Lord Black of Brentwood, chairman of the News Media Association’s legal, policy and regulatory affairs committee, has called for “tighter controls” on the BBC’s online news services to prevent it from crowding out commercial rivals through an unsustainable competitive advantage.
Speaking in a House of Lords debate on the BBC yesterday (Thursday) Lord Black, executive director of Telegraph Media Group, called for the BBC to enter into a “genuine partnership role” with the commercial sector.
Lord Black said: “Our reverence for the BBC’s role as a content provider – about which we have heard a great deal, and which I share – must not be allowed to obscure the realities of its commercial impact on the rest of the media; in particular, the private sector news media publishers, which face an extremely tough time as they transit from print-based operations to global digital news suppliers.
“If we are to have a vibrant democracy in which government is held effectively to account, then we need plural provision of news, with a commercially successful private sector news market, providing a range of partial and campaigning journalism, operating alongside licensed and impartial TV news provision. How these two parts of the media ecosystem develop over the next 10 years and relate to each other is the crucial issue at the heart of the charter review, especially with regard to the BBC’s digital operations, on which I wish to concentrate.
“In this period of rapid transition, the impact of a continually expanding and licence fee-funded online news operation, using the BBC’s network of overseas journalists to underpin those commercial news operations and producing ever more local UK news and magazine-style content, will, if not tackled, be highly damaging for the development of commercial news brands—if not lethal for many.
“The sums of money the BBC invests in BBC Online are huge. The headline figure alone is £201 million, but that masks the huge advantage from the £l billion spent on the World Service and BBC Radio. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that that is how the BBC is crowding out its commercial rivals. It provides a competitive advantage which is unsustainable if we are to maintain a plural media market.
“Rather than seeking continually to expand online content at a time when resources are stretched, surely the time is now right to subject it to far tighter control in terms of its market impact, something particularly important in the local market.”
Speaking about Lord Hall’s proposals for a network of 100 journalists run by the BBC to cover local news and share content with local papers Lord Black said: “That, I fear, would simply be a further attempt by the BBC to colonise local news. If it is serious, the BBC should tap into the pool of local news that is already provided by thousands of fantastic journalists working in the local press, rather than replicating it.”
Giving evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on Wednesday Culture Secretary John Whittingdale had also voiced concerns about the proposals. He said: “I was alarmed slightly at the suggestion that the BBC might directly go out and employ local reporters because I don’t think that would meet the objective of supporting local newspapers, indeed it would increase the pressure on them.
“But the idea that local newspapers actually have existing local journalists in place who can supply content to the BBC and receive payment from it for that content would help support local newspapers and would address some of the complaints from the local newspaper industry, that they have been very vocal in making, that at the moment the BBC takes a lot of content from them and they get no return for it at all.”
Lord Black continued: “In general, the proposals on offer, although they go some way, are too timid and ignore the cultural and oversight change that will be essential to make partnership a reality. They certainly do not go far enough in terms of scrutiny and control of the BBC’s online services.
“In my view, the new royal charter must: contain specific proposals for the scope and purpose of the BBC online as it relates to news provision and content; introduce a much more effective process for triggering market impact assessments of pre-existing and future initiatives; establish a binding commitment to source and pay for news content from existing news providers; and set up a system of accountability that ensures that its promises are adhered to. Regrettably, in the past, we have seen far too many promises that were not fulfilled.
“This Charter Review is the last opportunity to achieve durable reform that protects a plural media market. Either the BBC can play a genuine partnership role, focus its resources on what it does best and help nurture the transition now going on within the commercially funded news market, or it can continue to colonise the online space in a way that erodes the wider news market and undermines the plurality on which democracy depends, leading to a news landscape dominated by social media and global news providers.”
Responding on behalf of the Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, BIS and the DCMS Baroness Neville-Rolfe said: “The BBC executive has made proposals for local news coverage that include: investment in a local news service that will report on councils, courts and public services, and making regional video and local audio content available for immediate use on the internet services of local and regional news organisations.
“These are interesting and timely suggestions but we will want to make sure that they genuinely benefit UK plc and the wider sector. I take the point made by my noble friend Lord Black about whether we should be controlling the BBC’s online offer in some way to ensure that the creative industries continue to flourish. We are awaiting further detail on these proposals and will be listening to industry and the public through the review process.”