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Highfield ‘wary’ of BBC plan for 100 public service reporters

Ashley-Highfield2-e1401302531277The BBC should pay local newspapers to use their stories rather than fund extra reporters to cover local councils and courts, the head of one of the country’s largest local news groups has told MPs.

Ashley Highfield, chief executive of Johnson Press, said he had been in discussion with the broadcaster about a “commissioning” model under which it would pay to use the company’s news and pictures to use on its platforms.

He told the culture media and sport select committee that he was wary of the BBC’s suggestion of a network of 100 public service reporters, first announced by director general Lord Hall in September, saying he feared it would allow “BBC tentacles” to reach into ever-more local communities.

But direct commissioning would allow local papers to train up and hire more of their own reporters by selling content, he told MPs.

“We would be delighted to provide it, providing it did not just create another BBC outreach into ever smaller communities, because we do not think that’s helpful to our ecosystem, having another hundred or however many hundred it would be, BBC journalists effectively in our patch,” he said.

“But we do think the model where they commission us is a relatively straightforward model and would work.”

The BBC said in September that it would offer staff and content to local newspapers in plans for a major shake-up of the corporation.

It came as Culture Secretary John Whittingdale consults on possible replacements for the licence fee and considers whether the BBC should be “all things to all people” or have a more “precisely targeted” mission.

David Holdsworth, the BBC’s controller, English regions, told the committee that the idea was first proposed by a newspaper group.

He said that rather than hundreds of BBC reporters it would see licence fee cash made available in a bidding process.

He added: “I think as we have gathered there isn’t exactly industry consensus on that idea and that is why we … have been holding more conversations and negotiations about how we might best fashion our proposal for the future.”


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  • November 19, 2015 at 9:36 pm

    AH is only thinking of making money to aid paying off JP’s huge pile of debt. The company already makes money by syndicating stories and photos through agencies (all agencies are SWNS now aren’t they?!), so should be able to re-invest in more editorial staff. But its the BBC which is taking on editorial staff while JP/AH continues to run their papers on a skeleton staff. And he seems to have forgotten he’s made all the photographers redundant, so what photos can they sell on to the BBC? It’s all a big cost cutting muddle.

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  • November 19, 2015 at 10:18 pm

    Why is AH trying to meddle with the workings of the BBC? I pay a licence fee to the BBC, I don’t pay for a publically listed company to earn money from my fee. If they start to get funding from the BBC then that will be the end of my tv licence!

    Also can someone tell me why he is still getting paid in the region of £1.7m a year with bonus’s?

    Surely if he spent a bit more time meddling with his own companies workings, the share price would not be at a record low.

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  • November 19, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    I think Ash is being particularly disingenuous here in his comments to MPs and I cannot believe they will fall for it.
    They could not possibly.
    Could they?!?

    Although local newspaper journalists have complained forever that the Beeb too often reads the papers and nicks their stories, I think most everyone accepts it as a fact of journalistic life.
    It may be irritating, but frankly it’s little different than one rival newspaper following up the exclusive story of another and either trying to take it a step further on, or putting their own spin on it.
    In my view, a further 100 local BBC journalists would be a good thing for local democracy and community cohesion – given the staggering number of reporters off-loaded in recent years by local newspaper groups like JP.
    And if the BBC are serious about cost-cutting, the very last thing they should now consider is paying out new money for something that they’ve had for free for decades!
    That would be the very definition of madness.
    And are we really to believe that even if the cuts-minded BEEB were crazy enough to suddenly start paying for news stories already freely available to them, that JP would invest the windfall in more reporters?
    HTFP reports Mr Highfield telling MPs: “direct commissioning would allow local papers to train up and hire more of their own reporters by selling content.”
    And hmm…….again.
    Really Ash?
    Do we honestly see that being the genuine end result here if this barmy proposal were to come off?
    I think not.
    I think hugely-paid executives like Mr Highfield with an eye to the bottom line would simply trouser the cash for the shareholders and the banks while quietly applauding themselves on finding another way to exploit the country’s hard-pressed, over-worked, underpaid and increasingly dwindling band of local newspapers journalists.
    You can bet the last of your licence fee that the grandstanding talk of investing in papers and reporters would be quietly, cynically and unforgivably, forgotten.
    “Trebles all round!” as local newspaper chief execs and Beeb mandarins might say.

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  • November 20, 2015 at 8:11 am

    Despicable comments. ‘We don’t do it anymore but we don’t want you to do it in case people notice we’re no longer doing it’.

    Good on the beeb – local reporting is a public service, I’ve got no problem paying my license fee for that at all.

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  • November 20, 2015 at 9:54 am

    I suppose the BBC is better than no news, but anybody who thinks the BBC is politically neutral is living in cloud cuckoo land.
    Another thing, just look at how many free adverts the BBC gives for Facebook and Twitter, especially on its World Service.
    Does it pass what it sees as subversive comments on to the National Security Agency in Maryland?
    I wonder…

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  • November 20, 2015 at 10:37 am

    If I were Ashley Highfield, I’d be more concerned about the share price slump, rock bottom staff morale and a raft of senior execs not up to the job rather than taking meddling in the affairs of the BBC or taking on other responsibilities.

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  • November 20, 2015 at 10:53 am

    All those journalists he laid off or made change jobs involuntarily have to find work somewhere – or does he deny them that as well.

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  • November 20, 2015 at 12:08 pm

    Jeff Jones nailed it. If JP let its reporters cover the magistrates courts properly then there would be no need to the BBC to employ these reporters. I care that local democracy and justice is being reported. I care less who’s actually reporting on it. As long as journalists are at our council meetings and in our courts then it doesn’t really matter where they’re from. But they do need to be there, and currently they’re not.

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  • November 20, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    Asher’s ramblings sum up the chronically short and wandering attention spans of news group bigwigs.

    Back in 2008 the big groups put the kibosh on BBC plans to plough huge investment into creating regional video-based news websites saying it would be in competition with what they were already offering.

    In February of this year Ash was demanding the BBC offer up a “great big bucket” of video, weather and other content to his newspapers for free.

    Now he’s trying to block investment in local journalism once again, claiming he can sell content to the BBC that his decimated news teams are too ill-staffed to provide.

    Whatever criticisms can be levelled at the BBC, at least it would invest and see a scheme through rather than hatch half-baked schemes that will be scrapped three months down the line.

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  • November 20, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Could the BBC send some staff to Ashley’s papers in Yorkshire.
    I am sick and tired of only having a couple of local stories in his weekly paper I receive, with the rest sourced from sister titles in larger communities.
    Until a few years ago, the bulk of the copy in the local paper was actually local.

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  • November 20, 2015 at 5:42 pm

    JP should be ‘wary’ of themselves!

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  • November 21, 2015 at 8:19 pm

    JP staff now just shovel council press releases into their newspapers – if you know a friendly council press officer, ask them. My friends on that side of the fence can’t believe their luck – the negatives they ignore in press releases never see the light of day because the few ‘reporters’ left don’t have time to even read council reports anymore. So what does JP have to sell to the BBC that doesn’t already end up in the corporation’s email inbox? Very little.
    Ashley’s cut so far he has nothing left to negotiate with.

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