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Regional publisher threatens BBC with court action over local news plans

Gary Shipton 1A regional publisher has threatened to injunct the BBC after claiming plans to expand its local news services will put private sector journalism jobs at risk.

National World said it is considering legal action over the BBC’s plan to expand its coverage by launching dedicated services for Bradford, Peterborough, Sunderland and Wolverhampton.

The publisher, which runs the Peterborough Telegraph and Sunderland Echo, has also invited Bradford Telegraph & Argus owner Newsquest and the Midland News Association, which runs the Wolverhampton Express & Star, to join its potential bid for an injunction.

The BBC announced the expansion in October as part of a broader plan that will create 139 new jobs but will also lead to widespread cuts across its network of local radio stations in England.

National World editorial director Gary Shipton, pictured, said: “It is outrageous for the BBC to decimate its arts coverage – with devastating cuts to its three English orchestras and closing down the BBC Singers choir – and its local radio reporting teams while spending the public’s hard-earned licence fees on vanity projects which directly compete with respected local publishers.

“All the BBC will achieve through this nonsensical and ill-thought out anti-competitive behaviour is to put more journalists’ jobs at risk in the private sector.

“For that reason we are now seeking legal advice on the potential action we can take and of course we are talking to the main publishers in Bradford and Wolverhampton to see if they wish to work with us.

“Injuncting the BBC is one of the options we are considering.”

National World’s announcement comes after Gary last month accused the BBC of being “consumed with trying to unfairly steal audience share from hard-pressed local publishers”.

Yesterday, the publisher’s executive chairman David Montgomery also attacked the corporation in a first-person piece published across its websites.

He wrote: “The BBC’s online news service, fuelled by extravagantly resourced superior technology, thousands of journalists and scores of advertising free websites, has systematically stripped audiences away from commercial publishers.

“Its latest assault on local publishers, BBC Across the UK, targets 32 locations with the likelihood that more newspapers will disappear as a result.

“In real terms the BBC is trying to empower time-serving wonks in Portland Place, London, to direct news coverage in the likes of Bradford, Wolverhampton, Sunderland and Peterborough to replace resident and independent newspaper editors with decades of service to, and unique knowledge of their local communities.”

Any application for an injunction would require the criminal burden of proof, meaning the defendant would only be in contempt of court if it was established beyond reasonable doubt that it had breached an order or an undertaking.

The BBC’s director of nations Rhodri Talfan Davies previously defended the plans to increase coverage in the four cities, saying the corporation should not be used as a “journalistic Polyfilla” to cover only areas which are underserved by commercial titles.

In a ruling that dismayed regional publishers, Ofcom gave the green light to the expansion saying it will have a likely impact of less than 1pc on the total revenues of online local news providers, and that while the expanded BBC service may attract a larger audience, this would not be at the expense of commercial online local news content.

A BBC spokesperson said: “Our commitment to local journalism is long-standing and over the next 12 months our goal is to modernise all of our services in England to strengthen our online provision for communities across the country.

“These are carefully considered plans and Ofcom have already concluded they would not harm other local online providers.

“Since 1922 the BBC has been an integral part of the classical music ecology in this country and abroad.

“For us to continue to be a leading force in the industry we need to modernise, making some necessary and difficult changes to the way we operate, to ensure we are responding to audience needs and providing the best possible music to the widest possible audience.

“Many models have been considered over the past few months, this new classical strategy increases our flexibility and reach, improves our education offer and provides better value to the licence fee payer.

“The new strategy is ambitious but will, at its heart, improve impact and access to classical music for all, whilst reducing cost.”

The MNA declined to comment, while Newsquest has also been approached.