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BBC accused of 'knifing industry in back'

John McLellanThe BBC has been accused of sticking “a great big knife in the back of local newspapers” after the publication of a report into its future news coverage.

As previously reported on HTFP, the corporation’s ‘Future of News’ report, commissioned by its Head of News James Harding, cited the regional press as “one of the biggest market failures in the last decade” and argued that the BBC would have to do more in future to provide local news as a result.

But the report’s findings – which fly in the face of attempts by indistry leaders and some polticians to curb the BBC’s local online presence – have drawn criticism from across the industry.

James had previously pledged in a speech at the Society of Editors conference last November to help lead what he termed “the revival” of local journalism.

In a blog post John McLellan, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society, pictured above left, wrote: “Ironically, in seeking to address the needs of the UK’s regions he takes a blanket approach to the whole of the UK which fails to acknowledge considerable variations within it.

He added: “Let there be no doubt, a news provider funded by the tax-payer under a system whereby failure to pay can still ultimately end up in jail, will always distort any commercial market it enters.

“A news organisation like the BBC, hidebound by its charter, can never choose to be partisan in the same way as the best newspaper campaigns and the BBC, certainly in Scotland still relies on newspapers to unearth the exclusives upon which it relies so regularly.

“No-one denies the news business is tough, but to think that the further intervention of the state broadcaster will somehow make things better for the public is fanciful in the extreme.”

Media consultant and former Yorkshire Post journalist Rebecca Whittington has also given her views on the report.

On her website, she wrote: “The self-satisfied tone of what’s been produced almost makes me want to stop paying my licence fee altogether. Within the document, which sets out the importance of mobile devices, data journalism and quality community reporting, the BBC sticks a great big knife into the back of regional newspapers… and then stands back to watch with glee while its suffering rival splutters for life on the floor.”

She added: “Gone is the charade of a potential partnership with regional newspapers it seems – after all, why would the Beeb want to bother with that when it could simply step into the still slightly warm shoes of all the dying newspapers it is now trampling across?”

“However, the BBC has too quickly written off regional newspapers, they are not quite dead yet. While many papers have gone weekly they are producing good quality, up-to-the-minute news on their websites.”

At the 2013 Society of Editors conference, Home Secretary Theresa May blamed the growth in the corporation’s network of local websites for some of the industry’s difficulties.

A BBC spokesman said: “James Harding is a strong supporter of local journalism and has repeatedly stressed his commitment to helping it flourish. He was simply restating the importance of high quality local journalism to a public service broadcaster.

“Over the past year the BBC has started pilot schemes to share stories with local papers and to link through to newspaper websites from BBC Local Live pages. We have promised to improve attribution of stories which originate in local papers and agreed to a formal audit of how many BBC website stories originate in the local press.

“We have suggested other news organisations might consider covering such things as sport and courts for the BBC, we have hosted an industry event on data journalism and we are exploring joint ventures in local areas during the General Election campaign.

“The Future of News report was designed to stimulate debate. BBC News remains committed to maintaining a close dialogue with local newspapers. We believe a thriving local news business benefits the BBC and that a thriving regional BBC operation can benefit the local news business.”

16 comments

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  • February 2, 2015 at 8:54 am
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    Harding’s market failure comments are accurate. The reg press, johnston press in particular, has been abominably run and managed in recent years by ill qualified no marks with little to no business acumen whatsoever.
    Case and point is the current Yorkshire Post newsroom where, in the process of making 19 people redundant from a staff already cut to the bone, management have found £16,000 for big screens broadcasting what is doing well on the Internet. The only problem being that said screen is unreadable to all but 2-3 members of staff.

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  • February 2, 2015 at 9:55 am
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    Yet again we recall that in the years preceding the financial crash Johnston Press handed out £400 million in bonuses to directors and dividends to shareholders while at the same time borrowing £400 million to fund over-ambitious acquisitions. When the crash came and advertising plummeted it was unable to meet its repayments and turned on its own staff to pay the price with widespread redundancies which continue today. The chief executive who oversaw this catastrophe was given a farewell package of more than £1 million.
    Peter Lazenby.

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  • February 2, 2015 at 10:12 am
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    I would like to point out to the BBC’s Mr Harding that had the regional newspaper industry totally failed in it duties to the regions the BBC would consequently be struggling to fill its air time as most of its stories emanate from the printed media. Perhaps local and regional newspapers should charge a license fee to all those capable of walking into a newsagent to buy a newspaper, whether they want to read one or not. When the BBC finally has to raise its own funding as the rest of us do in the real world, it may think twice about dabbling in matters and areas it really has now knowledge in.

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  • February 2, 2015 at 11:13 am
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    Sour grapes. I’ve got no time for the BBC but the local press sealed its own fate.

    It’s like selling stale bread on the market and then complaining because Warburtons moves in.

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  • February 2, 2015 at 11:21 am
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    All power to Harding for telling it like it is – the BBC could be all there is left for decent local coverage. The mangled remains of what used to be a great local press are not giving the public any sort of a service any more, and they bleat because they want to be allowed to carry on that way without making any improvements except to their bottom line. This is a threat to local accountability & democracy and if beefed-up BBC local coverage can protect us from that, all power to them. Having said that, the BBC will have to sharpen up its act markedly if it’s going to do what it says…soft, featury, easy stuff plugging local businesses & crafts doesn’t cut it.

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  • February 2, 2015 at 12:59 pm
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    JP spent hundreds of thousands on over-specified video gear that was not needed. So complicated that school kids could put a video up much faster. One example of senior manager incompetence that is doing more to knife newspapers than BBC could achieve!

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  • February 2, 2015 at 1:04 pm
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    Loads of JP weeklies would still be thriving today but for its foolish investments. BBC is not to blame for JP greed that still hurts the company.

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  • February 2, 2015 at 1:42 pm
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    Using the BBC as a whipping boy for local newspaper groups’ mainly self-inflicted crisis is disingenuous.
    Evening papers operated unofficial non-proliferation treaties with rivals for many decades to ensure circulation, editorial and captive advertising were geographically managed for the benefit of the cartel’s Individual monopolies.
    Meanwhile, reporters, with the nod-and-wink blessing of managements, boosted their wages by flogging police, court and council stories to BBC regional radio/TV and ITV.
    Then Thomson ((Lord, not DC,) and Westminster Press, both great investors in journalism, bailed out of the regional newspaper industry and the new kids on the block became newsroom facilitators rather than story-breaking leaders, scrapped coverage of courts and councils and allowed genuine in-depth investigations to wither on the vine.
    Today’s reporters, irrespective of ability,, are measured in terms of content quantity rather than quality and many new editors, however talented and potentially innovative, struggle to become little more than apologetic budget controllers.
    Yet the regional boardroom tinkermen now have the audacity to cry foul because they BBC iplans to fill a local news void created by years of major newspaper group indolence, including the belated discovery that the Internet could be, er, a good idea rather than a cheapskate fad
    Given the sad descent of many “evening” papers iinto fact-lite, error-strewn products, these directors should be glad that ex-newspaper man James Harding is offering them an olive branch.
    At the very least, encourage some of the most experienced and open-minded print editors to have a brainstorming away day with Harding and his BBC newsroom execs.
    They can discuss how local papers, having slashed investment in information gathering, might reinvent themselves (in some cases as bumper pagination weeklies with increased editorial staff and a sharp daily Internet presence with live video input?).
    That means going back to basics because local hard “”news” still has a huge potential market, including netting those pesky under 25s on social media, even if the traditional daily “paper” supply model needs urgent reform.
    Are there any boardroom visionaries out there who have the courage and drive to promote strong local journalism as the friend of commercial viability – and not its enemy?
    If the best they can come up with is more managed decline of journalism in existing formats then it raises serious issues about their qualifications for boardroom responsibility for the medium-term interests of shareholders and employees.

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  • February 2, 2015 at 2:20 pm
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    As someone working for JP, Harding’s observations seem pretty close to the mark. We are cutting journalists and centralising in hubs, doing less and less journalism and more re-writing agency copy and cutting and pasting press releases. The idea we are holding anyone to account any more is laughable. We claim to be moving to digital but this is just a mask for savage cuts. Anyone who thinks our problems would be solved if the bbc disappears needs their head examining.

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  • February 2, 2015 at 3:23 pm
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    Avonman makes a solid point. I frequently got told my paper didn’t do a good job on our patch yet never heard a story on the Beeb’s local radio station that they hadn’t nicked from us. I also know for anfact from my truly awful ‘talent pool’ experiences there that the first thing they do on the likes of 5live and BBC Breakfast is go through the national papers. The BBC is good at a lot of things, but digging out local stories with local knowledge isn’t one of them.

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  • February 2, 2015 at 3:41 pm
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    Newspaper management is deluded even more than I suspected if it blames television for its ills. The issue is that in past decade a lot of incompetents have been promoted through the ranks, many of them jumped up ad reps, who know zilch about journalism. So when the web came along and the recession they did not have the brains to deal with it. Some are still there!!!

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  • February 2, 2015 at 4:24 pm
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    John HallandOats has a good point. Local news gathering by the Been is pathetic. It is why you see a story from a weekly or regional paper on your screen three days later. Examine the Beeb’s local coverage. Fatal crashes, court cases and crime are hand-fed staples.

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  • February 2, 2015 at 7:14 pm
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    I agree with a lot of the points raised in the comments here, I don’t think the BBC has much at all to do with the nose-dive of regional newspapers. The point I was making in my blog is that either the BBC hasn’t done its research or it’s deliberately overlooking the fact that the patches covered by weeklies provide a daily news service. The corporation talks as though it’s having to step in to cover areas that are now neglected, when they are not. It’s ironic that the provision the BBC would provide would be online, so no different to the current provision that’s been overlooked. I’m sure improvements to the service provided by newspapers could be improved ten-fold – if investment was made by publishing companies. Competition from outlets like the BBC and digital news providers is good, I just hate the tone of this report and the lack of acknowledgement of work already bring done by hard-working people who do actually give a damn about producing something valued and informative.

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  • February 2, 2015 at 9:23 pm
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    Can I have some free cash please BBC to start up a newspaper? Thought not!

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  • February 4, 2015 at 9:23 am
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    The BBC is still labouring under the massive misapprehension its local news reporting is first class. In my experience it has never even managed even third class, the London ‘coverage’ being a case in point. BBC local radio is generally appalling, with a late night demographic age target of 75. Wrist-slashingly bad stuff, produced at our expense. This is the same old BBC, so forget any chance of meaningful co-operation. Let’s stick to sorting out our own problems, rather than inviting the dead hand of the Corporation to grab hold of us.

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