There has been widespread anger at speculation that the BBC plans to axe its regular Radio Ulster farming slots.
A spokesperson for the BBC this week said the corporation was “not terminating dedicated farming slots” however he declined to elaborate further.
A BBC spokesperson said: “We recognise the importance of news, information and analysis about farming and rural issues and the value that BBC audiences attach to our programming in this area.
“We are currently looking at ways in which we can improve our coverage of agriculture-related stories. Our daily schedule will continue to reflect rural life in all its different aspects and the contribution that farming makes to the economy.
“We will be making an announcement about our new plans in the near future. We expect that this will allay many of the fears that have been expressed. Our commitment is to making the BBC’s coverage of rural affairs even better than before.”
The Ulster Farmers’ Union has said it is ‘shocked and disappointed’ following speculation that BBC Northern Ireland has decided to end the long running and widely respected farming and rural affairs programme Farm Gate.
Ulster Farmers’ Union President Ian Marshall said: “As soon as we became aware of the threat to the Farm Gate programme we immediately contacted the BBC to express our shock and extreme disappointment that they would even consider ending this vital farming programme. For the last few weeks we have been lobbying BBC senior officials behind the scenes to save this programme, however, it was clear from the outset they had made their minds up without any consultation with the farming community. We have warned them that farmers will not take this news lightly and they should expect a serious backlash from farmers and indeed the wider rural community as a result of this unpopular decision.
“Farm Gate has always been well-received and respected by the farming and rural communities but also has a much broader audience and is an invaluable information source for the wider general public about food and farming news.”
He added: “The BBC have told us that they will be recruiting an Agriculture/Environment correspondent who will contribute to the BBC’s business news segments. We have also been assured that agriculture issues will still remain a key focus of the BBC’s news coverage, however, we will be keeping a close eye on how things develop. The one thing BBC officials can be sure of, if they fail to deliver agriculture programming and news content that is to the same standard, if not better, which will be incredibly difficult given the outstanding, well informed, dedicated coverage Richard Wright has provided over the years, the UFU will be quick to hold them to account. After all, the BBC is a public service broadcaster and they have a duty to all who pay the licence fee, including farmers, to deliver high quality content that both informs the wider public and reflects the issues important to their lives and businesses.”
Meanwhile TUV leader Jim Allister MLA has described the farming slots as “much valued by the rural community” and fulfilling a vital role in meeting the BBC’s obligations as a public service broadcaster. He has written to the Controller of BBC NI pointing out his shock at the decision to axe Farm Gate and asking that it should be reversed with immediate effect.
“Whoever made this decision clearly has no knowledge of, or interest in, the centrality of the agri-food sector to the Northern Ireland economy and rural life,” he said.
“The current provision is much valued by the rural community and fulfils a vital role in meeting your obligations as a public service broadcaster. Many farmers listen faithfully to the early morning broadcast, which includes not just topical issues but useful livestock prices.”
The North Antrim MLA has also tabled a motion for debate in the Assembly on the issue and called on other MLAs who care about rural issues to sign it and to likewise protest to the BBC.
However, DUP agriculture spokesman William Irwin MLA has warned the BBC that it must take steps to deal with a perception that the Corporation is too urban focused.
Mr Irwin said: “Whilst hilly country roads are well worn with journalists when there’s a flurry of snow, it is very difficult to attract broadcast journalists into the west of the Province or even cover matters of concern to rural dwellers.
“The idea of axing Farm Gate would have been a further snub to rural dwellers. For that reason, I decided to ensure that it was raised with senior management from the BBC. They have assured us that the programme will continue to be broadcast in a prominent morning slot.”