And media regulator Ofcom has accused the BBC Trust chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, of misunderstanding its proposals on how to safeguard the future of public service journalism.
At a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch in London earlier on Wednesday, Lyons questioned the strength of the regional press, and said it was “not the same proposition it was 15 years ago”.
In comments first reported on Pressgazette.co.uk he added: “There’s nobody who can be satisfied with the quality of local news in most parts of the United Kingdom.”
The Trust is currently reviewing whether or not to allow the BBC to press ahead with a new network of local video news websites which are being fierecely resisted by the regional newspaper industry.
Bailey – whose Trinity Mirror is one of many regional news groups to have complained about the impact of the BBC’s plans – said: “It seems that the BBC Trust chairman’s mind is already made up on expanding BBC Local.
“Sir Michael Lyons going on the record with outrageous views such as these showed the entire public value test process to be sham.
“Far from being an impartial watchdog reviewing new local services he has shown his true colours with his astonishing attack on the regional press.
“His role isn’t to champion but to regulate the BBC. His views on regional press harking back to some kind of supposed golden age are inaccurate, outdated, and plain wrong.”
Bailey added: “Local media reaches more people on more platforms than ever before. Research shows consumers rate regional press as more trusted than any other media, including the BBC.
“Our objections are to new outcrops of the BBC. This proposal is a threat to the development and diversity of the local media sector online, and potentially to its print based cousins.
“It is anti-competitive, unnecessary, and will waste public money replicating existing, growing commercial offerings.”
John Meehan, regional editorial director of Northcliffe Media‘s north-east region, said: “Sir Michael’s comments are disturbing and reinforce Northcliffe’s serious concerns about the impartiality and credibility of the process for reviewing the BBC Local Video proposals.
“Sir Michael leads the body that will decide whether the plans go ahead. He should not be commenting on these issues during the process and effectively pre-judging it.
“His remarks indicate that he has a strong bias against regional media and holds views which have no basis in fact. They also show that the BBC aims to supplant, rather than complement, the journalism of local and regional publishers.
“It is ridiculous for Sir Michael to talk about regional newspaper companies wanting to cut the BBC ‘down in size’.
“Of course we don’t want to do that. We do, however, oppose strongly its continuing growth, particularly in local and regional news, and its damaging impact on commercial operators and markets.”
Ofcom says Lyons misunderstood
Ofcom has also taken issue with a comment made by Lyons at the lunch in which he questioned the legality of handing a stake in BBC Worldwide to Channel 4.
Lyons said the BBC’s money-making arm, which reinvests millions of pounds a year back into the broadcaster, “belongs to licence fee-payers – not Ofcom and not the Government”.
He added: “My understanding is [that] can only be changed by statute.”
In a statement, Ofcom said: “The speech made by Sir Michael Lyons at best displays a misunderstanding of what we have proposed in our review of public service broadcasting.
“The option to consider BBC Worldwide’s role in the future of PSB remains firmly on the table along with the possibility of using the switchover surplus. These are entirely credible options in addressing the funding gap for PSB.
“We absolutely stand by the presentation and transparency of research findings.
“It is important that all institutions including the BBC recognise that there are a wide set of issues surrounding the future of PSB, as well as their own particular corporate interests.”
The BBC Trust’s ruling on the BBC local video plans is expected on 27 November.
Ofcom is carrying out a market impact assessment on behalf of the Trust, and has received responses from a broad range of groups including the Newspaper Society and commercial radio trade body the Radiocentre.
Meanwhile, the regulator’s proposals on how to fund public service broadcasting in the digital age have been opened up to a new round of consultation, with a final statement expected in the new year.
Press Gazette editor’s comment: Sir Michael Lyons’ comments are dangerous and wrong