Belfast Telegraph

BBC parks its Death Star over courts and councils

By Paul Connolly

So what to think of the BBC's latest offer to 'co-operate' with local and regional newspapers on news gathering? Not much, at first blush.

Among other things, director general Tony Hall is promising new versions of BBC education, news and entertainment services in Scotland, Wales and NI, and a review of the BBC's website. Oh, and an army of "impartial" BBC hacks to report from courts and councils.

The prospect of co-operation with local media isn't entirely new. There is already a national initiative on this and the brass at Ormeau Avenue, Belfast, has taken note of some representations from your columnist on it. But this could be undermined locally if the ambitions are "imperial", as George Osborne famously put it.

Firstly it's important to nail the view that this is all about the Right-wing press and its Conservative allies cutting the BBC down to size. Truth is all the national media, including the BBC, have been up to their necks in politics for years, including the Left's vicious war on Murdoch and the Mail and the Right-wing pursuit of the Guardian/Labour axis.

The BBC's sheer size can distort both markets and policy and it is critical this should be challenged from Left and Right (remember how it closed down a critically-needed debate about immigration). It is, however, rather liberal in nature, so flak tends to come from the Right.

Hall's local media proposals so far are, in my opinion, pretty awful. Say he follows through with a pool of 100 court/council reporters; on the face of it quite a large and expensive operation in a time of drastic cuts.

There are 433 principal councils in the UK plus 491 county courts and 91 Crown Courts. Elementary maths tells us Mr Hall's pool will be but a drop in the ocean. Not thought through.

Who would the journalists report to, even if content was shared? A BBC boss, of course, farming out bland, identikit articles. No plurality there, just BBC expansion into an area served by the commercial Press - with the unintended consequence that local newspapers might shed jobs.

The BBC distorts the media landscape in Britain to an extent rarely seen in advanced countries. Locally, for example other organisations bridle at unnecessarily severe restrictions on NI sporting events. A prime historical example was the £68m local video news initiative scrapped at the last minute by the BBC Trust in 2008.

BBC management had imperially assumed it would get the green light - even to the extent local insiders say, of setting up two well-funded Northern Ireland news websites, for east and west of the Bann (and so destroying any online future for the local weekly Press).

The exiting pilot project in the north-east of England sees BBC journalists share video/audio with local papers, and link directly to local newspaper stories. By all accounts, although it is a centrally-ordered initiative some feared was a political fig leaf, it is going tolerably well. It's the kind of development that could be effective locally, but only if BBC NI embraces it in both letter and spirit.

The Beeb should get on with on brilliant TV and radio and stop coveting every online platform, especially local. Instead, the imperial invader Lord Hall now wants to park his taxpayer-funded Death Star over courts, councils and local news.

The truth is if he wants to assist plurality in news and enhance the civic life of the nation, the BBC should do less local news online, not more.

Belfast Telegraph


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