One of the UK’s most distinguished journalists has urged local editors not to fear local BBC websites, describing them as ‘no more than cursory add-ons.’
Home Secretary Theresa May ignited a national debate last November when she warned the BBC that its online operation risked harming local newspapers.
Now Peter Preston, the former editor of The Guardian, has also questioned the BBC’s local presence, suggesting that the corporation is spreading its resources too thinly.
At the same time, he urged editors not to take Ms May’s remarks too seriously, arguing that the local websites are “cursory add-ons” rather than a genuine threat.
Peter’s comments come in a chapter of a new book entitled “Is the BBC in Crisis” edited by John Mair, Richard Tait and Richard Lance Keeble.
The chapter is being serialised on HTFP today ahead of the book’s publication on 1 March.
Writes Peter: “Local newspapers may not be dying in droves as yet, but staffing has been slashed year after year. The big companies that control so much of the market have stripped away production resource from newspaper offices down your way and sited them many miles distant in purpose-built sub-editing factories, rather like battery chicken sheds.
“There’s a feeling of helplessness that corrodes hope. No wonder embattled editors thrash round looking for someone or something to blame. No wonder, too, that the BBC is public service Enemy Number One.
“But how far is any of this reality? Are local radio stations and the websites they produce true threats, or just rather desperate excuses? The quick answer for anyone scanning such sites seems initially reassuring.
“BBC Berkshire, produced and designed to a national formula, is unthreatening in its scope and range. Just a three or four anodyne stories from around the county, a dollop of sport, perfunctory cross-references to better tales in other Berks journals. It looks thin and under-resourced, which isn’t remotely surprising, because that’s exactly what it is.
“The succession of websites that so alarm newspaper editors are barely more than cursory add-ons. The budget for English local radio – just under £115 million on the latest reckoning – has to stretch across 39 stations and, on average, pay for the activities of 12 to 14 editorial people required to cover and present the news of traffic hold-ups, weather forecasts and actual stories over a 75-hour broadcasting week.
“It’s not surprising that the news on the sites, like the news on the air, can sometimes seem pretty vestigial.”
However Peter goes on to argue that the BBC’s local operations are nevertheless viewed by other local media as a “heavy boot” kicking at the door of local journalism.
“The websites the BBC run may not be very imposing; indeed, they may go out of their way to give surreptitious plugs to the paper newsrooms that, in fact, supply so much of the material that radio reprocesses. Nevertheless, they are viewed as an incursion and statement of ill intent
“And here’s where a BBC anxious about making friends and ensuring survival surely has some very hard thinking to do. How far can the public’s tolerance stretch as the licence fees goes ever onwards and upwards?
“The answer thus far has been to spread resources more thinly across the piste, but not to withdraw from any major commitment. The answer for the next ten years looks to be somewhat different.”