Belfast Telegraph

BBC's sheer size is a danger to local media brands

By Paul Connolly

Is the BBC crushing local media? This question is being asked increasingly these days, and not, as you might expect, mainly by local newspaper 'barons' concerned about shrinking revenues.

Rather, it's being raised by figures as important and diverse as Home Secretary Theresa May and broadcaster David Dimbleby. Of these, David Dimbleby is the more important, in my opinion.

It would be easy to dismiss Theresa May's interjection in the debate as a shot across the bows ahead of the next licence fee negotiating round. Easy, but intellectually lazy.

If anyone should be expected to champion free enterprise against state-funded behemoths, you'd expect it to be the Tories.

All UK parties pay lip service to the idea of the 'plurality' of news. But what's the chance of something more than lip service?

'News plurality' is a fancy phrase beloved by academics and others, which simply means the need to ensure that there are multiple sources of news (and, therefore, multiple viewpoints).

Plurality of news is a globally-recognised principle that no single viewpoint is ever always right and that differing shades of opinion and multiple sources of news provision are required for a healthy democracy.

Last month, Theresa May told the Society of Editors conference: "Local newspapers are having a particularly hard time. That has partly been the result of the BBC's dominant position on the internet, and its ability to subsidise the provision of internet news using the licence fee."

She added that the current set-up is "destroying local newspapers and it could eventually happen to national newspapers as well. This is as dangerous for local politics as it is for local journalism.

"This is a debate that won't go away and I believe that the BBC has to think carefully about its presence locally and the impact that has on local democracy."

Mr Dimbleby's input in to the debate is even more apposite, given his intimate knowledge as a broadcaster and former local newspaper proprietor (the family's local London newspaper business sold for £12m in 2001).

Asked on BBC 5 Live about Mrs May's comments, he suggested the BBC "pull back a bit" from online services "to allow space for local papers and, indeed, the national Press, which at the moment are being steamrollered by what we do with public money that comes in from the licence fee, for which you go to prison if you fail to pay up."

My own view, for what it's worth, is that the BBC is the world's best public service broadcaster and no-one in their right mind would want to see it vanish. It's also clear the Beeb is not to blame for the fundamental ills of the newspaper and local TV sectors.

However, the BBC's sheer size and output distorts the local market in many areas. This is very true in local online news provision, where newspapers and independent broadcasters, like UTV, struggle to compete against state-funded BBC news services.

There is a danger that many local media brands – particularly the small ones – will disappear in coming years if they can't make money from the internet. This means courts and councils across the land will go unreported – a disaster for local democratic accountability.

In Northern Ireland, I also believe that, for too many years, the power of Radio Ulster (in itself an excellent broadcaster) inhibited the blossoming of the independent radio sector. This position has improved over the years, but it was a long time coming.

If we are to preserve the plurality of news and the wonderful variety of opinion that goes along with that, then, yes, Mrs May and David Dimbleby are right: the BBC does need to reconsider the weight of its presence in some sectors.

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