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Peter Preston: ‘BBC has some hard thinking to do’

Former Guardian editor Peter Preston has today waded into the debate about the BBC’s local presence, suggesting that the corporation is spreading its resources too thinly.

At the same time, he urged local press editors not to fear the corporation’s local websites, describing them “cursory add ons” rather than a genuine threat.

Peter’s comments come in a chapter of a new book entitled “Is the BBC in Crisis” edited by John  Mair, Richard Tait and Richard Lance Keeble which is being serialised on HTFP today.

Here is his piece in full.


Modern newspaper life seems to offer only a toxic blend of perplexity and paranoia. Print is on the way out. Digital, with its bewilderingly obscure permutation of revenue streams, is taking over – brushing aside the safe old world of conventional journalism. National papers have to find fresh ways of charging for the news they present. But how do you do that when the BBC, replete with licence fee cash, offers much the same online service at no added cost? Even newspapers that traditionally champion the heirs of Reith have difficulty here. See the Guardian’s CEO grow pensive. And if Fleet Street feels threatened, the chill winds of fear blow stronger still at local level.

In many ways, too, this resentment feels more bitter, more acrid, on the streets where we live. Local newspapers may not be dying in droves as yet, but staffing has been slashed year after year. The big companies that control so much of the market have stripped away production resource from newspaper offices down your way and sited them many miles distant in purpose-built sub-editing factories (rather like battery chicken sheds). HQ managers, whether in London or Edinburgh, appear more worried by share price slumps than the survival of individual papers. There’s a feeling of helplessness that corrodes hope. No wonder embattled editors thrash round looking for someone or something to blame. No wonder, too, that the BBC is public service Enemy Number One. And because local MPs are inevitably enmeshed in the passions of local world, resentment travels up the chain to Westminster just as speedily – and perhaps more authentically – as the lobbying once press barons come to call at Number Ten.

So when the Home Secretary of the day has to address an editors’ conference, she chooses a theme that guarantees instant applause. Theresa May champions the Maidenhead Advertiser and puts the boot into BBC Berkshire. It’s not fair to undercut the Advertiser’s website, she says. The BBC encroaches too much, a giant whale gulping plankton. Back off – or the government will start pushing back itself!

Thus Paranoia Gulch suddenly becomes a much bigger canyon running down Langham Place. The BBC is under pressure, too. The next royal charter – and vital licence fee settlement – has to be won. Fear cuts both ways. But how far is any of this reality? Are local radio stations and the websites they produce true threats, or just rather desperate excuses? The quick answer for anyone scanning such sites seems initially reassuring. BBC Berkshire, produced and designed to a national formula, is unthreatening in its scope and range. Just a three or four anodyne stories from around the county, a dollop of sport, perfunctory cross-references to better tales in the Advertiser and other Berks journals. It looks thin and under-resourced, which isn’t remotely surprising, because that’s exactly what it is. A few random clicks, however, doesn’t tell the whole of this story or reveal the basic dilemma of local journalism. That needs a little history added, and more than a little human context: which means starting with BBC local broadcasting itself, trying to discern why it’s there and what keeps it going, essentially unchanged, through an era of profound digital upheaval. You don’t find good answers by tackling newspaper neuroses in isolation.

Delving back to the BBC’s fifties and sixties

The significant thing, delving back to the BBC of the fifties and sixties, is how little anything local mattered – indeed, by today’s standards, how little news itself mattered. We tend to take the BBC we know now on its own self-evaluation: as the nation’s greatest newsroom, bringing us vital facts without the taint of prejudice. That’s the corporation’s touted reason for existence as a trusted counsellor. That, incessantly repeated, is what justifies the licence fee. But long ago, in a world without FM, news was a far sparser commodity. Then the pitch to governments (for funds) and the pitch by governments (for due deference) were predicated on wavelength scarcity. Remember the ‘Home Service’ and ‘Light Programme’. Look in vain for the full range of news worlds from One to PM to Tonight and Weekend. Think back to the beginnings of Today, with Jack Di Manio presiding over a cuddly collation of human interest tales. No Radio Five Live until 1994, no TV News Channel until 1997, not even Newsnight until 1980. And see, time and again, how reactive many of these expansions seemed.

It was Sky which set the 24-hour news ball rolling. It was the mushroom growth of commercial local radio – and Independent Radio News, launched in 1973 as a pioneer LBC began broadcasting to London – that made Five inevitable (if much delayed). As a matter of fact, too, it wasn’t news at all that sparked the foundation of so many BBC outposts around England, but the need to counter the arrival of pirate radio pop stations and their mainland commercial brothers – and thus to start Radios One and Two. With so much local musical activity – 250 or so stations coming and in many cases going – could the BBC sit on its hands and cede the local air space? Of course not. That was the driving force of the 39 English local radio stations we have today. Their rationale, specifically targeting audiences over-50, was music, chat and some local news for the grey panthers of their various catchment areas. It is signal, and very important, to note how marginally that has altered over the years. Indeed, given a few casualties and amalgamations through repeated spending cuts, the era that Radio Leicester began in 1967 has not changed in its fundamentals.

BBC local websites ‘barely more than cursory add-ons’

The succession of websites that so alarm newspaper editors are barely more than cursory add-ons. The budget for English local radio – just under £115 million on the latest reckoning – has to stretch across 39 stations and, on average, pay for the activities of 12 to 14 editorial people required to cover and present the news of traffic hold-ups, weather forecasts and actual stories over a 75-hour broadcasting week. It’s not surprising that the news on the sites, like the news on the air, can sometimes seem pretty vestigial. More, there’s an obvious lack of what we can properly call coherence. The news beyond that 75-hour mark will come straight from Radio Five. The chat, away from prime commuting time, is increasingly shared out between several station areas. Nothing of immediate relevance at all. The appeal of the truly local comes – and then goes. James Harding, from The Times, takes over as Head of News and boldly proclaimed that local resources will be more integrated, more vital, more revered. But that’s a million miles from present practice. What we see, increasingly, is a kind of third-tier national service of shared programming with regular local moments.

This isn’t surprising when you look wider. Commercial radio has, for the most part, been merged into a series of big chains – in the same way that local newspapers have become part of Trinity Mirror, Newsquest and the rest once the families that founded them grew old and sold out. The BBC, an engine of centralisation in any case, its Trust prescribing reporting balances from and approved approaches from Cairo to Corby, is not ideally fitted to be broadcasting’s voice in local world. The 39 stations may be used as 39 steps to charter renewal, as an argument that shows the Corporation’s proclaimed purpose in serving all its subscribers, but they are mostly bits of background scenery in any serious crisis, one reason for renewal amongst many. It is, of course, significant that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are left to go their own way, without any meaningful replication of England’s pattern. Put that down to profound national differences, if you like: but also, perhaps, to the way the ‘local’ fashion faded as it moved further away from London. And when it’s necessary to cut, there’s natural opportunity for ‘efficiency’ trimmings that affect only small, separate spots around the country rather than obliterate an entire national channel.

Note, especially in England, what fuzzy concepts the words ‘local’ and ‘regional’ anyway convey. Counties – say the ‘Radio Three Counties’ of Beds, Herts and Bucks that were reckoned to share a single local station – are nebulous entities. Broadcasting regions are no better: we may have Radio Derby, Radio Leicester and Radio Nottingham on air, but lump them together as the ‘East Midlands’ for regional television purposes and the result is that two-thirds of the news conveyed is almost completely irrelevant. The three cities live different lives. Radio Merseyside has the reality of a single, large community to it. Radio Manchester, ringed by substantial towns in the Bolton and Blackburn category, doesn’t. Radio London – local radio for a ‘locality’ with the population of Austria – is a misnomer wrapped in an enigma. By contrast, local newspapers, founded bottom up in existing communities, are more natural growths with deeper ties. Broadcasting, state superintended, carves up the map for bureaucratic convenience and feels bound to sketch in national deadlines to any main bulletin, because that’s what the audience expects. Newspaper journalism, by contrast, knows its time and its place in the survival of the locally fittest.

Tensions and suspicions

That’s one tension. Add in a rulebook – extrapolated from largely irrelevant US experience – that rations ownership overlaps between local papers and local commercial broadcasting (with the BBC playing irritant on the side) and you can sense further friction. Load on a seeming BBC wish to move into ‘hyperlocal TV’ as the millennium turned (an ambition swiftly abandoned in leaner times). Suspicion festers. Even on a personal, very local level, relationships don’t run smooth. Local print journalists are notoriously badly paid. Local BBC journalists have their place on a national scale. They are much better paid. When John Myers, the noted commercial radio guru, looked at local radio as part of a broader review, he questioned the need to have £100,0000-a-year station managers running each of the residual 39. Couldn’t they look after three or four stations each? Apparently not, the BBC decided – but didn’t pause to inquire how many local newspaper editors can aspire to six figure salaries for themselves. Talk the green eyes of envy if you like: but also think red rags to bulls.

The plain fact – though it varies in force and impact from city to city and county to county – is that BBC local radio isn’t seen as the friend of local journalism. It is, instead, a heavy boot kicking at the door. The websites the BBC run may not be very imposing; indeed, they may go out of their way to give surreptitious plugs to the paper newsrooms that, in fact, supply so much of the material that radio reprocesses. Nevertheless, they are viewed as an incursion and statement of ill intent. The BBC has a finger in this pie (as in all pies whilst the Birt theory of licence fee necessity lingers on). The sites themselves may not be packed or pulsating. Nevertheless, they exist – portending intervention when and if financial circumstances permit. As such, in inevitably small, local ways, they do nothing to alleviate a BBC sense of crisis. This is yet another battlefield on which print, broadcast and digital journalists are expected to make hostile forays. Worse, the politicians who hold this ring are instinctively on the side of print journalism, which has no obligation to imposed fairness and balance, as opposed to a BBC which can easily be seen to take sides and thus brings no great prospect of special assistance in train.

Look a few years down Paranoia Gulch as local editors and reporters do. Perhaps print copy numbers and print advertising clout will go on diminishing. Perhaps the Maidenhead Advertisers of this world will turn into local news blogs (of the kind already starting to make a big city living). Perhaps very local advertising and hyperlocal readership will offer local journalists a future of the autonomous, self-starting kind sketched out by David Montgomery, CEO of the new Local World chain. But, in every way and in every case, the BBC presence isn’t automatically seen as propitious. It chips away possibilities, not enhances them. If unique visitors to a live-saving website matter, then here are some visitors going elsewhere. If local TV and local newspapers can form an economic bond before print vanishes, then here’s an extra complication that does nothing to speed solutions (especially up in London where Ofcoms and Monopolies Commissions meet).

Thus – in a way that frankly doesn’t add up the cash and risks at stake too accurately – the gloom is generalised, the hostility vague but prevalent. And here’s where a BBC anxious about making friends and ensuring survival surely has some very hard thinking to do. How far can the public’s tolerance stretch as the licence fees goes ever onwards and upwards? Where is the connection between an aspirational half a billion BBC viewers and listeners worldwide and the seven million or so who still tune in to BBC local? How far can ‘broadcasting’ as a concept be stretched? Beyond television and radio to smartphones, mobiles and the rest? Is the mission to expand driven from within or due, henceforth, to be conditioned by evolving technology? If local, in the purest community sense of the word – your street, your family, your friends – is best served by bloggers who ask for nothing and expect no reward bar recognition, then where does the heavy, expensive technology of BBC existence chip in?

Reassurance and entertainment to (ageing) millions

It’s easy, you fear, to see any retreat, any retrenchment, as selling the pass. What the BBC has, in the name of Birt, it must inevitably strive to hold: and there are very good practical reasons for embracing that position. BBC local offers reassurance and entertainment to (ageing) millions. It is a friend calling in. Some of what it provides is basic information: the weather, travel and news very close to home. Some of it offers a stage to disk jockeys and entertainers on the way up – or down. Most of it performs to a consistently high professional standard. (Not today, thank you, Alan Partridge!)

By these lights, there’s no call to pull back, to retreat from a fight. To the contrary, duty calls. But the crucial questions here aren’t really asked by the press, I fear. The questions that matter are posed from within. For the BBC, no matter how united it tries to appear, is wracked by internal debates. Very simply: if the licence fee can’t go growing in these hard times for hard working families, how do we survive on progressively less? The answer thus far has been to spread resources more thinly across the piste, but not to withdraw from any major commitment. The answer for the next ten years looks to be somewhat different.

You can make extra money abroad – BBC worldwide, in fact – by selling more programmes and formats. You can cast a long shadow across the internet of globalisation. You can find new opportunities by leaving Britain (poor little Britain) behind: not fit for all-conquering website purpose. But the part of current operations that doesn’t quite fit then stands out more starkly. There is no money in local public service. There is no real national power or impact along that path. There is just an old, dying audience that, in essence, only exists in England anyway, pursuing the dreams of forty years ago in a context that has changed mightily. Is there a better way of serving that audience: by subscription, by blogs or joint websites, by drawing on newspaper resources direct? Perhaps there will have to be. Don’t take Theresa May’s homily to the Maidenhead Advertiser too seriously. Politicians come and go. But don’t fall into the reverse of that ominous trap: believing that somehow things can just potter on unaddressed.

  • Peter Preston edited the Guardian from 1975 to 1995. He is currently a director of the Guardian Foundation, a media commentator for the Observer – and a founding partner of the new European Press Prize.