The BBC demotes its boss in Northern Ireland

8 Jul 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 8 Jul 2016

Putting out bad or highly contentious statements on a busy news day is one of the oldest and sneakiest tricks in the book. 

It is part of the spin doctor’s armoury of dark arts. And every time big things happen there is a game of hide and seek played out between journalists and PR people looking for evidence of burying bad news. 
The most notorious example was the former Labour Party press officer who emailed a colleague in the wake of 9/11 “It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury. Councillors' expenses?”
This has been an incredibly busy few weeks for news: Brexit, the Tory party leadership contest, the implosion of the Labour Party, the European Cup, the Somme Commemorations have cpmbined to create the perfect conditions for the dissemination of materials you’d be happy people don’t get to hear about. Scope has been sniffing around the delete boxes and waste paper bins to uncover some of the stories that deserve better prominence.
Two examples that got buried by Brexit are 
•    the United Nations announcing that the UK’s austerity measures breached its human rights obligations to its citizens, and that the “national living wage” introduced by George Osborne is inadequate 
•    the number of children living in poverty in the UK rose by 200,000 in the past year and is spiking at 3.9 million 
And in a move of supreme irony the BBC, so famed for the rigorous nature of its own news gathering, chose the very day that the Chilcot report was published to announce its latest restructure, guaranteeing a muted response. 
This was not bad news per se, presumably the timing was because executives felt that it fell embarrassingly short of what they had first promised to do.  But it will go down extremely badly in political circles in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. 
The restructure was originally billed as a radical move which would bring the BBC bang up to date by reorganising it around content rather than channels. So instead of having, for example, separate radio and TV divisions, there would be departments organised by content: entertainment, education, news. 
This would reflect the fact that the BBC publishes and broadcasts across so many different platforms. 
What actually happened fell far short of that and is being characterised by media commentators as a fudge. 
But buried in the statement is the news that the heads of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have been demoted from the executive team and will now report to a new director of nations and regions. The BBC vigorously denies this post will be based in London and says the location of the post has yet to be decided. . 
This is hugely contentious for two reasons. 
There are strong movements in both Wales and Scotland for broadcasting powers to be devolved to their respective governments to make the BBC more accountable for local output and the ensure better coverage of local issues and reflect local cultures. In Northern Ireland both nationalist parties are also calling for devolution of broadcasting for similar reasons. 
Under the White Paper governing the future of the BBC there is a commitment not just to increasing output and accountability to the “nations” but also to giving devolved administrations a formal, consultative role in any Charter Review and also the power to require the BBC both to submit reports and appear before them on the same basis as the UK parliament. 
All this takes place in a context of the BBC being criticised for being too London-centric and not paying sufficient regard to the changing political and cultural landscape which is being created by devolution. 
You would therefore expect that the government and local politicians to be fully consulted before such an important restructure would be announced. 
The BBC say they will not disclose details of who was spoken to in the run up to the restructure but stresses this is an internal matter. It cannot say whether or not the new director will be attending the Assembly to account for her or himself.. A spokesperson explained that such details had yet to be worked through.  The Department of Communities was a little more explicit. A spokesperson said:  "Any BBC decision on restructuring is separate to the BBC Charter Review and not for the Department for Communities (DfC) to comment.  DfC has no remit to intervene in the internal affairs of the BBC and as such, was not consulted.”

Political parties seem oblivious. The announcement seems to have been so cleverly timed that neither the Scottish National Party nor the SDLP appeared to know anything about it when we contacted them. 
They do now and the story will be updated if and when they issue statements in response
It will be interesting to see how the new executive who will oversee the BBC in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales will seek to assuage the inevitable concern, how often we can expect to see him or her over here and how they will handle the growing clamour for devolved broadcasting powers from their own office wherever it is ultimately located. . 


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