BBC accused of ‘setting a torch to the delicate ecosystem of local news’

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The BBC has been accused of ‘setting a torch to the delicate ecosystem of local news’ with their aggressive expansion into areas already well served by local independent commercial publishers.

Dame Caroline Dinenage used her role as chair of the Culture, Media and Sports committee to question BBC Director-General Tim Davie about the plan which has seen the corporation branded a ‘neighbour from hell’ by senior editors across the industry.

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The BBC is strengthening its local online news provision in communities across England, with the creation of additional jobs, in direct competition to established media companies. At the same time it has scaled back on local radio content. And only this week reports surfaced that the BBC now plans to introduce adverts into its audio output on third party platforms - adding licence fee-backed competition into the commercial market.

Independent publishers say the BBC's 'Across the UK' strategy seeks to cherry-pick local stories which drive the biggest audiences and publish them on their own advertisement-free and subscription-free sites which will, because of the consequent high user experience funded by the licence fee, give the BBC a wholly disproportionate ability to unfairly dominate the market. In doing so, the BBC is adding no additional value to these communities - local publishers already provide at scale quality, local video and audio as well as text. So the licence fee is being wasted on duplicating what the market is already providing.

In questioning Mr Davie at a Commons hearing on Wednesday, Dame Caroline, Conservative MP for Gosport, said: ‘It feels to me like you’ve taken a torch to what is a very delicate ecosystem of local news and current affairs. You’ve taken away a very valuable local radio coverage from some of our most vulnerable constituents, people who treasure it, people for whom it’s a lifeline, a friend.

‘Yet at the same time you very proudly talk about your expansion into local online news. By rolling out your 34 websites and 130 jobs to deliver more regional news, you are delivering it in areas that are already covered by a lot of local commercial and independent publishers like, in my area, The Portsmouth News which have a website.

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‘So at a stroke you’re effectively blowing up the local radio services that some people absolutely treasure, you’re undermining the financial viability of some of our local publishers and now, in the press yesterday, it talks about the BBC proposing to carry advertising on some of its radio services - so effectively now you are coming out in competition with some of the local radio provision.

‘Tim, talk to me about this because it just seems to me like what you’ve done is started picking away at a very delicate ecosystem and your role as a public service broadcaster is at one stroke seemingly trying to undermine every other aspect of local news and current affairs which we all value so dearly.’

Despite ‘marginally’ pushing back on Dame Caroline’s comments on blowing up local radio, Mr Davey agreed the points raised by her were ‘all very fair considerations.’ He also admitted the BBC did not underestimate that any changes they were making were ‘very sensitive’.

He added: ‘The idea we are blowing up the ecosystem… is just not true. The vast majority of our money in our local offices goes to and will remain in linear services (and) broadcast television.’

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But he added:  ‘It’s incredibly sensitive and if people (are) understandably concerned ‘well, this is just the thin end of the wedge’ I understand that.’

At the end of last year senior local editorial directors joined forces in an unprecedented call for the BBC to abandon its expansion, warning that the BBC is as an “equally potent threat” to the sustainability of local journalism as the major tech platforms like Google and Meta.

A statement - signed by Ian Carter, Iliffe Media editorial director; Toby Granville, Newsquest editorial development director; Gary Shipton, National World editorial director; Jeremy Spooner, News Media Association Independent Publishers Forum chair; Paul Rowland, Reach Regionals editorial director; and Martin Wright, Midland News Association editor in chief - condemned the corporation. With its funding guaranteed by the licence fee, they argued the British public was effectively underwriting the biggest threat local journalism has ever faced.

“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,’ they said.

“If the BBC was a family and lived in the house next door to you it would be the neighbour from hell.’

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