Ashley Highfield: BBC has agreed in principle to fund local newspaper council reporting

Johnston Press boss Ashley Highfield says regional media groups and the BBC have agreed in principle a new partnership – but talks are at a "crunch point".

Highfield, chief executive officer of the group, outlined four areas of focus with the BBC, but told the Westminster Media Forum: "We still need to work through the numbers and we're under no illusions how difficult that might be."

The News Media Association (NMA), which is chaired by Mr Highfield and represents the national, regional and local press and magazine industry, and the BBC have been in talks for more than a year to find ways they could work more closely to strengthen local journalism as part of the corporation's charter renewal.

Most discussion has focused on how the BBC could fund more journalists, potentially employed by local media groups, and take content from them.

Highfield would not be drawn on further detail beyond describing it as a "provision by the regional press to the BBC of a comprehensive reporting service primarily covering local authorities".

Having journalists employed locally by professional organisations and providing content to the BBC would be a win for both parties – the local media would benefit from "a proper commercial framework for use of this content by the BBC", he said.

Highfield said the other three areas being discussed with the BBC were:

  • a video bank that would make BBC regional content available to local media partners free of charge
  • a shared data journalism unit
  • an agreement on better linking to local media content on BBC news sites and attribution to content originated in the local media.

An audit is also proposed to find the level of content which BBC sites use but which comes from other local sources.

Highfield said the BBC, the NMA and Culture Secretary John Whittingdale were inching towards a deal, but were at a "crunch point".

"We are trying to reach an agreement on how it is going to work – how much, and when and where," he said.

Highfield said in an increasingly devolved UK the need for local media to hold authorities to account had never been greater.

"All we ask for is a fair eco-system," he added.

David Holdsworth, the Controller of English Regions at the BBC, told the forum: "The idea we might use some of the licence fee to fund reporters to report on local democracy for all comers is one I think we broadly agree on."

The discussion was now on how far you might go, he said.

The BBC had previously suggested a possible 100 reporters and Holdsworth said value for licence fee-payers was important, adding: "The bigger the number grows the more risk that we would have to take some of our other services away to fund it."

The BBC would not employ the reporters in such a project, but that "some form of mechanism" would be needed to oversee it.

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