In a rare joint public statement, senior editors at the UK’s five biggest commercial regional news publishers have banded together to call for the BBC to stop “suffocating” their businesses.
They want the BBC to ditch its rollout of 34 local news websites and do more to link to other publishers. Here they explain why.
This piece is co-signed by:
- Ian Carter, Iliffe Media editorial director
- Toby Granville, Newsquest editorial development director
- Paul Rowland, Reach Regionals editorial director
- Gary Shipton, National World editorial director
- Jeremy Spooner, News Media Association Independent Publishers Forum chair
- Martin Wright, Midland News Association editor in chief
If the BBC was a family and lived in the house next door to you it would be the neighbour from hell.
That’s the verdict of some of the most experienced local newspaper editors in the country who now regard the BBC as little more than a state-funded juggernaut on course to suffocate independent journalism in every city, town and village in the UK.
The BBC seems to be on a mission to be the only show in town – having taken an axe to its much-loved local radio stations so it can start writing news stories online which you can already get from local newspapers which are currently battling with tech platforms like Google, Meta and Apple.
Unlike Google, Meta and co, the BBC’s funding is guaranteed by the licence fee, meaning the British public is underwriting the biggest threat local journalism has ever faced. It is splashing your cash on local news websites and making it increasingly difficult for proud, independent news sites to survive in the long term.
How is it doing this? Back in October 2022, the BBC laid out plans to strengthen local online news provision in communities across England. The scheme includes the creation of 130 additional posts. More journalism would normally be welcomed, but the BBC’s plans put at risk thousands of existing jobs on titles known to their communities for generations.
The BBC says the plans will deliver “a stronger and more distinctive local online news service for 43 different local areas in England – all available on the BBC News website and app”.
What it fails to adequately resolve is the impact this will undoubtedly have on the diverse but fragile independent news sector in each community.
It is our reporters who hold local decision-makers to account, campaign on your behalf, research and share essential information, hold up the mirror to local successes, and have no other interest than in telling the truth. We’re also the turn-to source for the BBC when it wants to know what’s going on.
Most local reporters share their stories and videos with readers through the opaque algorithms of the giant global tech companies like Facebook and Google. As the BBC carries no advertising and is entirely free to read, its stories tend to be prioritised by the big search engines over our journalism. At the same time, the BBC uses its vast monopolistic strength to promote its content. So, it has a huge anti-competitive advantage.
Editors are convinced that as they juggle the realities of the cost-of-living crisis, the BBC – immune from the same commercial pressures – is fixated on stealing their readers, their businesses, and the jobs of their journalists. It either knows what is doing, and doesn’t care, or is ignorant to the impact it will have.
What a shameful legacy that would be for Tim Davie, the 17th director-general of the BBC.
If the BBC wants to fairly compete and support a diverse and trusted local news reporting ecosystem, as it claims to do, it must act now. It should focus its efforts on providing a snapshot of life in its 12 English regions, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and abandon its roll out of 34 local websites, which directly compete with publishers who have cared about local news online during the last decade when the Beeb repeatedly showed it didn’t.
It could do so much more to link to local publishers, helping them to thrive, rather than trying to close them down. Even such a simple act, repeatedly asked for over the years, seems beyond the BBC.
[Read more from 2019: BBC could do more to link to other online news providers, Ofcom finds]
The Government is taking welcome steps to tackle the market abuses by Meta and Google through the Digital Markets Bill, which will create a level playing field between publishers and tech platforms. Yet the BBC will remain as an equally potent threat, all but unchecked by Ofcom.
Earlier this year we called on the BBC to be a better neighbour.
It is time the BBC showed that it is not the biggest threat to local community independent journalism, but a global broadcaster focussed on delivering the very best television and radio in line with its charter.
The BBC said after announcing plans to expand its digital local news coverage last year that there is “no evidence” that it “crowds out other providers and no reason to think we will in the future”.
“Industry analysis and international comparisons show it is the decline of advertising revenues that’s the biggest challenge to local commercial journalism – not the BBC.” It also cited its financial support for the local democracy reporter scheme, which places journalists within commercial newsrooms.
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