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BBC ‘not a journalistic Polyfilla’ for underserved areas, regional press told

Rhodri Talfan DaviesA BBC boss has defended plans to launch new websites in cities already served by established news brands on the grounds that it is obliged to serve licence fee payers in those areas.

Rhodri Talfan Davies has spoken out about the proposed changes to services offered by the BBC, saying the corporation should not be used as a “journalistic Polyfilla” to cover only areas which are underserved by commercial titles.

The BBC last month announced plans to expand its coverage in Bradford, Peterborough, Sunderland and Wolverhampton as part of plans that will create around 131 new local news jobs.

However, concurrent cuts will also lead to the proposed loss of 139 roles due to the introduction of increased programme-sharing across its network of 39 local radio stations in England.

The proposals have been criticised by regional press industry bosses, while the DCMS Select Committee has announced it will hold an evidence session on 1 December to quiz BBC executives about the changes.

Elsewhere, Ofcom has confirmed to HTFP it expects to make a decision this week on whether the plans will “harm fair and effective competition” after criticism over a perceived lack of action so far on the issue.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s The Media Show, Rhodri said: “I hear the accusation from some commercial competitors that the BBC somehow crowds them out. We haven’t seen evidence of that.

“If you look right across the world at the challenge facing local commercial operators, you see the same sort of trends – even in countries which don’t have a significant public intervention like the BBC. You see the same squeeze on revenues.

“The BBC is a different type of news operator. If you look at the trust in the BBC compared to any other news service out there, it is leagues ahead of where other operators are.”

Rhodri, pictured, was quizzed on why the BBC chose to increase its offering in Bradford, Peterborough, Sunderland and Wolverhampton, which are all served by existing regional press titles.

He said: “We looked at a lot of audience data which showed that in terms of local coverage, we saw particular deficits in those cities. Our starting point is not if there is a commercial news supplier in that area.

“The BBC isn’t a sort of journalistic Polyfilla there to fill the holes where [regional newspapers] don’t exist. We have an obligation to every licence fee payer in England to provide local value to them.”

Claiming the overlap in stories of “around 10 or 15pc” between the BBC’s local news stories and those published by commercial operators, he added: “We’re not here to steal market share from anybody, we’re here to provide a trusted, consistent news service to local communities as our Charter requires of us.”

But Newsquest chief executive Henry Faure Walker, who also appeared on the show, called for communications regulator Ofcom to intervene, saying the industry was “disappointed by the passivity of that regulator”.

He told presenter Katie Razzall: “[The BBC’s plans] will, in our view, further undermine the efforts of ourselves and other commercial local news publishers to build a sustainable future because it diverts eyeballs away from our sites which we rely on to drive advertising revenue and to drive digital subscription revenue.”

“I heard Rhodri cite Bradford earlier and he talks of some deficit in Bradford – we are the proud publishers of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus in Bradford. We employ 18 local journalists in Bradford, and we think the market is very well served.

“We reach about 80 per cent of the Bradford population each month. Bradford is a city of about half a million, about 400,000 people in the city come to our site every month.

“He talks about Peterborough and the BBC going deeper into Peterborough – we publish a hyperlocal site called Peterborough Matters in Peterborough. I know that National World also has the local newspaper there [the Peterborough Telegraph], I know that Reach plc publishes Cambridgeshire Live which covers Peterborough in depth.

“So, I just don’t see the need for the BBC to come into this space. I don’t think the BBC should be using the licence fee to do things which are already well provided by the commercial news sector and, even worse, come in and distort the sector and make it tougher for local news publishers who have had it pretty hard in the last 10 to 15 years in any case.”

Announcing the DCMS Committee’s forthcoming evidence session, its chair Julian Knight MP said: “The planned cuts to programming have provoked genuine disquiet in communities up and down the country, where BBC local radio stations play a key role in providing local information that is increasingly unavailable elsewhere.

“As a public service broadcaster, the BBC must always have an eye on its duty to offer a distinct service and the Committee will be questioning corporation bosses to make sure they have properly thought through the implications of moving towards a more regional model and concentrating on digital services.

“Any changes must be in the best interests of listeners and licence payers.”

An Ofcom spokesperson told HTFP: “We’re examining whether the BBC’s local plans might harm fair and effective competition.

“We are considering views from the BBC’s competitors, and expect to make a decision next week.”