Politicians quiz UTV and Ofcom

This week’s discussions at the Northern Ireland Assembly about UTV’s plans to cut a third of its staff look set to widen the debate.

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Examination of the prospects for public service broadcasting in the province, prompted by UTV’s desire for massive cuts and Ofcom’s weakness, will continue on Monday 24 November when a full Assembly debate is scheduled.

Strong representations yesterday by BECTU and the NUJ to the Department of Culture, Leisure and Arts’ Committee have encouraged the committee to consider making its own submission to Ofcom. The regulator is currently taking views on its first-phase report into the future of PSB. The deadline for submissions is 4 December 2008.

BECTU Assistant General Secretary, Luke Crawley, said: “The invitation to give evidence to the Culture Committee gave us the opportunity to tell Assembly members about our concerns that OFCOM are ignoring what viewers say they want in Northern Ireland.

“UTV seem to have accepted that they must discuss their proposals with the unions but could not explain how they will produce more programming with less staff. The Committee was not impressed and we expect further concerns to be raised at the full debate next week.”

UTV wants to cut 35 jobs from its programme division and has not ruled out compulsory redundancies. Dedicated news output will be cut and current affairs broadcasting is set to be subtantially reduced.

“As a result of our campaign thus far, UTV can have no doubt as to the strength of feeling over the proposed cuts and the political pressure upon them strengthens our bargaining position”

The UK’s Department of Culture Media and Sport is also likely to receive representations from members of the Northern Ireland Assembly who objected yesterday to UTV’s bid to cut jobs ahead of the conclusion of Ofcom’s review. Ofcom’s apparent inability to persuade UTV to await the outcome of its review met with disbelief.

Yesterday’s well-attended debate brought into sharp focus the negative implications for quality public service broadcasting if UTV is permitted to downgrade its services and the BBC is left without effective competition in the province.

Last week, the leaders of six of Northern Ireland’s political parties signed a strongly worded statement urging UTV to rethink its approach to the broadcasting review.

Michael Wilson, UTV Chairman, was asked again yesterday by MLAs to pull back from plans to cut jobs before Ofcom’s review is concluded next February. Mr Wilson refused to back down.

Redundancy consultations with UTV management got off to a difficult start due to the company’s wish to limit its accountability to staff.

When the cuts were announced, an attempt was made to exclude the joint-unions full-time officials from discussions and to hold meetings in a way designed to hamper representations from the recognised trade unions.

BECTU hopes that this week’s events at the Assembly will encourage UTV to adopt a more constructive approach to talks than has been displayed so far.

The joint-union campaign [update - was link to website now closed due to resolution of dispute] to save quality broadcasting in Northern Ireland and to avoid all compulsory redundancies at UTV will continue.

National Official, Pat Styles, has encouraged members of the UTV branch to continue to contact their MLAs and to continue to organise in support of the campaign: “Our efforts so far show what we can do when we stand together and work in an organised fashion.

“The next stage of the campaign will be the debate at the full Assembly on Monday [24 November 2008] when this matter will come up again, so keep contacting your MLAs with your concerns and get your friends and family to do the same.

“As a result of our campaign thus far, UTV can have no doubt as to the strength of feeling over the proposed cuts and the political pressure upon them strengthens our bargaining position.” Pat Styles advised.

Friday 21 November 2008