Dixon. “It’s the people working behind, the producers, where are they going to get trained up if local radio is being squeezed and opportunities are being diminished?”
In recent news, former BBC staff producer and creator of Doctor Who: Redacted podcast Ella Watts was let go from working on the second season of the show in September last year with no explanation months after she quit her job to go freelance in March 2022. The producer took to Twitter to share her “heartbreak” over having to find out through social media that she was being replaced by senior producer James Goss. Watts’ experience mirrors Bolton’s in some ways, and both Dixon and Bolton criticised the BBC’s general handling of staff departures.
“I mean, I'm afraid I just think it's a lack of manners and I don't understand it at all; it keeps happening with one person after another,” said Dixon. “You say thanks very much, give an idea of maybe why you're getting rid of them - it's common manners and I don't understand how they get it wrong, consistently.”
“Don't give your absolute loyalty to the BBC, give your loyalty to public service broadcasting,” added Bolton. “I still believe the BBC is the best means to the end but it's a means to an end - there are other means developing as well. Let's see how they go.”
“The end is the most important thing. The means? Well, the BBC is still the best, but it may not always be.”