Graf: make news web priority

Graf: BBC needs two more governors in specific areas of new media and competition law

The BBC has been told to focus on news, current affairs, education and the “public service benefits” of its online operations, and to rein back commercial websites that are not “sufficiently distinctive” from the activities of for-profit companies.

In his report issued this week, former Trinity Mirror chief executive Philip Graf – commissioned by the Government to review the broadcaster’s web activities – said the BBC “should prioritise news, current affairs, education and information which is of value to the citizen”.

Graf said the broadcaster should take a “deliberate precautionary approach” to online investment.

“If there is a ‘close call’ between the public service benefits of a proposed BBC Online service and the costs of that service, the proposal should not be taken forward,” the report said.

He also recommended that the BBC appoint two more governors to oversee its online strategy – one specialising in new media and the other in competition law – and that at least 25 per cent of BBC Online content, excluding news, should be supplied by independent suppliers by the end of 2006.

Culture Media Secretary Tessa Jowell has given the BBC until October to redefine its online services remit.

The BBC responded by announcing it will close five websites: the What’s On events listings site; Fantasy Football; the Games portal; the Surfing portal and the Pure Soap site.

However, its Where I Live websites, the area of activity most objected to by local newspaper proprietors, have been left more or less intact.

The newspapers have periodically voiced their objections to what they see as the BBC’s expansion into their domain.

However, the BBC said the sites “will begin an immediate dialogue” in a bid for closer collaboration, which could include using BBC audiovisual output and linking direct to local newspaper sites.

Broadcast rival ITN expressed its satisfaction with the Graf review.

“After several years of calling for a clear and measurable remit for BBC Online, we will at long last have one, allowing the commercial sector to have more certainty about where the BBC is able to operate,” said ITN chief executive Mark Wood.

“Work now begins on ensuring that the governors draw up a detailed remit that is measurable and will hold the BBC fully to account in future,” he added.

He said ITN particularly supported a requirement for market testing new online services “and the review’s focus on future market developments in the provision of content on new and emerging platforms”.

ITN has voiced concern in the past, particularly in relation to the BBC’s drive to produce news content for mobile phones – an area in which the independent broadcaster has invested heavily – suggesting the BBC’s involvement skewed the marketplace.

“ITN is very pleased that the review team have picked up on one of the most critical issues that we raised with Philip Graf – the provision of content on new delivery platforms, such as tailor-made video news on mobile phones,” Wood said.

“We have long argued that the BBC should not be free to enter every single market, especially where commercial players are operating.”

However, BBC director of new media and technology Ashley Highfield, said of the report: “Importantly, [Mr Graf] also says it cannot be proven that our online services have had a negative impact on the market and that it’s unlikely that bbc.co.uk has eliminated effective competition across any large areas of online content.”

PHILIP GRAF’S REPORT RECOMMENDATIONS

BBC Online should prioritise news, current affairs, education and information that is of value to the citizen. Within these areas, it should prioritise innovative, rich, interactive content.

The remit and the strategic objectives that guide BBC Online should be clearly defined around public purposes and communicated to the public and wider market.

A deliberate “precautionary approach” to BBC Online investment should be introduced. If there is a “close call” between the public service benefits of a proposed BBC Online service and the costs of that service, the proposal should not be taken forward.

The current regulation of the BBC’s online services should be reinforced by the appointment of two governors – one with specific new media expertise and one with specific competition law expertise.

The governors should have access to independent analytical advice on issues such as market impact.

At least 25 per cent of online content (excluding news) should be supplied by external and/or independent suppliers by the time the current Royal Charter expires at the end of 2006.

By Wale Azeez

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