BBC Midlands Today staff threaten strike over alleged bullying
Staff at BBC Midlands Today have passed a vote of no confidence in management amid claims of widespread bullying and intimidation at the Birmingham television operation.
A crisis meeting attended by officials from the National Union of Journalists led to no confidence votes against acting editor Mark Hayman and Head of Regional Programmes Cath Hearne.
The furore comes six months after journalists on the flagship BBC teatime news programme had complained to BBC English Regions Controller David Holdsworth about systematic bullying of staff.
Now a walkout has been threatened if the alleged intimidation is not stopped.
Already two journalists, Jeff Berliner, who has left the Mailbox where the programme is made, and an unnamed broadcaster, have lodged claims for employment tribunals.
It is also understood that star presenters such as Nick Owen and Suzanne Virdee have been told to cut down on on-air banter in a new approach to newsreading.
Meanwhile, one programme director, Mel Parmer, is said to have had a heart attack after suffering from stress.
One employee said: “Morale is at an all-time low, we are all very despondent. Bullying has been drip, drip, drip for months – there is a very vindictive atmosphere.
“Senior reporters and producers are not being allowed to get on with their jobs. People are being moved out and others, with less experience, are being brought in.
“The programmes are suffering. The viewing figures for Midands Today are said to be holding up well, but in fact they are not as good as they used to be.
“We are all devastated by what happened to Mel – the whole newsroom is shocked to the core.
“Back in March we wrote a letter to David Holdsworth outlining the problems with bullying but nothing was done. We had to take a stand with a vote of no confidence.
“The next move would be a localised walkout, but a lot of people are very frightened for their jobs.”
Cath Hearne, a teacher for 10 years until 1992, was appointed Head of Regional Programmes in the West Midlands in February 2009.
She said at the time of her appointment following her move from a similar role in Hull: “It’s a big job based in England’s second city and I’m really looking forward to working with the team which has a fantastic reputation.”
But less than six months later she was at the centre of a row involving former Radio One DJ Liz Kershaw, who was dropped from BBC Coventry and Warwickshire’s breakfast show.
In response to an e-mail sent by Ms Hearne detailing the changes, Ms Kershaw fired off her own e-mail which said: “Watch your back Cath. Beware the Ides of March etc. Could be your turn next.”
The BBC has been hit by a string of other staffing controversies in recent times, including a rapidly increasing number of claims for sex and age discrimination by female staff.
Miriam O’Reilly, 53, a former presenter and reporter on Midlands Today, revealed earlier this year she was suing the corporation for sexism and ageism, with an employment tribunal scheduled for November.
Ms O’Reilly, a well-known figure in Birmingham broadcasting circles, was one of four 40-plus female presenters axed from the BBC’s Countryfile programme in March 2009.
She later claimed in a interview with a national newspaper that a cameraman once turned up on a shoot with a spray can of black hair dye, which she refused to use.
She was axed after seven years with Countryfile and a total of 25 with the corporation. Her female co-presenters, Charlotte Smith, Michaela Strachan and Juliet Morris, all over 40, were also dropped from the programme when Countryfile transferred from its Sunday morning slot to primetime BBC1.
She told a national newspaper earlier this year: “After 25 years at the BBC, I never thought I would find myself taking them to an employment tribunal.
“I felt a BBC person through and through, and all I wanted was to keep doing my job. But I need answers as to why, after so long, I was no longer required.
“I just want a credible explanation for what has happened. The BBC has to look again at its policy on equality and the way that it treats women of my age.
“My family are right behind me, and I hope I will have the support of many people in this country who think it’s wrong for the BBC to treat women of my generation in this way – for no reason other than that they are getting older.”
A BBC spokesman said of the latest Mailbox bullying claims: “We do not comment on staffing issues.”
The NUJ has made no comment on the allegations.