Broadcaster and former local press proprietor David Dimbleby has reopened the debate about whether the BBC should scale down its online services to help local newspapers.
Earlier this month Home Secretary Theresa May called on the corporation to “think carefully” about its local presence suggesting it may be harming the local press.
Now Mr Dimbleby, who sold his own family’s local newspaper business in West London for £12m in 2001, has echoed her comments saying BBC managers need to consider whether it has got too big.
The 75-year-old Question Time host said there was “some truth” in Ms May’s comments and said the BBC needed to redefine its role ahead of the renewal of its Royal Charter in 2016.
Speaking to Richard Bacon on 5Live, he said: “[The management need] to answer questions about whether the BBC has got too big. Whether it is too powerful for its own good. Whether it’s crushing newspapers, local newspapers particularly.
“I think there is some truth in that. I’m not sure how you address it but I do think the BBC needs to pull back a bit from some of the things it does, maybe cut back a bit on some of its television channels.
“I think that BBC4 for instance which has some very good high quality programming done on a shoe string, really on a shoe string… merge that with BBC2, cut out some of the gardening and the cookery and all that on BBC2 and focus on the quality stuff that it was meant to be. Then you have two big channels, One and Two.
“I would use some of the licence fee to set up or to subsidise other independent radio and broadcast stations, so that you’ve got variety.’
Asked specifically about Ms May’s comments he replied: “I think the question has to be addressed about the scale of the BBC, and people need to ask themselves, however well run it is, however careful it is, however much it attempts to be objective, in the end, is democracy well served by that?
“Should we have more voices on the air, both on television and on radio, and should we pull back a bit on the thing [former director-general] John Birt set up so brilliantly at its time, which is the internet, to allow space for local papers and indeed the national press which at the moment are being steamrollered by what we do with public money that comes in from the licence fee, for which you go to prison if you fail to pay up.”
Ms May told this month’s Society of Editors conference: “Local newspapers are having a particularly hard time. That has partly been the result of the BBC’s dominant position on the internet, and its ability to subsidise the provision of internet news using the licence fee.
“This makes it enormously difficult for local newspapers to compete. If the BBC can, as they do, provide all the locally significant news, what is left to motivate the local reader to buy a paper?
“It is destroying local newspapers and it could eventually happen to national newspapers as well. This is as dangerous for local politics as it is for local journalism.
“This is a debate that won’t go away and I believe that the BBC has to think carefully about its presence locally and the impact that has on local democracy.”