Ultra-local BBC news puts regional press 'at risk'

By Dominic Ponsford

The BBC has been accused of threatening the future of the regional
press and the 13,000 journalists it employs with its plans for
ultra-local TV.

This is the view of local newspapers trade body the Newspaper
Society (NS), which this week issued a stark warning to the Government
as it prepares the BBC Charter Review white paper.

In a statement
the NS said: “The crucial long-term role of the regional press in
serving local communities is at risk from the BBC’s planned expansion
into local and regional media. Far from remedying a case of market
failure, such an expansion will more likely precipitate one.”

The
BBC outlined its plans for ultralocal coverage in October 2004, saying
it would “make television news as local as our local radio offering
currently is, up to 60 areas across the UK being offered tailored news
and information throughout the day on demand”.

Last week the
corporation revealed plans to roll out ultra-local news in Scotland
first, with 36 video journalist covering six regions by 2007.

The
NS believes such BBC expansion could smother fledgling TV services
owned by the regional press, such as the Manchester Evening News’
Channel M. And it fears that further expansion of the BBC’s Where I
Live websites could stifle regional press sites.

In a 63-page
submission to the Government, the NS said: “At a stage when local
online or TV services are starting to become commercially viable, a
large-scale BBC roll-out could undermine the business case for
commercial innovation and distort investment decisions. The BBC risks
distorting the key growth trajectory for the regional newspaper
industry over the next five to 10 years.”

The NS also fears the
BBC will resort to repackaging stories from local papers and act as a
block to commercial expansion. While the regional press employs 13,020
journalists, according to the NS, BBC English Regions has a total staff
of 3,056.

The NS produced a case study of 40 stories covered by
both BBC Radio Leeds and the Yorkshire Evening Post to show how much
the BBC already piggybacks local papers to find news. The 28 stories
that were broken by the BBC came from check calls to the emergency
services, press releases, news agencies, court copy and sport reports.
The 12 stories broken by the Post, then followed up by the BBC, were
off-diary exclusives generated by the paper’s journalists.

Safeguarding the future of the regional press

SUBMISSION TO THE GOVERNMENT

The Newspaper Society’s recommendations to the Government on the BBC Charter Review include:

• Reject the BBC’s proposed large-scale roll-out of ultra-local TV/broadband internet to 50 to 60 cities

• Deny additional licence-fee funding for ultra-local TV and the BBC’s Where I Live sites

• Ensure greater transparency in the BBC’s investments in local
services through the publication of detailed accounts for these services

• Consider public funding to research/pilot programmes of local commercial media services on digital platforms

• Ensure that local media groups are involved in publicly-funded pilot programmes

• Ensure future decisions on extending local BBC services are
contingent on market impact tests, Ofcom’s review of local TV and
public consultation

• Confirm that public value/market impact tests be undertaken by Ofcom and not the BBC Trust

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