BBC misses opportunity to strengthen local media

Those of us who have followed the BBC proposal to launch a network of local news websites with video content saw this coming, but it is nonetheless disappointing to hear that the BBC Trust has rejected the plan following fierce opposition from commercial newspaper publishers.

The only substantial opposition has come from broadcasting regulator Ofcom, which in its Market Impact Assessment said that local video services provided by the BBC would hit the revenue of commercial providers by “up to 4%”, and deter local commercial media from further innovation in online local news services.

Newspaper bosses recently lobbied parliament, complaining that an “out-of-control BBC” would damage their business. This, they say, is already struggling in the difficult economic climate.

Many local newspapers are indeed struggling, and the principal reason is that they are largely devoid of journalistic input. Paid-for papers remain unsold, and freesheets are going straight into local council recycling bins. So often these local rags and websites resemble the parasitic blogs that trawl the web in search of posts on particular themes, rip off the content and repackage it swamped in tacky advertising. Where is the value in that?

There are still some excellent local newspapers. They are read from cover to cover, and their online efforts are improving. These papers and websites provide real local news and space for public debate, often facilitating community campaigns, and investigating wrongdoing by public officials and rogue businesses. With their loyal readership base such publications are under no threat from the BBC. On the contrary, an innovative video network could strengthen local media by providing creative competition that drives standards up.

The industry body for the commercial radio sector has welcomed the BBC Trust’s decision, and said that the plan “would have had a devastating effect on these small local businesses.” Wrong. Few local radio stations are run by small businesses, and where they are their success is based on high-quality niche product. Most local media outlets are controlled by a small number of large corporations rightly criticised by journalists’ representatives for raking in huge profits while cutting jobs and demanding the impossible of remaining staff.

It has its faults, but the BBC is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. By caving in to pressure from protectionist publishers who cannot stand competition, we all lose as a result.

NUJ statement
Roy Greenslade