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Is BBC “crushing” local press? Dimbleby reopens debate

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.”


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  • November 20, 2013 at 11:40 am

    Well let’s face it,it’s down to investment on behalf of the local papers,running an operation on skeleton staff means they cannot cover anything anymore in the field and rely on press releases,Facebook,Twitter,sent in pictures and asking professional photographers to do it for nothing.

    It’s thier own demise,brought on by greed in the boardroom to keep thier own jobs and sack others beneath them.

    Gross Negaligence not the BBC’s fault.

    Also local papers always screen grab BBC material and don’t even byline them,they feel they have the’Right to’

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  • November 20, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Please don’t let this fallacy gain any traction. See my blog
    Note also one of the thread comments about the greater effect of Metro on regional titles than the BBC.
    I am all for attacking the BBC when it is in the wrong. On this subject, it isn’t.
    Journalists, please do your own research. Go to the BBC news website and search for your own patch. You will note then how little genuine editorial material there is concerning your town or borough.
    This is all about publishers’ propaganda, an excuse for their own failings.

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  • November 20, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    I agree that a lack of investment in local papers is seeing the quality in some areas diminish, but it’s a classic chicken and egg scenario.
    Sales are dropping so execs are cutting costs and losing staff, leaving some reporters, particularly at JP, subbing their own pages, and writing advertorial, rather than doing their job of reporting.
    The issue is that execs will protect boardroom bonuses over the quality of the product and, certainly the ones I’ve come across, wouldn’t know a decent paper even when faced with using it in the loo as the cleaners been sacked and no one has ordered tissue.
    Ultimately, they don’t care what’s in the paper, whether it’s submitted pics or press releases, leaving readers with little motivation to buy it.
    And when sales go down, staff are sacked, and the cycle starts all over again.

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  • November 20, 2013 at 2:12 pm

    While not agreeing with everything Pj has to say, the comment is spot on that publishing companies are the ones at fault for grinding down the regional press.
    The BBC does have an unfair advantage and often behaves sneeringly towards the press despite sourcing many of their stories from it.
    But I’m sure the publishing companies would maintain their self-destructive approach towards their own products regardless of what the BBC did.
    The fact is journalists are no longer valued by newspaper owners who believe the general public will do the job for free.

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  • November 20, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    The demise of staff – and quality – in many newsrooms wasn’t the cause of the problem…it is the net result of the problem. It started when newspaper owners decided they could make bucketloads of extra money from the internet by providing a free news service and getting advertisers to spend even more money with them. The trouble was that the advertisers had a budget of how much they would be spending and were not lured by the websites. But the readers were attracted by the idea of not having to pay for their local news any longer and deserted papers in their droves.
    Profits plunged and the newspaper owners promptly started looking for cheaper ways of producing newspapers.
    It has been a horribly self-inflicted wound.

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  • November 20, 2013 at 4:44 pm

    How many BBC reporters are NUJ members………and with regard to paywalls …..don’t forget the BBC has one…………………………………its called the license fee……………….

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  • November 20, 2013 at 4:59 pm

    Pj: I have lost count of the number of paper stories that suddenly appear on the BBC local news site, without any crediting where the story came from (the local paper). Add to that the local radio stations ploughing through local papers & presenting the stories on the news/talk ins etc.
    Without local papers the BBC would struggle. I rarely see a BBC reporter at council meetings, yet amazingly they have exact quotes we do in the paper hours after (never before) we publish.
    It happens every day, probably in every region.

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  • November 20, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    I can wholeheartedly agree that newspaper managements care more about their jobs, salaries, bonuses and pensions than they do about their products.

    The revenue gap caused by falling print sales isn’t be being closed. Or if it is, it isn’t quickly enough.

    So, huge numbers of talented and experienced staff are made redundant to offset the revenue lost as people desert print for newspaper websites, or just don’t bother consuming local news any more.

    Then what do bosses do? They have the nerve to charge more for papers with less news in them (they’ve cut pagination to save more money).

    Oh, and to add insult to injury, free news on newspaper websites is picked up and used by broadcast rivals (not just the BBC).

    However, a cursory glance at my local BBC website reveals a woeful story-count and not one story happening within 25 miles of where I live, so I’m not sure how it’s a rival to the local paper I used to work for (proudly, diligently, successfully and award-winningly!) in which every story is about something happening within 25 miles of where I live.

    The same is true of the local BBC radio station and my regional BBC TV news. They cover a massive area and as a result rarely report anything I really care about or which impacts upon my life. When they do I’ve already seen it on my ex-paper’s website. Free.

    The BBC doesn’t do local news. It does regional news. So it’s hard to see how local papers are harmed that much by it.

    I can’t rid myself of the “feeling” that the BBC has an unfair advantage, is killing local newspapers and is just too darned big. But I’m struggling to prove it to myself.

    Local newspapers are their own worst enemies and the architects of their own doom. They collectively made a fatal error years ago and are highly unlikely to recover from it: ie free news online.

    The BBC was rightly stopped several years ago from going hyperlocal. But the damage is done and newspapers largely did it to themselves.

    I’d dearly love to blame the BBC for newspapers’ woes and the end of a career I enjoyed. I really want to. But I’m not sure there’s any evidence.

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  • November 21, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    1985. Six reporters. Two snappers. Editor, dep ed. News ed. Three subs. 80 stories minimum plus loads of features. Sales 22,000 a week.
    2013. Two reporters , content ed 15 miles away. One other staff. 30 stories max two features. Website to feed constantly.
    bbc had no effect.
    Paper simply starved to death.
    Anyone recognise this?

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  • November 22, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    My paper: Cash starved, staff poorly paid, building falling down ….. but still pulling in great stories every week.

    BBC: Cash available, well paid staff, multi-million new newsroom(s) ….. and still regularly lifting our stories every week.

    BBC News certainly needs us more than we need them!

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