The BBC’s director of news has hit back at claims that the problems facing the local newspaper industry are the fault of the corporation.
James Harding said there was “a mistaken view” that the BBC should rein in its coverage of local news coverage so it did not aggravate the difficulties facing the local press.
Speaking at the WT Stead Lecture at the British Library on Monday, he said the BBC was not to blame for the difficulties in the industry, instead saying the problems had come from websites such as Google, Facebook and Amazon.
Former Times editor James was speaking in response to concerns from Home Secretary Theresa May, who said the BBC’s online operation may be harming local newspapers and urged the corporation to “think carefully” about its local presence.
In his speech, James said the BBC’s largest audiences were for its regional TV news bulletins at 6.30pm, which gained around a million more combined viewers than for the national news at 6pm.
He said: “It underscores why the BBC must, if it is to be a public service broadcaster, deliver on its obligation in local news.
“I say this because there is what I consider to be a mistaken view that the BBC should rein in its local news coverage for fear of aggravating the economic woes facing local newspapers.
“We have a direct interest in the health of local newspapers and regional newsrooms. We thrive thanks to vibrant public debate and courtesy of the stories and ideas unearthed by our colleagues in rival news organisations.
“But, let me be clear, the problems facing the local newspaper industry are not the BBC’s fault. The classified advertising market has moved online, but the local newspaper industry’s problems lie with the likes of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Gumtree, Ebay and a long, long tail of others.
“I am acutely concerned by the pressures facing the local newspaper industry and we at the BBC will do anything to help. But the BBC’s primary responsibility must be to serve licence fee payers – and they want and are entitled to the best possible local news services we can deliver.”
At the Society of Editors’ Conference in November, Ms May said she had held talks with her local newspaper, the Maidenhead Advertiser, about the future of the industry and had highlighted the BBC as a major factor in the difficulties it faced.
The Home Secretary said that by becoming the dominant player in providing local news online, the corporation had prevented other operators from entering the market, saying it was “enormously difficult for local newspapers to compete”.