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NUJ urges radical change

The National Union of Journalists urges radical change to Local Democracy Reporter contracts to ensure fair pay.

NUJ urges radical change
Chris Morley: “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.”

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is calling on the BBC to review and increase a 1.5 percent uplift to Local Democracy Reporters (LDRs), to increase required minimum salaries and ensure publishers do not use allocated funds to boost profits.

The NUJ says Freedom of Information (FOI) findings from the BBC have revealed Local Democracy Reporters are leaving their posts providing essential coverage of public interest stories at an alarming rate. Almost a third (31%) of reporters have shunned their roles since April 2023, supporting concerns raised by the National Union of Journalists of the harmful impact of low pay on retention.

Despite providing a valued service to publishers by ensuring local news stories including 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 currently receive at least 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 the publishers receiving funding from the BBC this year of £37,733 per filled LDR role (£39,953 London).

With journalists continuing to battle high inflation in the cost of living crisis, the NUJ believes radical change is required to the BBC funding mechanism for the LDR scheme and its stipulated minimum pay rates and for all participating publishers to ensure public money is not used to boost their financial bottom line. 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. Some LDR employers do give rises above the requirement, but others have steadfastly refused to do so.

The NUJ 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.

Even with successive years of high inflation no changes have been made to this percentage uplift, added the NUJ, leading to a loss of talented journalists who 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 provided by the BBC is required for use on LDRs, contracts do not stipulate how pay is distributed to reporters leading to a moral failure by some publishers, added the NUJ. Last year, the NUJ strongly condemned Newsquest’s decision to retain surplus funding of up to £10,000 per LDR post into company coffers. Presented with robust evidence, the publisher explained its headroom costs as "business costs" citing an “Employer tax” in addition to national insurance costs the NUJ had already considered in calculations. 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).

Newsquest paid its LDR reporters only a 1.5 per cent pay increase when many of its senior LDRs were being paid only the required minimum in that year of £23,700 - or just above - but receiving BBC funding of £37,177. This is despite a competitor paying equivalent reporters at least its own minimum senior reporter salary of £31,200.

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."

Recent FOI findings obtained by the NUJ follow questions asked about LDRs to the BBC including on pay, turnover and gender monitoring. The union says its analysis has 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.”

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