Media Secretary Andy Burnham has ducked a challenge to intervene in the row between regional newspapers and the BBC over the corporation’s controversial plans to develop its own local video news services.
The minister has told MPs that whether or not the plans go ahead rests with the BBC Trust, which represents the BBC licence fee payer.
The BBC plans have sparked alarm among regional newspapers who fear they could jeopardise their own on-line operations at a time when they face falling circulations and a slump in advertising due to the economic downturn.
Regional newspapers also complain that the proposals represent unfair competition since they are funded by the licence fee payer.
Earlier this week, the Radiocentre, which represents the commerical radio industry, also raised objections to the BBC plan.
When Burnham appeared before the Commons all-party media committee, Labour MP and former media minister Janet Anderson said the proposals had also raised concerns from ITV.
She said the BBC’s plans would cost £68m to set up and £23m a year to run and asked whether it made sense for the BBC to provide competing services to those already provided by ITV.
Burnham told her: “The BBC has put forward a very interesting idea. But the question you pose is rightly one for the Trust to examine.”
He said the Trust would examine whether they represented public value and examine their impact on the creative and wider economy.
When questioned about the BBC’s plans in the Commons recently the minister disclosed that he had had not even discussed the the BBC’s proposals with the Trust.
“This is a matter for the BBC Trust and there is no provision for Government to intervene,” he told Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich, who raised the matter with him The BBC Trust said it had started a ‘public value test of the proposals”.
MPs in all parties have meanwhile called for ministers to hold crisis talks with the newspaper industry to head off newspaper closures.
The demand has been sparked by concern that the worsening financial situation has already led to a reduction in newspaper coverage.
The call for government intervention is being spearheaded by Colchester Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell but has the support of MPs in other parties and from other parts of the country.
They have tabled a Commons motion calling on the Government ‘to engage with the local newspaper industry to ascertain what steps can be taken to ensure the survival and prosperity of local newspapers in the best interests of the local communities which they serve”.
The MPs said they are ‘deeply alarmed that the worsening financial situation confronting the local newspaper industry has led to a reduction in the amount of news coverage and that in some cases the possible loss of titles is a real threat”.
The MPs said they greatly valued local newspapers and those publish daily and p[raised their vital role in the democratic process in reporting matters of local interest and concern.
Other MPs who have so far signed the motion are Andrew George, David Simpson, Dr Rudi Vis, Mark Durkan, Jeremy Corbyn, Kelvin Hopkins, Mike Hancock, David Taylor, Alan Meale, Lindsay Hoyle, Paul Holmes, Gregory Campbell and Lee Scott.