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29 January 2015

BBC Future of News Report a 'Huge Step Back'

News media publishers have reacted with dismay to a BBC report advocating massive expansion of the BBC’s global and local services which could be highly damaging to independent commercial news media providers.

Published yesterday (Wednesday), BBC director of news and current affairs James Harding’s Future of News report makes the case for global and local expansion, flying in the face of the views of senior politicians, such as the Chancellor and the Home Secretary, and the news media industry with one publisher describing it as "a huge step back."

The report claims that “one of the biggest market failures in the last decade is local journalism” and “vast swathes of modern life are increasingly unreported or under-reported”, ignoring the fact that the local press industry is reaching bigger audiences than ever before, 73 per cent of the UK population each week, across print and online platforms.

The report highlights many of the digital newsgathering techniques which national and local newspapers are already employing, using the mixture of new technology to reach rapidly expanding audiences. In a video interview in the report Jason Seiken, Telegraph Media Group editor in chief, is quoted saying that digital technology heralds a “golden era” for journalism.

National, regional and local newspapers are read by 42 million adults every month in print and online and are by far the biggest investors in news in the UK, accounting for 69 per cent of the total spend on news provision.

Rejecting claims of local market failure, Geraldine Allinson, KM Group chairman, said: “It appears to me that The Future of News Report by the BBC shines a light on one or two convenient statistics regarding our industry rather than taking account of the whole picture of local and regional news reporting in the UK.

"This is a very worrying state of affairs, particularly as we have been trying to have a constructive dialogue with the BBC to help create a better understanding between us of the world of local media. The report points to some closures of newspapers which frankly are down to the very stringent competition rules in this country rather than anything else. It also conveniently excludes any mention of the 1,700 local websites run by the local news industry - why is this?

“Local media audiences are growing; here at the KM Group we have the fastest growing digital network audience in the UK - where is the democratic deficit in that? Plus we have recently taken on more journalists rather than letting them go. Why does the BBC feel it needs to muscle in with its public funding into a space that it shouldn't occupy. We have dedicated a lot of time and money to meeting with the BBC to try and construct ways to work together and at the KM we feel this report is a huge step back from the progress we feel could be made.”

In a review of the BBC strategy in 2010, the BBC Trust stated that: “the BBC should not launch new services that are any more local than its current offerings, particularly now that it is committed to offer support to any future commercial providers of local television news”, although it went on to publish contradictory recommendations three years later.

Publishers had suggested constructive cooperation with the BBC by enabling it to buy local content - courts and sports, news and arts – from the local press that it could not generate itself but such offers have yet to be taken up the corporation. Publishers have also engaged in pilots to explore ways in which content could be shared for mutual benefit but the schemes are barely mentioned in the report.

Santha Rasaiah, NMA legal, policy and regulatory affairs director, said: “Local journalism is not failing. The local news media industry has bigger overall audiences than ever before across print and online platforms, reaching 73 per cent of the UK population each week. They are at the heart of their local communities, championing their readers, campaigning in their interests, changing the law. They perform a fundamental role in democracy, covering local courts, local councils and other public authorities, and holding the powerful to account.

“The industry has stressed repeatedly over many years that the licence fee funded BBC must not do anything that could damage the commercial independent news media industry and its ability to perform this vital role. The industry has looked to explore a more positive relationship with BBC, participating in pilot projects and suggesting constructive innovations, such as BBC purchase of local media content which the BBC at the highest level has said that it will consider but has yet to deliver.”

The report also advocates a scaling up in up of global news coverage in order for the BBC to “remain valued and respected, an ambassador of Britain’s values,” despite the fact that, according to one independent media analyst, UK commercial news media organisations are already global leaders and are using digital to take their services to an international audience, “creating a global influence that was unimaginable in the print world.”

Writing in the Newsworks’ new publication Influence launched yesterday, Douglas McCabe, Enders Analysis chief executive, said: “UK newspaper circulations may still be falling but the press remains a large-scale media sector, and with massive digital – increasingly mobile – audiences more than offsetting g the decline in the reach of print, the influence of our newsbrands grows rather than diminishes. Indeed one of the effects of digital is publishers have taken their UK services to an international audience, creating a global influence that was unimaginable in the print world.”

Andrew Miller, Guardian Media Group chief executive, said: "We should celebrate the BBC's outstanding international coverage and ensure that it is fully equipped to compete against the emerging state-funded international news giants. But we should also celebrate the strength and plurality of those commercial British news brands finding new audiences and revenues across the globe, and use the Charter Review process to consider how a reformed BBC can support that commercial success story.

"That demands the BBC being more transparent when it comes to the relationship between the licence fee funded and commercial arms of the BBC. It also means creating a far more open BBC that takes licence fee funded assets such as live feeds and the BBC archive and makes them available to the commercial sector on the same terms as the BBC's commercial news arm. This would provide the BBC with increased revenue streams to support international news coverage and create a more level playing field with the UK commercial sector."

The report will put the BBC at odds with senior politicians including the Home Secretary and Chancellor who have both publicly stated their deep concerns about the BBC encroaching on independent news media through expanding its services. Home Secretary Theresa May highlighted concerns in her speech to the Society of Editors in 2013 when she said: “I believe that the BBC has to think carefully about its presence locally and the impact that has on local democracy.”

Speaking at the Newspaper Conference annual lunch, George Osborne said: “There are over 1,100 local and regional titles but there are actually 1,700 websites now run by regional newspaper groups and I think you are showing the way in how to adapt to the really disruptive nature of this new technology and I very much agree with some of the work that you have done at the News Media Association in highlighting the challenge you face from publicly funded organisations, above all the BBC, and the threat that can pose to local and independent news gathering and I think there must be a way forward for the BBC to help support local and independent news gathering. I know that it’s something Adrian [Jeakings, NMA chairman] has also spoken powerfully about and I think it’s something the BBC should address.”