Wednesday 29 March 2023

BBC Classical Music "Strategy" Update, or, A Disappointing (to put it mildly) Response

 Since we last wrote on this senior BBC management (Davie, Moore, Clarke and Webb) have sent replies to at least two of the groups who collectively protested the original strategy. These replies are as un-reassuring as the press release announcing the pause of the decision to close the BBC Singers. They continue to present arguments which date back to the first announcement of the new "strategy" and which we (and others) have taken to pieces. You can read our previous posts on the matter here, here, and here.

I'd much prefer not to have to keep on writing about this situation. I'd also much prefer it if what passes for the press in this country would question senior BBC management robustly about this "strategy" but unfortunately outlets seem to have swallowed the argument that the BBC Singers have been saved, are treating debate as over, and it has faded from mainstream coverage. So I'm afraid it is necessary to repeat myself.

The same reply was sent to both the 800 composers led by Exaudi and to the BBC Young Musicians (I imagine it has probably gone to other groups as well (though individuals who contacted BBC management directly do not seem to be deemed worthy of receiving the response - or at least it has not yet been sent to me). I propose to deal with it point by point.

1) "...we have received approaches from a number of organisations offering alternative funding models for the BBC Singers. If viable, this would secure the future of the Singers....We are still committed to invest more widely in choral singing across the UK, and we want to improve access to the classical sector with a new national choral development programme."

This was all either in the press release announcing the pause or in the original press release on the "strategy" (for links see our past posts). The questions remain as before. With respect to the Singers - How does partially privatising them square with the BBC's public service broadcasting mission - is this option being considered for other aspects of current BBC work? Why is it appropriate for the Singers but not for other areas? Further, what confidence can we have about the long term security of this possible arrangement given the current highly fragile nature of arts funding?

With respect to choral singing - is the money to be invested equivalent to the money that will be saved by partially privatising the Singers? What exactly does "invest more widely in choral singing" mean in practice? How was it decided, and on the basis of what evidence, that that wider investment was a more justifiable use of public money than continuing to fully fund the Singers? With respect to the choral development programme - why is this a job for the BBC? Again, how was this decided? 

2) "We will continue to engage with the Musicians' Union and other BBC unions about our proposals for the BBC's English orchestras. We have made it clear that we are committed to meaningful consultation with all the unions involved and to avoiding compulsory redundancies wherever possible. The ambition is to have ensembles which allow us to perform a wider range of repertoire and at more venues. We're aiming to get to 50 new venues in the 2024/25 season across the UK, which will help us to fulfil our responsibility to provide for all our audiences."

It is disappointing, to put it mildly, to find the BBC senior management still peddling what I'm afraid can only be termed nonsense about redundancies to the orchestras being necessary to enable performance of a wider range of repertoire in a wider range of venues. You simply do not need to make redundancies to enable you to do either of those things and senior management should stop claiming otherwise. Either admit that the only justification for these proposed cuts is the need to save money - in which case it should be demonstrated that cuts are being applied equally across the board and if that is not the case justification supplied as to why some areas are being more heavily hit than others - or come up with a justification that can actually be supported by reasoned argument and appropriate evidence. (And by the way the BBC has also still never explained why the English orchestras and their audiences should be treated differently to the Scottish and Welsh orchestras and audiences). Lastly, on this, I should like to see a list of the 50 proposed new venues, specifics on exactly why visits to them wouldn't be possible simply with different configurations of the orchestras as presently constituted, and what repertoire the BBC thinks cannot currently be performed.

3) "We have the ambition to double our funding for music education and launch a range of new training initiatives. We know there is a crisis in music education and we want to do more to address it by being much more active in schools."

BBC senior management continues to refuse to answer basic questions about this. Why is it appropriate for the BBC to spend money on this but not to continue to fully fund the English orchestras? Why should the BBC be taking responsibility which should surely rest with the government for music education? Why has the BBC continued to refuse to supply any data on what education work is already being undertaken, and what it is proposed to do differently so that the licence fee payer can judge whether this decision stands up. Will the amount of money being put into whatever these initiatives are be equivalent to the amount saved from the proposed orchestral redundancies?

4) "All of us are committed to the BBC's role in showcasing the UK's music industries, across the board, and in nurturing emerging talent."

The use of the term "music industries" here may be significant. Is money being diverted from support for classical music to other musical genres? How does the different support balance out and the classical music "strategy" fit with a broader musical strategy? - assuming such a thing exists - I certainly have not seen it. The paragraph goes on to argue that there needs to be "refreshment" because there have been no significant changes to the Performing Groups "in recent years". I am all for periodic review of organisations. That should involve a thorough consideration of all the appropriate evidence, and, where change is deemed appropriate, a reasoned argument based on that evidence for the proposed changes. As I have documented on this blog several times the BBC has failed to demonstrate that they have done this. 

5) "While the conversation over the last few weeks has at times been difficult, it is important that the BBC can discuss how the licence fee is best spent."

If only we were having such a discussion. What in fact we are having is a good many of us pointing out the many flaws in, and questions posed by, the BBC's classical music "strategy" and receiving, after some delay, a response from managers which largely fails to address the flaws or to respond to the questions. To repeat myself, it should not be good enough.

Once again, I ask the BBC senior managers who are signatories to the response discussed above to respond properly to questions asked. Then I might find it possible to believe the protestation at the end of the letter that "It is core to the BBC's public service mission to inspire and entertain young and old alike, to appreciate the joys of classical music". As it stands this feels like a rather empty pledge.

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