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NUJ highlights BBC Local Democracy Reporter scheme financial abuse

Freedom of Information (FOI) findings from the BBC have revealed Local Democracy Reporters (LDRs) are leaving their posts providing essential coverage of public interest stories at an alarming rate.

The FOI requests by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) have revealed that almost a third (31%) of reporters have left their roles since April 2023.

Despite providing a valued service to publishers by ensuring local news stories on councils, corruption and politics are covered, BBC data confirms minimum rates of pay for the licence-fee funded roles remain unsustainably low. The NUJ believes the need to retain skilled LDRs is crucial to support their journalism in defence of democracy, and as part of the fight against misinformation and disinformation posed by artificial intelligence in a general election year.

FOI findings reveal senior reporters outside London often receive a BBC-set minimum of £24,055, and £26,242 when based within the city. Trainee reporters pursuing an NCTJ journalism diploma can be paid as little as £16,998 (£19,059 London), despite publishers receiving funding from the BBC this year of £37,733 per filled LDR role (£39,953 London).

The NUJ added that, currently, contract terms mean publishers are required only to pay the appropriate minimum salary and pass on the 1.5% annual increase in funding they receive to their LDRs – irrespective of how high inflation is or how much licence fee-funded money they receive. Some LDR employers do give rises above the requirement, but others have steadfastly refused to do so.

The union believes that, even after paying wages and usual business expenses such as employer National Insurance and pension contributions, businesses can still have a surplus of up to £10,000 from the minimum salaries they are required to pay.

The result, says the union, is that many talented journalists cannot afford to remain in the jobs they love. Attrition rates show 28 per cent of LDRs leaving posts in 2022-2023, and almost a third (31%) in the 11 months to February this year. The attrition rate hit 41% in 2021-22, although this may have been affected by the scheme retendering process that took place for the LDR contracts in those 12 months.

The NUJ is calling on the BBC to review and increase the uplift to ensure journalists are fairly remunerated.

Although funding for LDR roles is provided by the BBC, the funded roles are largely within independent publishers and contracts do not stipulate how pay is distributed to reporters. The union says this can lead to a “moral failure” which sees some publishers keeping as much as £10,000 per LDR post for the company’s coffers and citing “business costs” as justification.

In 2023-4, the NUJ calculates that the BBC funding paid to publishers per LDR role is £37,733 outside London and £39,953 in the capital (based on the 1.5% uplift from 2022-3 as shown in the FoI answers).

The NUJ’s research found that, following a 1.5 per cent pay increase in 2023/24, many senior LDRs were being paid only the required minimum of £23,700, or just above, but receiving BBC funding of £37,177.

Chris Morley, NUJ Northern & Midlands Senior Organiser, said: “The LDR reporting service is now anchored in the journalism ecosystem of the UK and has been a force for good for quality journalism. It has allowed publishers to continue to provide quality original content to the communities they serve where they might have been tempted to exit that form of reporting. However, the service is under pressure from a funding mechanism that has proved too inflexible in the recent years of high inflation. It has left publishers to ‘do the right thing’ to go above and beyond what is contractually required of them with their LDRs’ pay – and some have not done so.

“The BBC needs to review this flaw in the system and publishers certainly need to step in to make sure they are not extracting an undeserved profit from the arrangement by failing to properly reward LDRs with the valuable work they do.”

The union’s analysis also disclosed a striking gender imbalance between male and female reporters. In each year since 2018, men have formed the largest cohort of reporters with the largest disparity in 2023 when women formed only 39 per cent of total LDRs.

Morley added: “The recent FoI request by the NUJ shows that there are worrying trends on the retention of LDRs and the gender breakdown within the total LDR cohort. We will be looking to make sure the service retains its vital reputation for quality and experience and that participating employers are being fair on pay and their terms and conditions to their contracted employees.”

A BBC Spokesperson said: “We are really proud of the thousands of stories the Local Democracy Reporting Service has delivered over the last six years and the opportunity it has given hundreds of journalists to tell stories that really matter.

“The existing funding and salary model expires on June 30, 2025. We will work with partners to ensure the scheme continues to meet all of its core requirements.

“We have clear processes in place to make sure all local democracy reporters are paid within the same pay range. The BBC treats all suppliers equally no matter the size of the publishing company when it comes to what funding is available for the reporters.”

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