BBC online 'threatens future of local papers'

BBC Cumbria: free comprehensive listings online

The Newspaper Society has accused the BBC of using public funding to create a network of “electronic newspapers” which threatens to overpower the local press.

The trade body for regional newspaper companies has issued a highly critical submission to the governmentsponsored Graf Review of BBCi. Its report states: “The development of the BBC’s online activities, especially those aimed at a local and regional audience, are now of serious and increasing concern to the regional press.”

According to the NS, the BBC’s development of a network of free local websites over the past five years, ungoverned by the constraints of competition legislation, could “seriously undermine local papers”.

The NS says this could lead to a reduction in “key social strengths such as investigative reporting, campaigning on issues of public interest and ensuring the accountability of local people, businesses and government services”.

One of the key NS recommendations is a significant reduction in the budget of BBC Online which it says has grown unchecked well beyond the original levels agreed when it was set up in 1998. The NS says the BBC spent more than £100m on internet services in 2003 – more than 10 times the figure quoted for Trinity Mirror.

There is particular concern about the BBC’s “Where I Live” sites which are said to duplicate information already provided by local papers, radio stations and councils.

The BBC argues its online activities have performed a public service by persuading more than two million people to use the internet who otherwise wouldn’t. According to the NS, this works out at £170 per user based on its calculation that the BBC has spent £340m on the internet since 1998.

Local newspapers are also concerned that free BBC websites inhibit them from charging for their online content and provide a free forum for potential advertisers.

For example, BBC Cumbria’s home page is said to provide comprehensive listings for cinemas, clubs, theatres and other events which would otherwise pay for advertising.

The Graf Review has already attracted submissions from ITN and the British Internet Publisher’s Alliance which have also been strongly critical of BBCi. The review is due to issue a report in the spring.

The BBC has declined to comment about submissions until the review has been concluded.

By Dominic Ponsford

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