BBC Trust chairman: Regional press lacks strength

The BBC Trust chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, has described the regional press as having ‘nothing like the strength’ it enjoyed 15 years ago.

His comments came as the Trust carries out its investigation into plans by the BBC to provide local video on 65 websites – a proposal that has faced criticism from the regional newspaper industry.

Lyons said the “rising noise and anxiety” from the BBC’s commercial rivals about the corporation’s video plans was understandable given the economic pressures they faced, but warned that calls to “bring the BBC down to size” risked causing “fundamental damage”.

“There’s nobody who can be satisfied with the quality of local news in most parts of the United Kingdom,” Lyons told a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch in London this afternoon.

“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.”

A ruling by the BBC Trust on the corporation’s local video plans is expected on 27 November. A broad range of rival news groups have complained to Ofcom – which is carrying out a market impact assessment – including the Newspaper Society and commercial radio trade body Radiocentre.

“Regional newspapers are under very severe pressures. The PSBs [public service broadcasters] are under intense pressure,” Lyons said.

“When they’re under pressure they understandably become focused on all their competitors but particularly a big strong healthy competitor like the BBC.

“In difficult times a tall poppy like the BBC looks taller still because all the others flowers in the meadow are suffering.

“Those who encourage you to take that poppy down in size need to reflect: which inch do you cut off before you do fundamental damage to it?”

Lyons dismissed the idea of “top-slicing” the licence fee to fund other public service news providers such as ITV and Channel 4, and urged commercial rivals to stop looking to Ofcom for answers and come up with their own proposals on how to save the future of journalism.

“To naively make the assumption that if you took the money away from [the BBC] you would get better value elsewhere is something you should look at really carefully,” he said.

“The BBC needs to get its relationship with the rest of the industry right and look for new ways to collaborate.”

Speaking on ITV’s plans to scale back its regional news output, he said public service broadcasting could not be left to the BBC and Channel 4 alone.

He added: “Hasty moves to dismantle structures which have taken decades to mature in return for a quick financial gain might look tempting at first glance, but they have a habit of coming back with a bite.”

But Lyons also revealed that the BBC had not ruled out stepping in to provide regional news to ITV if the broadcaster decided to abandon its public service requirements.

“It’s one of the options that can be considered,” Lyons said. “Does it actually solve the issue? Frankly the same news with a different label patently doesn’t.

“Is there risk that we run the danger of denting the BBC’s independence? That’s something the Trust will seek to defend at all costs.”

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