A good hour's scandalous end?

By Geoffrey Alderman, May 17, 2012

Within the next few weeks the BBC, which is funded by British taxpayers through revenues derived from the television licence fee, will take a decision directly affecting the lives of, if not all British Jews, then certainly those living in the North-West. Of comparatively minor not to say peripheral importance in itself, this matter strikes me as being of major significance for the whole of British Jewry.

The decision involves the fate of a radio programme that has been aired weekly on BBC Radio Manchester for 21 years. Jewish Hour was launched (under the title It's Kosher) in 1991. The launch was assisted by a small grant (£1,500) from the Manchester Jewish Representative Council. Originally a half-hour radio magazine, the programme was an instant success, and has for some time been allotted an hour of broadcasting time. The BBC generously donates the magnificent sum of £70 per week to cover the programme's expenses. Everyone involved in its presentation gives their services free. Now the BBC is threatening to axe it.

Ostensibly, the threat has come about as a result of a cost-cutting exercise ("Delivering Quality First") and - ostensibly - is without sinister intent. The BBC has already taken the decision in principle to scrap its regional weekday evening radio programmes. Instead, it will launch a "syndicated" radio magazine entitled All Around England, which local stations can air if they wish. This magazine will be produced by an independent contractor and will have a professional, salaried presenting team. BBC regional offices are (so I'm assured) under no obligation to "buy into" this magazine but they are clearly under pressure to do so. If, within the next few weeks, BBC North West decides to invest in this package, Jewish Hour will cease to be broadcast with effect from later this year. Should that happen, the Beeb will henceforth offer no regular programme dedicated to its Anglo-Jewish audiences and licence-payers.

This strikes me as scandalous on several grounds. The BBC is surely obligated, under the terms of its Royal Charter, to address the needs of local communities. The awkwardly titled "purpose remit" of the BBC Trust insists that "BBC viewers, listeners and users can rely on the BBC to reflect the many communities that exist in the UK. These communities may be based on geography, on faith, on language, or on a shared interest…" But how can that insistence be genuine if Jewish Hour is given the chop? As one enthusiast put it to me, Jewish Hour "is the only Jewish interest programme on the BBC… [its abolition] would mean that the BBC is entirely devoid of any programme specifically devoted to matters of Jewish interest."

If the argument in favour of abolition was exclusively economic even I might have some sympathy with it. But it isn't. In the first place I should like to know how the replacement of a programme delivered through the services of unpaid volunteers by one delivered by an external contractor employing a salaried presenter can amount - in any meaningful sense - to "cost-cutting". In the second, I need to ask (and so do you) why Jewish Hour is under threat but not programmes dedicated to the needs of other ethnic minorities in the north-west.

The BBC's argument is not exclusively economic

For the unpalatable fact is that Indus, a two-hour magazine programme broadcast by BBC Radio Manchester and Radio Lancashire and featuring news, comment and entertainment for the Asian communities of North-West England, is reportedly under no threat at all. Taxpayers' money (in short) will continue to support the radio needs of Manchester's Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Jain communities, but not of its Jews.

This threatened act of palpable discrimination by a publicly funded body must be challenged. Those learned in the law will doubtless be reaching for their law books.

But even if you are not a lawyer, there is something you can do. And that is to contact the BBC's director-general, Mark Thompson (mark.thompson@bbc.co.uk), whose salary you help pay, and ask him (as I shall be doing) for an assurance that Jewish Hour will survive no matter what "cost-cutting" policies he is minded to implement.

Last updated: 11:47am, May 17 2012