BBC strike row descends into acrimony

By Peter Wozniak

Political staff and journalists at the BBC have co-signed a letter to union representatives criticising planned strikes during the Tory conference – and have received an indignant response.

The letter, published in the Guardian, argues that the proposed 48-hour strike during the Conservative conference in Birmingham threatened the impartiality of the corporation.

[The strike] “risks looking unduly partisan – particularly when none of the other party conferences have been targeted,” it reads.

“Impartiality is the watchword for the BBC’s political coverage and we would not wish to give a misleading impression that this is no longer something we value highly.”

The extraordinary intervention by many of the BBC’s most well-known journalists, including Nick Robinson, Jeremy Paxman and Laura Kuenssberg, comes after the Daily Mail claimed this morning that some of the corporation’s top journalists were apparently considering whether to boycott the strikes.

The letter, mainly on behalf of staff based at the BBC’s Millbank political unit, prompted an apoplectic response from union bosses organising the strike.

Simon Vaughan, the Millbank unit’s National Union of Journalists (NUJ) representative, decried the “last minute, back room letter”, arguing that many of the signatories were not NUJ members.

In a scathing attack on the signatories, he added: “We have a very limited window in which to protect the pensions of *everyone* [sic] in the BBC, not just those select few lucky enough to count themselves among what you call the ‘political staff’.

“Anyone who finds themselves at work on a strike day is making themselves complicit with the BBC’s robbery of everyone else’s pension.”

Ian Pollack, another NUJ official, for BBC London, held even more damning criticism, especially for those who apparently contacted the Mail.

“Your letter… conveys a tiny minority concern,” he said.

“I do not take kindly to non-members trying to unpick democratically taken decisions of the NUJ with the aid of loathsome enemies in Fleet Street.”

Referring to the selection of key political events for the strike days, he concluded: “I have to tell you that taking Shaun the Sheep cartoons off air will not cut the mustard.”

Two 48-hour strikes, ostensibly to protect BBC pension schemes, are planned for 5th and 6th of October, at the height of the Tory conference, and the 19th and 20th – the latter of which is the day George Osborne is set to announce the anxiously awaited comprehensive spending review.

If the strikes go ahead they will hit coverage of two of the biggest political events of the year.

This has led to accusations of political motivation, as the strikes would undoubtedly disrupt coverage, and it has stoked claims of supposed political bias at the corporation.

The BBC’s director general recently courted controversy stating that the organisation was guilty of “massive left-wing bias” during the Thatcher years.

The Conservatives are particularly displeased, with both dates coming during critical events for their party.

It is hoped that the strike timed for the spending review can be avoided through negotiation, though the chances of a settlement being reached before the Conservatives descend on Birmingham next week seem slim.