By David Rose
Tessa Jowell is facing renewed pressure to apply the brakes on BBC plans to develop a network of local TV stations over fears they will damage regional newspapers already losing advertising to the internet.
The media secretary has been asked by a cross-party Parliamentary watchdog to respond to newspaper concerns next week when she publishes a White Paper renewing the BBC’s Charter for a further 10 years.
Plans to expand local BBC radio stations and new local news websites into local TV stations are being piloted in the West Midlands. A total of 60 local TV news centres, at a cost of £310 million, are planned.
When they gave evidence to the House of Lords BBC Charter select committee, director general Mark Thompson and chairman Michael Grade said they would not compete with newspapers for advertising and their plans would be subject to a "public value test".
"Increasingly we shall have people who are trained to work in all three media, so we can deliver this added service with relatively modest extra investment," said Thompson. "For the television component we are not talking about 24 hours. We are talking about quite small segments of news being delivered on broadband and on digital satellite to consumers."
But Trinity Mirror has complained that the BBC’s proposals would represent "unfair competition".
The Newspaper Society also told the committee the newspaper industry was very concerned because the BBC Trust, which will replace the Governors under the White Paper, will be able to override any market impact assessment by media regulator Ofcom. "The proposals would allow the BBC Trust to authorise new BBC services on public value grounds, despite the independent assessment that they will have adverse market impact."
Ofcom itself told the peers: "Any future extensions should be carefully assessed with respect to their public value and their impact on existing and future markets before they proceed beyond the current pilot in the West Midlands."
In a report to the Government ahead of next week’s White Paper, the committee, headed by Lord Fowler, welcomed the BBC’s promise to subject the proposals to a "public value test", but said the market impact assessment should be carried out by a third party and the BBC should publish its full accounts.
The committee told Jowell that before developing the proposals further the BBC should undertake further pilot initiatives involving grassroots participation.
The committee said: "The BBC may have a contribution to make to such grass-roots initiatives by facilitating and partnering rather than by controlling and directly applying new local services."
The committee added that it understood the concerns of the newspaper industry and believed that it was down to the BBC to show that, where there are significant negative impacts, the public interest was sufficient to justify proceeding with its plans.
A BBC spokesman said: "We’ve made it clear that what will become the BBC Trust will not do the market impact assessment alone, but will involve third parties as recommended by the Lords.
After the nine-month local TV pilot is complete, a six-month public value test will begin, including extensive public consultation."
What else the select committee discussed…
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The Lords select committee on the BBC Charter renewal also recommended that the World Service be awarded more financial support from the Government to realise its plans for a 24-hour Arabic TV channel.
It called for the BBC to conduct a full-scale review of its international services, including the loss-making BBC World.
The BBC’s plans to move several departments to Manchester also came in for criticism. The peers said: "We support this move. However, we are concerned that the BBC’s original costings were extremely high and were calculated in a rudimentary manner."