Cameron steps in to save BBC Oxford jobs

There is nothing like local news to get people talking. A story from down your street has added impact.

For the politicians it is all about knowing what your voters care about, and I'll come to that shortly.

For the journalists that extra connection can create an edge of friendly competition. Not dog-eat-dog tabloid scoopery, but a healthy desire to get the story out to an audience who really want to know.

So imagine the scene in the newsroom of BBC Oxford when the ultra-local WitneyTV popped up with an exclusive interview - about the future of BBC Oxford.

'Incredibly important'

Image caption David Cameron interviewed for WitneyTV

WitneyTV is an ultra-local service covering the Prime Minister's own Oxfordshire constituency.

They had caught up with David Cameron at the opening of a new art installation. Given the chance of two questions interviewer Barry Clack threw in a query about the future of their colleagues in the public sector:

"We're really concerned that if the local BBC station closes, we'll be the only people supplying news to West Oxfordshire. As Prime Minister can you do anything about that?"

To which the PM replies: "I've got some good news there, I was very concerned about what was being proposed."

"Obviously the BBC has got to make spending reductions like everybody else, but actually local news is incredibly important and they do provide a good service here in Oxfordshire."

"I think they're going to be going on doing that and we're still going to have the separate Oxford news on the BBC service."

You can watch the interview here.

But how was David Cameron able to be so certain?

Take another close look at who lives in the BBC Oxford transmission area. It's not just the PM who watches Geraldine Peers with the nightly "news from where you live".

The Chancellor of the University of Oxford is the new Chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten. DCMS Minister Ed Vaizey is just down the road. And one Mark Thompson, Director-General of the BBC, lives nearby.

Image caption Geraldine Peers presents BBC Oxford TV news

In fact when the DG dropped in to talk to his local station last week, he cycled over.

Now it emerges that there's been an exchange of letters between the head of the BBC and his Oxfordshire neighbour over the future of their hometown news.

Mr Cameron wrote on his constituency notepaper, but with a handwritten line asking if Oxfordshire really was the right place for cuts.

Did that intervention make a difference?

The BBC today released the text of Mark Thompson's reply in which he says: "Like you, however, I believe that these services are very valuable, particularly in the light of ITV's retreat from regional broadcasting, and that to withdraw them would be a retrograde step. I do not intend to include this idea in the final package of proposals that I submit to the BBC Trust."

It's been reported from BBC sources that this decision came before David Cameron's letter arrived, but the response is highly unusual. Up until now the BBC refused to "provide a running commentary" on the cuts discussions - even when it was clear that star presenters or cherished stations were under threat.

Now it seems the future of not just Oxford's TV service is secure, but the "sub-opts" for the Channel Islands and Cambridge, something that David Cameron also mentioned in his letter. Journalists from all three TV stations had planned to lobby their local MPs at Westminster on Thursday.

Further cuts

Two problems remain. If the PM is adamant that the BBC must find the cash to keep an "incredibly important" service going for his own constituency, what will the knock-on effects be for other jobs in the BBC?

And how can these already low-cost journalistic operations absorb their share of further cuts?

Image caption BBC Director General Mark Thompson

By choosing an interview on WitneyTV to back his local BBC service David Cameron may have given us a clue.

The internet station is run with volunteer help, and crucially aims to keep things as simple as possible.

The BBC services for Oxford, Cambridge and the Channel Islands are similar. Here reporters work as video journalists: finding their own scoops and doing all the filming and editing themselves.

Quite how the competition will go down with local newspaper editors is another question. Don't forget it was because of their protests that the BBC Trust vetoed a huge extension of local TV news services just like the Oxford one.

Again there is a clue in the Prime Minister's WitneyTV interview.

At the end he says: "So it looks like we're still going to have the separate Oxford news on the BBC, which is great news - competition for WitneyTV - but I'm sure you can cope with it."

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