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Local press voices fears over BBC's web work

The regional press has moved to protect its position in the face of increased competition from the BBC’s regional websites.

An official review of the services provided by BBC Online is being conducted by former Trinity Mirror chief executive Philip Graf

The review, which begins with a public consultation, will also form part of the Corporation’s charter renewal process that will reach its climax in 2006.

It will find out if the BBC has stuck to its original plans – approved by the Government in 1998 – and what impact it has had on the commercial sector.

The Newspaper Society, which acts for the regional press industry, believes the corporation is increasingly targeting the local and regional audience, to the detriment of the local newspaper industry.

Its submission to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport review highlights how it believes the BBC is creating local and regional electronic newspapers using public money, which are in direct competition with local papers and their own online activities.

The Society is worried that the BBC’s websites cross-promoted across its other media in a way that regional newspapers cannot compete with.

Newspaper Society director David Newell said in his letter to the review: “The regional press faces fierce competition for readers, audience and advertisers.

“It has to invest and innovate constantly to sustain and develop its commercial and editorial activities. It has invested and diversified into the electronic media, insofar as media ownership controls and other regulatory constraints have permitted.

“Yet the regional press is in direct competition with the BBC, which is free of such constraints. Under its Charter, the BBC has long enjoyed the freedom to pursue a huge range of activities, uninhibited by cross-media ownership controls and with the twin benefits of licence fee funding and cross-promotion.

“Its public service and commercial activities across all media are powerful regional and local competitors to the regional and local newspapers.”

In a 25-page document he attacked the status quo, saying that the BBC had established a dominant position, supported by the licence fee, with content resources, cross-promotional opportunities, the ability to offer material free of charge and freedom from the commercial concerns that drive potential competitors, making it “very difficult” for commercial organisations to set up commercially viable alternatives.

And he called for fair competition between the BBC and the regional press, and asked that the BBC should not be permitted to expand and develop online services aimed at local and regional audiences in ways that might harm private sector competitors.

Philip Graf will submit a full report to the Secretary of State, which will be published by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

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