Local news outlets are pleading for government intervention in the BBC’s plans to digitally expand, saying it will decimate an already struggling industry.
Independent publishers such as News Media Association, Bristol Post, and The Northern Echo have said the nation’s license fee-funded broadcaster needs to ‘be a better neighbour’ and rethink its plans to grow as a digital local news provider.
Under the BBC’s ‘Across the UK’ proposals, the corporation will cut funding for its highly successful local radio stations and channel the cash into new online sites specifically for local news.
This places commercial publications, who rely heavily on audience and advertising revenues, under a lot of pressure to compete with the BBC.
News Media Association chief executive Owen Meredith has said he fears local journalism could be “irreparably harmed”.
The “guardrails have failed” said Meredith, explaining that “the web is the modern newsstand, and the BBC has essentially put a free, taxpayer-funded newspaper on offer next to commercial competitors.”
He called on the government to “get the BBC to change course”.
‘We cannot allow that to happen’
In the upcoming BBC Mid-Term Review ministers will focus on the relationship between the BBC and the broader UK media environment, particularly commercial radio and local news sectors.
Express and Star editor Martin Wright said the BBC, while valued by the local news sector, “could wreak untold damage” on it if its expansion plans go ahead, with some titles even potentially closing.
“We cannot allow that to happen,” he added in an editorial published yesterday.
Seven in ten Brits over the age of 15 read local news in print or online every month, with over 80 per cent saying they trust it, up seven per cent since 2018.
However, the industry is facing an uphill battle to increase ad revenues and find solutions to secure the sector’s future.
Ian Carter, editorial director of Iliffe Media, said “we are always up for fair competition” but the BBC plans are “the exact opposite”.
“Under the plans, online readers – and the commensurate advertising revenues which we use to pay
our local journalists – will be sucked away from local media websites to the BBC’s,” he explained.
“That pressure on our resources, at a time when we are grappling with a host of other challenges
could cause some local titles around the country to call it a day. That would be a disaster for the
communities affected,” Carter added.
Other popular local media publications like Kent Online, Nottingham Post, and Times and Star have also condemned the BBC in recent articles.
A BBC spokesperson told City A.M. that “the BBC has worked constructively with local media publishers for years and already funds 165 reporter posts across the UK that supply commercial publishers with stories focused on the work of local authorities.
“The BBC’s plans to strengthen its local online news coverage over the coming months will offer greater value to millions of licence-fee payers. Our regulator Ofcom has already scrutinised these plans and concluded that they do not expect them to significantly impact commercial media outlets.”
Commenting on the matter, an Ofcom spokesperson said they have “future-proofed” their regulation to “enable the BBC to transform and innovate, while safeguarding content that matters most to audiences”.
“We’ve been particularly disappointed by the BBC’s lack of detail and clarity around planned changes to its services, which has led to a lot of uncertainty for audiences and industry.
“Our strict new reporting rules will ensure the BBC is held to a higher level of public accountability, requiring it to clearly explain its plans before going ahead, as well as evaluating whether they work,” Ofcom said.
The government has also been approached for comment.