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BBC accused of ‘undermining’ regional press over local news jobs plan

Owen Meredith 2022Industry leaders have accused the BBC of trying to “directly compete” with the regional press over a plan to create 131 new local news jobs.

The corporation has announced it is creating 11 investigative reporting teams across the country while, in a separate move, increasing its daily online news provision for 43 local areas and launching dedicated websites covering Bradford, Wolverhampton, Sunderland and Peterborough.

The scheme is part of a series of changes which will see 179 other roles being made redundant due to the introduction of increased programme-sharing across its network of 39 local radio stations in England.

The new investigative teams will be staffed by 71 new journalists, but bosses at the corporation have yet to reveal where either they or the other 60 new roles will be based.

The BBC has confirmed to HTFP that Monday’s proposals replace a previous plan announced last year to create a network of 100 BBC journalists in an expanded local digital reporting operation called ‘Across the UK.’

A BBC spokesman said: “We are proposing an increase of 131 roles in our news teams, which includes multi-media and investigative roles to ensure we deliver even more distinctive local journalism and strengthen the quality of our online news services across England.”

But the corporation’s apparent scaling-up of the already-controversial ‘Across the UK’ plans from 100 new roles to 131 has led to fierce criticism from regional press industry leaders.

News Media Association chief executive Owen Meredith, pictured, said: “These plans from the BBC are totally misguided, unwelcome, and unwarranted. They move resources from respected local radio output to directly compete with local news publishers in the online space.

“The BBC is already dominant in online news, which adds to the well-documented challenges for publishers to build truly sustainable business models for digital news.

“This move overreaches the BBC’s remit, as set out in the Charter, and threatens rather than complements commercial news publishers’ local offer. If the BBC will not withdraw these plans of their own accord, Ofcom should step in and force them to go back to the drawing board.”

A number of regional publishing executives and editorial bosses have also voiced their displeasure on Twitter.

Newsquest chief executive Henry Faure-Walker said: “Is this really what the licence fee is for? Local news brands are now read by over 75pc of local people. Work with us not against.”

Iliffe Media editorial director Ian Carter added: “There is absolutely no need for the BBC to invest further in local digital journalism, a market already very well served by commercial publishers.

“The BBC already has a huge advantage over local publishers, aside from money we are all forced to give it. No ads = faster loading pages = improved Google rankings = more readers. We get people don’t like ads, but they help keep most of our sites free to access.”

And Phil Creighton, editor of independent weeklies Wokingham Today and Reading Today, said: “So the proposal is to axe what is actually important to people on the ground, and replace it with something that will compete with local news, hyperlocals and regional press alike. An absolute disgrace.

“I’m already not a fan of the Local Democracy Reporting Service – I don’t think license fee money should be spent on something local news groups should be doing as a matter of course. But this stinks.”

Phil also criticised the downgrading of some local radio programming which forms part of the BBC plan.

He told HTFP: “I’ve had a really good relationship with BBC Radio Berkshire for more than 20 years, regularly appearing on a number of shows presented by the likes of Henry Kelly, Paul Coia, Clare Catford, Phil Kennedy, and Bill Buckley, among others. The station is run on a tight budget, but always produces great listening.

“Back in 1996, the BBC merged Oxford and Berkshire to form Thames Valley FM. It was hated by listeners and just four years later the stations once again became standalone entities, as is right and proper.

“Listeners will vote with their feet if this goes ahead, switching to other local voices. The hyperlocal sector can only gain from this.

“The proposal to replace these much-loved and respected stations with local news journalists might seem like a good idea on paper, but if radio journalists broadcast in a forest and no one’s around to hear, does it make a sound?

“There is a real danger that this will tread on the toes of local media – unlike radio stations, which complement what us hyperlocal journalists do.

“The way the BBC has handled this announcement is disgraceful. The hard-working local radio teams have found out via a leak, and the information is being drip-fed across the week.

“Auntie’s management truly do not understand local radio – if they did they would be boosting its budgets and making it clear it is a jewel in its crown.”