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Peer highlights threat to local press in King’s Speech debate

220px-Official_portrait_of_Lord_Black_of_Brentwood_crop_2A former newspaper boss turned Tory peer has warned that the BBC’s planned digital expansion will leave the corporation as “the only source of local news.”

Lord Black of Brentwood, who as Guy Black was director of the Press Complaints Commission in the 1990s and is now deputy chair of the Telegraph Media Group, spoke out during a House of Lords debate on the King’s Speech.

He warned that the BBC’s ‘Across the UK’ plan, which will see it switch resources from local radio to local websites, could end up “eradicating plurality” in the local news sector.

The News Media Association has fought a long campaign to persuade the government and media regulator Ofcom to step in to halt the plans, but Ofcom says they will have only a marginal impact on commercial publishers’ revenues.

Lord Black, pictured, said: “As the Government are committed to ensuring a sustainable future for a free press, then one issue that they must tackle is the burgeoning imperial ambition of the BBC.

“I am going to talk just about its local activities, because I recognise that it is a national treasure and I absolutely support it.

“However, an absolutely vital part of the rich tapestry of the British media is the local and regional press, yet it is under commercial threat as never before as a result of the BBC’s Across the UK plan.

“This will inexorably lead to an increase in its online news provision in areas already well-served by independent news publishers, which means the inevitable loss of jobs for journalists in the local press.

“The BBC’s royal charter requires the BBC to “avoid adverse impacts on competition” and causing harm to commercial providers. But that is precisely what these plans do.

“The BBC, which I absolutely support, is using the might of its enormous taxpayer funding aggressively to draw local audiences away from commercial providers and deprive them of readers and the revenue needed to continue investing in independent journalism, and does so at the expense of much-loved local radio services, to which it is taking the axe.

“It is inexplicable that, at a time when the BBC claims to be facing financial pressures, it chooses to invest heavily in news provision that is already well-served by the commercial sector.

“If the BBC is allowed by the Government and Ofcom to continue down this dangerous path, it will end up eradicating plurality in the local news market and leave local people only one source of news about their area: the corporation’s.

A BBC spokesperson said: “We are reshaping our local services to increase the value we deliver to audiences across England and to ensure we keep pace with changing audience expectations and remain a cornerstone of local life for generations to come.

“There is no evidence that the BBC is crowding out other digital publishers. We work collaboratively across the industry and our partnership with the NMA has transformed coverage of local democracy across the UK.”