In a speech to the 2015 Society of Editors conference today, Trust chairman Rona Fairhead urged the BBC and local press to work together to address what she called the growing “democratic deficit” in coverage of courts and local authorities.
She said the Trust had specifically asked BBC News to provide external links to local news providers and to credit external sources of particular stories.
But Ms Fairhead, left, also revealed that a forthcoming report carried out by KPMG would reveal little evidence that the corporation is damaging the local press sector.
Ms Fairhead told the conference: “I don’t intend to dwell today on the debate about whether or not the existence of the BBC website is causing long-term damage to some sections of the local and regional press in the UK.
“This is a debate we take very seriously at the Trust. Indeed we’ll shortly be publishing some independent econometric research on this subject as an important contribution to that debate.
“As it happens the research – by KPMG – finds little or no evidence that the BBC’s current activity crowds out local newspapers.
“The report also points out that social media and specialist websites now allow people with niche interests to share information quickly and cheaply, and that such services – none of them provided by the BBC, incidentally – do pose an increasing threat to online papers.”
In her speech, Ms Fairhead also said the proposal for the BBC to commission content from local news providers raised “difficult issues.”
Addressing the same gathering earlier today, culture secretary John Whittingdale urged the BBC to buy content from local news providers that could then be made available to all media outlets.
But Ms Fairhead said it was “hard to see” how the BBC could ensure compliance with its editorial standards if it did not have control of the personnel creating the content.
The full text of her speech is below.
Twenty years ago the BBC did something remarkable. It created its first experimental news website – showcasing Kenneth Clarke’s 1995 Budget.
Twenty years on it looks pretty amateur. But it was one of the decisive moments in the long history of the BBC. The moment when the bi-media BBC – TV and radio – became the multi-media BBC: TV, radio, and online. The moment when the BBC, in editorial terms, entered the digital age.
Since then, many have followed where the BBC led. Today the direction of travel in all media is digital. Indeed the BBC is starting to imagine a time when TV and radio channels will start to fade away as audiences increasingly turn to the web to find the information, entertainment and education they want, live or on demand.
It may not happen tomorrow or even in the next ten years. But it’s no longer impossible to imagine an online-only BBC. And in the meantime, online will continue to play an ever-increasing role in delivering the BBC’s mission, including its mission to inform.
And just as the BBC has headed online, a similar process is under way in newspapers.
Almost all newspaper editors now tell me the future is mobile, it’s digital, it’s social. They define their key editorial problem as learning how to condense the extensive coverage possible in a newspaper into the tiny space available on a mobile phone – while still maintaining the editorial quality of the newspaper version.
This a particular issue for the broadsheets where quality is to some degree synonymous with column inches.
It’s a tough problem. But I’ve no doubt it will be solved. And when it is, it will be just the latest step in the inexorable process that has seen the editorial centre of gravity in pretty much all newspapers start to shift from print to online.
We’ve already seen some notable successes. The astonishing global success of the Mail and Guardian websites, for example. Or behind the paywall, my old stamping ground, the FT, where digital subscribers now outnumber print subscribers – and mobile drives around half of digital subscriptions.
Now, an inevitable outcome of this race towards to a common digital future is that it fundamentally changes the competitive landscape in media.
Once upon a time there were newspapers over here, and broadcasting over there.
They eyed each other warily and there were occasional outbreaks of hostilities. But by and large newspapers and broadcasters co-existed on reasonably friendly terms.
And why not? True, they were addressing the same broad market – but from completely different directions. To a very large extent newspapers and broadcasters did not really compete head-on.
But that applies less and less as the barriers fall and we all enter the same digital space.
Broadcasters have moved into print – albeit print on a screen. And newspapers have moved into audio and video. To some extent, broadcasters and newspapers are now all after the same eyeballs, and both use much the same tricks of the editorial trade to attract the attention of the same audiences.
And as soon as they all arrive in the same digital space, offering products that are equally available and equally accessible, then, inevitably, some of the old rules of engagement no longer apply.
And it’s hardly surprising that we are starting to see new tensions arise between broadcasters and the press.
There are claims, for example, that the BBC website is crowding out newspaper websites. But this is a very fast growing market in which the BBC’s share is steadily reducing: the share of BBC News Online – in terms of time spent online – is actually shrinking as the market for news and information grows.
Nevertheless, concerns remain, and I want to concentrate on one of those areas of tension today.
This is the knotty question of the relationship between BBC News and local news providers, particularly in the area of local news-provision online.
I don’t intend to dwell today on the debate about whether or not the existence of the BBC website is causing long-term damage to some sections of the local and regional press in the UK.
This is a debate we take very seriously at the Trust. Indeed we’ll shortly be publishing some independent econometric research on this subject as an important contribution to that debate.
As it happens the research – by KPMG – finds little or no evidence that the BBC’s current activity crowds out local newspapers.
The report also points out that social media and specialist websites now allow people with niche interests to share information quickly and cheaply, and that such services – none of them provided by the BBC, incidentally – do pose an increasing threat to online papers.
But, as I say, the debate over the conclusions of the KPMG report is for another day.
What I want to concentrate on today is the growing concern that, whatever the cause, a democratic deficit may be starting to emerge. And I want to call on the BBC and the wider industry to work together to find a sustainable solution.
Some local council meetings are going unreported. Some court reporting is starting to fall by the wayside. This is not simply a matter of increasing cost-pressures translating into fewer front-line reporters. It also reflects the growing complexity of the business councils transact and the cases courts try – meaning that reporting courts and councils properly has become more resource-intensive at a time when costs are under acute pressure.
This thinning out of local coverage is not happening everywhere. Local newspaper journalism is still a vibrant force in many parts of the country. And the growth of hyper-local websites, many run by volunteers, are a new source of local news and information.
But the picture overall is patchy. As local papers closures mount – 300 over the last ten years according to the Press Gazette – the risk of democratic deficit inevitably rises too.
As a result, the media’s ability to hold to account those who wield power in local communities may be starting to decay. And this, just at the point when greater localism and more devolution is being demanded by the public and enabled by central government.
This should concern us all – not just as media professionals but as citizens too.
The roots of our national democracy lie in our local democratic institutions. Let those wither and the cost is borne not just by the communities who lose their voice in the decisions made on their behalf, the cost is borne by all of us in the weakening of democracy itself. We can see this danger emerging not just in the UK but in many other countries too.
As concerned citizens we cannot stand by and let this happen.
One of the public purposes of the BBC, set out in the BBC charter, is to ‘sustain citizenship and civil society.’ So the BBC has a clear role to play in helping to avert any democratic deficit in local reporting and analysis.
Now occasionally you do hear voices suggesting that the BBC should have no role at all in local news. A few weeks ago a leader-writer in the FT, no less, said, and I quote – “Local news scarcely seems to fall within the BBC’s remit as a national broadcaster.”
On the face of it, that’s an extraordinary statement. For nearly half a century the BBC has been running a network of local radio stations in England and they are one of the glories of the BBC. Would anyone here seriously suggest they should be closed down?
But perhaps the confusion lies in the definition of this word: ‘local’.
In BBC parlance, ‘local’ means something much less granular than it does if you’re running a local newspaper. BBC local radio stations cover a much larger area than the average local paper. So there is a level of granular day to day local news-gathering that is outside the BBC’s remit.
At the Trust we have always been vigilant in ensuring the BBC does not stray beyond this limit.
You may recall that some years ago the BBC came up with a proposal for a hyper-local service that became known as ‘local video’.
It was an ambitious proposal. The service would have offered news, sport and weather on enhanced BBC local websites in 60 areas across the UK, with an additional five Welsh Language services. There would have been 400 staff and a budget of £68million in the first four years.
The proposal came to the Trust for approval and we said No.
Why? A key reason was that the launch of the proposal would have had a significant negative market impact on commercial providers. These included the websites of local newspapers as well as their print editions.
I know that, coming up to Charter renewal, it’s the traditional time for competitors to accuse the BBC of unstoppable imperial ambition. But if you look at the facts, you will see that the Trust has been vigilant in upholding the public interest in the maintenance of media plurality by stopping the BBC doing things that might put that plurality at risk.
The most recent example came a couple of weeks ago with our pushback on BBC proposals to expand the output of Radio 5 Live Sports Extra because the BBC Trust judged that the negative impact the launch could have had on commercial rivals such as TalkSport outweighed any public value it would have delivered.
It’s further proof that at the Trust we do listen to voices other than those from within the BBC. And that we do take firm action when we see the larger public interest potentially being put in jeopardy by BBC proposals.
So what about the current tension between the BBC and the local newspapers. Where does the Trust stand here?
First of all, we should be clear that the Trust’s job of representing the licence fee payers’ interest means that our primary aim in this debate is to see that any emerging democratic deficit at the local level is filled, and to ensure that media plurality is maintained.
So what’s on the table?
Well, we’ve seen a range of ideas from the BBC, including the possibility of paying for 100 journalists to report on councils, courts and public services, and also proposals to make available the BBC’s regional video and local audio for immediate use on the websites of local and regional news organisations.
We are currently holding a public consultation on these and other ideas from the BBC to make some changes to the way the BBC delivers local and nations news. I hope the wider industry will contribute to this.
I wouldn’t want to prejudge the outcome of that consultation. However, it is pretty clear from the early reaction that there is – how can I put this – not a huge appetite for all of these ideas from all local newspapers
However the proposals for a video and audio bank, and an associated proposal to set up a data-hub open to non-BBC news organisations, were more warmly received. The BBC is already offering video content to newspaper online _ I’ve seen recent examples on the websites of the Northern Echo, the Sunderland Echo, and the Shields Gazette. The BBC wants to do more of this. So there is a degree of common ground here.
Meanwhile, local and regional newspapers have come up with their own proposals.
One is for some kind of joint-venture structure, to bring the BBC and the wider news sector together to deliver certain kinds of local news reporting.
Another, taking its cue from the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee, is that a quota should be imposed on the BBC for local news reporting commissioned from non-BBC providers – rather as it does with the independent quota for commissioning TV programmes from independents.
This proposal raises some difficult issues.
Firstly news has always been exempt from the independent production quota – for perfectly good reasons.
News is central to what the BBC does, and, as publisher the BBC has to stand one hundred percent behind the integrity, accuracy and impartiality of its news output.
It is hard to see how the BBC could ensure compliance with its editorial standards in a fast-moving news environment if it did not have full control of the personnel involved, their training and their editorial culture.
Secondly, the quota proposal is effectively another proposal for top-slicing the licence fee, and we are opposed to further top-slicing. Such a proposal would undermine the funding settlement agreed in the Budget.
And finally, a local news quota would not add to the total sum of local coverage – which seems to be what may be needed here – it would simply alter the sources the coverage came from.
I’m not saying that this would stop BBC News exploring the possibility of commissioning some local news-related coverage from non-BBC sources – and indeed BBC News has already said it is examining this idea. But a local news quota does raise some fairly fundamental questions.
There is one other issue that’s been the source of a great deal of tension between the BBC and local and regional newspapers. This is the issue of attribution – pushing the BBC to get much better at attributing the original source when BBC journalists find stories in local newspapers or websites and use them in BBC output. The Culture Secretary John Whittingdale was right to draw attention to this, this morning
This is something the BBC Trust picked up on in our review of BBC News last year. Of course, journalists in all news organisations always have, and probably always will, report and follow up stories broken by their competitors, and they give credit only rarely to the original source.
However, one of the things we specifically asked BBC News to do as a result of our review was, wherever possible, to provide external links to alternative news providers and to credit external sources of particular stories.
The Trust has been encouraged to hear the leadership of BBC News commit to this principle and make a start in improving linking and credits to external local sources, as well as agreeing to a formal audit of how many BBC website stories originate in the local press.
There is clearly more to do here. But we should also note the recent report from Enders Analysis pointing out that the BBC is now the third largest source of traffic to large local publishers’ websites.
The BBC should be proud of leading its audiences to a variety of sources of what will often be more granular coverage of very local stories than the BBC, with its wider catchment area, is likely to provide.
Now, as I’ve said, the Trust is consulting on the ideas put forward by the BBC to change the way it delivers local and nations news. And I can’t prejudge the outcome of that consultation.
However, what I can do today is to set out some of the principles the Trust would apply to any proposals the BBC put to us in this area.
Firstly, whatever arrangements the BBC agreed with local media, the resulting journalism would have to meet the BBC’s editorial standards of impartiality and accuracy if it were to be published by the BBC.
Secondly, editorial compliance arrangements at least as rigorous as those in force within the BBC would have to be in place.
And thirdly, any financial arrangements would have to be transparent and take full account of state aid rules.
So that’s where the Trust stands.
Beyond that the Trust remains fully alert to the risk of an emerging democratic deficit in local news provision and we very much encourage the BBC and the wider news sector to continue their dialogue.
This dialogue has only just begun. Some of the ideas being floated in these early stages may not fly. But that does not mean the dialogue now underway should stop. Far from it. This is the moment to redouble efforts to find a lasting and sustainable solution.
Common ground already exists. Let both sides build on that to find a way forward that will benefit everyone – and especially the public.