Former BBC Singers director on proposed cuts: ‘They’re chasing ratings’

The former director of the BBC Singers has criticized the company’s proposed cuts to classical music ensembles, claiming the broadcaster wants to “chase the tails of Netflix or Amazon”.

Paul Hughes, who resigned last summer after 23 years at the BBC, said he was “speechless” that the corporation plans to ax its in-house chamber choir, the BBC Singers, and cut salaried orchestral positions in BBC orchestras by about 20 per cent.

The decision to close BBC Singers would result in the loss of 20 posts, the broadcaster previously confirmed.

The BBC said the plans follow a 2022 review looking at the classical sector and its role within it – and are part of a new strategy for classical music that “prioritises quality, flexibility and impact”.

Mr Hughes, also a former director of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, told Roger Bolton’s Beeb Watch podcast: “The consultation was made and run by people who know nothing about the world of classical music, reporting to people who know nothing about classical music. world.

“It has been quite clear for many years how little the BBC values ​​classical music and its orchestras.

“Apart from the work we do as part of the Proms, there is almost no marketing support, no profile, no pride, no reward, no appreciation of the work they do day in and day out.

“And yet the musicians do it at an amazingly high level and that’s not appreciated.”

He later said: “I’ve spent 23 years of my life building something and I’m more angry than I can say to see it being taken apart and picked apart so casually.”

The BBC previously reported that the move was part of a plan “to invest more widely in the future of choral singing across the UK” and launch a choir development program for new talent.

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He also said he aims to create “agile ensembles” that can work with “more musicians and broadcast from more venues – up to 50 – in different parts of the country”.

Those working in three English orchestras – Symphony, Concert and Philharmonic – will be offered a voluntary redundancy scheme to meet the 20% target, it said.

In the podcast, Mr Hughes said: “I left at the right time for me and I’m absolutely sad for those people who are still out there struggling with this.”

The former director said he began to feel “completely out of place with the culture” at the BBC, describing it as “not a pleasant place to work”.

He later questioned what the proposed cuts meant in relation to the BBC’s public service mission.

“If the BBC is not going to do what others can’t, why? I really don’t understand what they are for,” he said.

“It seems to be just chasing ratings. They want to chase the coat tails of Netflix or Amazon, although they say they don’t, but clearly that’s what the BBC has become.

“All the years I was there, I remember every time the license fee renewal came around, the BBC Performing Groups were seen as the epitome of public service broadcasting … and then they put us back in a drawer at the end until next time.”

Mr Hughes was particularly upset about the circumstances surrounding the proposed plans to shut down BBC singers, describing it as “extremely unpleasant”.

He added: “To cut the BBC singers on the eve of their centenary, to do it with such speed, to deny them even the Proms. I mean it’s vicious.”

The BBC has confirmed it is in “close consultation” with the Musicians’ Union (MU), which represents more than 30,000 members working across the industry, over all plans.

A BBC spokesman said: “Since 1922, the BBC has been an integral part of the classical music ecology in this country and abroad.

“To continue to be a leading force in the industry we need to modernise, making some necessary and difficult changes to the way we operate to ensure we meet the needs of the public and deliver the best possible music to the widest possible audience.

“Many models have been considered in recent months, this new classic strategy increases our flexibility and reach, improves our training offering and provides better value to the license fee payer.

“The new strategy is ambitious and, at its heart, will improve the impact and access to classical music for all, while reducing costs.”

Mr Hughes’ comments come after Labor urged the Government to back calls for the BBC to review the “disastrous and damaging” proposed cuts.

Shadow Culture Secretary Barbara Kiely told the Commons on Thursday: “The cost of living crisis appears to have prompted the BBC to announce that some of the world’s best musicians will lose their jobs.

“The BBC’s new classical music strategy plans to deliver savings from the world-renowned BBC Singers, the UK’s only full-time professional choir, and by making 20% ​​redundancies across all BBC orchestras.

“I urge the minister and the secretary of state to support the call for the BBC to reconsider this disastrous and damaging decision to disband BBC singers and cut 20% of jobs across all its orchestras?”

The BBC’s new strategy also includes doubling funding for music education and launching new educational initiatives and creating a single digital home for its orchestras.

The broadcaster previously confirmed that because of the license fee freeze and inflation it faces a funding gap of £400m by 2026/2027 and needs to make savings.

Last year, it announced hundreds of job cuts at its news service.

Tim Davie, who took over from Lord Tony Hall as managing director in September 2020, has overseen the company’s slimming down since taking up the role.

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