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BBC online news expansion ‘threatens future of local papers’

·3-min read
The logo of the BBC
The logo of the BBC

The BBC has been urged to scrap plans to expand its online news empire amid fears it will put regional news publishers out of business.

The News Media Association pointed to a recent beta launch of the BBC’s News App and preparations for a big investment in local reporting as examples that posed a direct threat to the strength and plurality of commercial news.

In a letter to the BBC board, the NMA called for it to abandon plans outlined in its “The BBC Across the UK” strategy and asked for limits to be imposed on its online news coverage.

NMA chief executive Owen Meredith said: “The BBC is directly threatening the sustainability of independent local journalism with plans to be ever more local – as first set out in ‘Across the UK’ and since developed.

“The recent beta launch of the BBC’s News App demonstrates this unprecedented move into local news and represents a direct threat to the strength and plurality of news in the UK. In ‘Across the UK’, the BBC suggest the pandemic has ‘accelerated the decline in local media business models’.

“While the economic pressures on local media are well documented, this conclusion is plain wrong – as evidenced by the sector’s rapidly-growing audiences and investment in recruitment of journalists. The BBC’s uninformed prediction of the demise of commercially viable local news media in fact risks precipitating decline.”

The BBC is seeking to increase its investment outside London under political pressure to join in the Government’s “levelling up” agenda and amid fears among executives that licence fee payers in the regions do not believe it represents them properly.

Attempts have been made to ease tensions with regional publishers through the BBC’s local democracy reporting scheme, where it pays for more than 150 journalists to work in the newsrooms of regional newspapers.

The NMA added: “In the BBC’s centenary year, as it searches for relevance in a digital world, it is unthinkable that it should seek – intentionally or otherwise – to undermine the viability of commercial news providers and the many diverse community voices these publishers represent, leaving the BBC a monolithic provider of news in the UK.”

A YouGov poll commissioned by the lobbying group found 76pc of MPs believed it was important that commercial news publishers were not marginalised by the broadcaster.

The NMA’s members span the biggest national and regional news publishers from Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, Telegraph Media Group and the Guardian to Reach, National World and Newsquest.

A BBC spokesman said: “The BBC’s commitment to impartial local journalism across radio and online is long-standing. There is no evidence the BBC 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.

“We spend up to £8m a year supporting the local commercial news sector through our Local Democracy Reporting service. We offer this support because we believe audiences value having a real choice of local news provision.”

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