Network of care

F inanced by a licence fee, the BBC does not need to pander to advertisers or produce a return for shareholders. What it does have is a public service remit to produce programmes that reflect or seek to improve the society in which we live.

Quite often the BBC looks to meet that remit through campaigns, appeals and seasons. For example, this year’s Taking Care season in March boasted a host of TV and radio programmes that looked, largely positively, at the experiences of people who have been in care.

Although praised by critics, the programmes were shunned by viewers.

“It’s absolutely what we should be doing as part of our public service remit and not about ratings at all,” responded a rightly unrepentant BBC at the time. “You would never commission Taking Care as a ratings winner but, if we didn’t commission it, it wouldn’t get made at all.”

Similarly, over the past three years the BBC has been behind a unique example of social action broadcasting on behalf of carers. Its Ring Around Carers campaign – a partnership between the BBC and Community Network, a national charity specialising in direct conference calling – featured thousands of carers’ stories across the corporation’s 40 local radio stations and 15 regional TV outlets.

Along with phone-ins, debates, webchats and features, carers were offered the chance to join free, weekly Ring Around Carers telephone groups which helped hundreds of isolated and distressed carers to find friendship, information and support.

As one carer from Cornwall said: “When you come off the phone from talking with four or five other carers, you are thinking: ‘I am not alone, there is someone else; they are going to be doing what I am doing now.’ A nice feeling.”

The helpline took 1,447 calls for information packs and applications to join a Ring Around Carers group, and 552 people subsequently joined. Impressively, 10 per cent of callers were “hidden carers” – people who did not claim carer benefit, had no contact with a caring organisation, and had never even spoken to their GP about their situation.

Although the three-year campaign is now over – somewhat ironically, it came to an end during Carers Week – it has left a most telling legacy, not just for carers and organisations who have set up schemes and will continue them independently, but for the BBC itself. This was a campaign that truly hit home.

The BBC has launched a new website – on Gateway, the BBC’s intranet site – and a policy statement for employees who also act as carers. The website is a one-stop-shop giving carers information about their rights, flexible working, unpaid leave, career breaks, counselling and so on. With about 3,000 BBC employees (out of a total of 28,000) estimated to have a caring role, it is clearly something an enlightened employer needs to consider.

Gillian Alford, head of employee relations, says:”Many carers don’t think of themselves as carers, so having information that prompts people to think about the issues is a valuable first step. A carer might only need small changes to their work pattern in order to make life more valuable.”

And those small changes can make a big difference.

“Being the parent of a Down’s syndrome child means there are regular appointments to keep with various therapists,” says Jackie Neill, a producer with BBC Radio Ulster. “I’ve usually been able to make these by juggling my time, maybe editing at home in the evenings. But no one clock-watches here. What matters is that you deliver, and that what you deliver is creative.”

When appointed director of television in 2000, Mark Thompson, the new director-general of the BBC, remarked: “Finally, and this may sound corny, public service broadcasters like the BBC will go on believing that TV can make the world a better place.”

Thanks to Ring Around Carers, many people are grateful for such corn.

Lessons learned 

  • Helping staff with their commitments outside of work can help them perform better at work.  
  • Have a policy statement for workers who also act as carers – and carry it out. 
  • Be flexible. Even small changes in working hours can make a big difference. For example, starting and finishing work earlier has meant that BBC human resources adviser Mags McColgan in Glasgow has “had enough time to take care of my mother’s needs, spend some time with her, but still have a little time in the evenings for myself. Having no time for me was making life extremely stressful and if you’re so stressed you can’t do your job, everyone loses.”

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