Johnston Press chief executive Tim Bowdler has condemned moves by the BBC and local government to launch media products that compete with local newspapers, and argued that consolidation in local media is vital to maintaining the long-term health of the local newspaper industry.
The BBC’s local ‘Where I Live’websites are already damaging regional newspapers’ online development, Bowdler told the Westminster Media Forum in London on Tuesday.
The BBC, said Bowdler, ‘has the unique luxury of the licence fee which, unlike advertising revenues, is guaranteed to increase each year.
‘In a crowded marketplace, audience reach is critical in attracting advertising revenues and the handsomely-funded BBC has the potential to distort real markets and to deter the very investment which would otherwise increase diversity and plurality of voice.”
The BBC should not be allowed to enter local television or magazine markets where commercial media organisations were already serving community needs, Bowdler said.
‘There is no clear evidence to suggest that there is an unfulfilled public need requiring the BBC to launch ultra-local TV services,’he added.
Bowdler was more conciliatory towards commercial local television, describing ITV’s ambitions merely as ‘a new challenge”.
BBC controller of English regions, Andy Griffee retorted following Bowdler’s speech, saying: ‘You need to take a step back and take a deep breath.”
‘We’re local – you’re ultra-local,’said Griffee, noting that the BBC would be operating just 60 regional-level services, while the newspaper industry has 1,300 local titles and 400 websites to cover small communities.
Griffee told the forum that he hopes to present the local television pilot to the BBC Trust if it survives this summer’s assessment of whether it will survive cuts due to the corporation’s licence fee settlement.
The BBC has been running an on-air pilot in the West Midlands. Several other regional newspaper and commercial radio executives in the audience said the pilot’s £3m price tag over nine months was evidence of the corporation distorting the market.
‘That’s just a ridiculous amount for an online-only broadcasting business,’said Tindle Radio chief executive Kevin Stewart.