The Newspaper Society has lodged a legal bid to make the BBC suspend its plans for a new network of local video news websites.
The regional press trade body’s lawyers Clifford Chance have written to the BBC Trust and Ofcom asking for the Trust’s ongoing public value inquiry into the local video news plan to be abandoned.
The NS claims that comments made by BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons at a lunch last month, and reported first by Press Gazette, show that the Trust inquiry into local video news is not independent or objective.
Lyons said at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch: ‘There’s nobody who can be satisfied with the quality of local news in most parts of the United Kingdomâ€¦ The local press has nothing like the strength that it once had. It’s not the same proposition that it was 15 years ago. Will the BBC make it better or worse? That’s exactly the issue to be explored.’
The NS said the comments show that ‘the Trust has already pre-judged the decision to approve the local video proposal before the conclusion of the PVT”.
NS director David Newell said: ‘The BBC Trust cannot be the chief cheerleader for the BBC, encouraging it to extend local services out of more and more taxpayers’ money, at the same time as being the independent regulator determining the public value of those services and their impact on local media.
According to the NS the BBC’s proposed £68 million plan for a network of 65 local video news websites would duplicate services already offered by the regional press.
The legal letter also says that the BBC has failed to provide vital market information and analysis to the NS and changed the public value test timetable without consultation.
It asks that the Trust suspends its inquiry until it has provided the requested market analysis relating to audiences, costs and funding which the NS says it needs to respond properly as part of the market impact assessment process.
Newell said: ‘There are critical issues at stake in this process, relating to media plurality, market interference, and a free press. Local publishers have always smaintained their independence from statutory content controls, state subsidy and public funding, in order to safeguard the freedom of local media journalism.
‘They have invested heavily in developing their digital operations to protect the future of local media businesses and offer the public online local news services, including local video stories, alongside their printed newspapers and other platforms. Although these services are still in their infancy, they are beginning to see growing online audiences and revenues and are seen as intrinsic to the local media business model.
‘The BBC’s publicly-funded intervention in the local media market with a major development such as BBC Local Video at this critical time against the backdrop of aggressive market conditions, would constitute highly damaging interference and market distortion, competing head to head with every facet of a local media company’s multimedia portfolio, whether mobile, website or broadcast.”