Friday 24 March 2023

BBC U-Turn on Singers Closure?, or Questions that Senior Management Still Need to Answer

 What was a rumour (on Lebrecht's blog) last night appears to be fact this morning with a BBC press release announcing that the decision to close the BBC Singers has been "paused" by the corporation. This is, as far as it goes, good news, but there remain major questions for senior management at the corporation to answer.

First, and purely with respect to the Singers, what is to happen going forwards and on what timeline? There's a troubling statement in the report that implies the pause is because "a number of organisations came forward to offer alternative funding". Maybe this is (as my brother suggested to me this morning) just a fig leaf to cover management's retreat on closure. But it seems equally plausible that the BBC still intend to save the money, or some of the money, closure would have afforded by passing the cost to some other body. How would the corporation justify this in relation to their public service broadcasting remit? And if the Singers are now to be partially dependent on some kind of additional external funding source what safeguards will be in place to maintain that in future years (bearing in mind that the broader situation with arts funding for individual organisations is perennially uncertain).

Secondly, is the proposed 20% cut to the three English Orchestras (BBC Symphony, BBC Philharmonic and BBC Concert) still going ahead? The press release is ambiguous stating "We will continue to engage with the Musicians' Union and the other BBC Unions about our proposals on the BBC's English Orchestras. We are committed to meaningful consultation and to avoiding compulsory redundancies, wherever possible." The BBC should make its intentions about this crystal clear. If it does intend to proceed with the cut, it needs to explain why cutting the orchestras by 20% is acceptable if cutting the BBC Singers is not. Such a cut will be as damaging to the BBC's classical provision and the broader classical music world as the proposal to close the Singers. I really hope campaigners who have been so vocal about the threat to the Singers will be equally vocal about what appears to be the continued threat to the orchestras.

[Update: This tweet from BBCSO Chief Conductor Sakari Oramo confirms that the 20% cut to the English orchestras is still going ahead].

Thirdly, where does all this leave the BBC's classical music "strategy" which I think it is ever clearer was little more than an after the fact attempt to justify the proposed cuts? Presumably it will now need to be completely rethought? Who is in charge of doing that and what timeline are they working to?

As they have done since the odd interview following publication of the original strategy document senior BBC managers seem to be hoping they won't need to answer any of these questions in direct interviews. Some may argue that we should give the BBC leadership space to execute this U-turn but my own feeling is that the way senior management has approached this whole area to this point, coupled with the mismanagement we have seen in other areas (the Lineker affair) makes it very difficult to trust them unless decisions are really transparent. There are too many key questions left unanswered by today's press release, with too many outstanding risks to the BBC's Performing Groups and the BBC's classical music provision more broadly. Management needs to publicly explain itself in order to regain trust. Pressure must be maintained until they do so.

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