Report: BBC Global and Local Activities Must Not Harm Independent News Media

MPs have cautioned that the BBC’s global and local activities should not impact upon the independent commercial news media in a report published this morning (Thursday 26  February).  

The Culture Media and Sport Select Committee published its report on the Future of the BBC in which it called for a “more symbiotic relationship” between the BBC and local press industry based on “exchanges of content and information” and cautioned that the BBC “must always be mindful of the effect of its activities on regional media groups and their ability to turn a profit.”

The report also warned that that the BBC Worldwide’s activities should not “be allowed to have an adverse impact on its commercial competitors” or “risk jeopardising the reputation of the BBC” through its commercial activities. 

The report attacked a BBC Trust review of BBC Online in which  it called on the BBC management to make sites more local as demonstrating  “a disregard for the health of local journalism” and called for the BBC’s “interactions with the press” to be “codified into any future Charter framework.”

The report said: “We believe there must be a more symbiotic relationship between local media and the BBC, where each benefits from the other. The BBC as the dominant partner must always be mindful of the effect of its activities on regional media groups and their ability to turn a profit, given the greater certainty resulting from its publicly-funded position. The BBC Trust’s conclusions from its 2013 review of BBC Online, where it called on the BBC management to make sites more local, demonstrated a disregard for the health of local journalism.

“Whilst the BBC appears to make the right gestures in supporting local and regional media organisations in the run-up to Charter Reviews, we believe more definite commitments in respect of its interactions with the press must be codified into any future Charter framework.

“The BBC must not expect to receive others’ news content without providing something in return. We are attracted by the idea of exchanges of content and information, where the BBC local websites link to the source of local material they have used, and in return the BBC allows others to use its content and embed BBC clips on their sites, where these would be of local interest, under a licence agreement.

“There need not be a financial transaction. However, we also see the case for the BBC outsourcing the supply of some local content on a commercial basis, where there is an ongoing requirement for such material, and it is a more cost-effective way of meeting this need. We recommend this be ensured by extending the BBC’s independent production quota to cover local news.”

Ashley Highfield, Johnston Press chief executive, said: “I’m heartened by today’s report on the Future of the BBC. We at Johnston Press and across the industry have long argued that the BBC should be looking to work more closely with local media, rather than against it, and so it is hugely encouraging to see this view is echoed by Whittingdale. 

“The BBC is brilliant at creating world class content, setting the standard for national and international news, but where its local websites are under performing, digital revenues for local news brands rose by a quarter over the past year – and are continuing to grow.

 “Working with these established local news providers would not only help the BBC address this issue, but allow it to better serve its audience. I still fully support the idea that we can create a genuinely collaborative partnership; the BBC has some great resources for local reporting, including video content and weather, but no market. 

 “The BBC should allow local publishers free access to its regional content, which they can take to market. The shared content would, of course, be properly credited, whilst ensuring that individual titles can keep their own local voice. 

 “Were this to be regulated with a quota, the BBC could even be given specific content targets for how much local publishers can use from an Independent regulator, which would then allow traffic on local platforms to be counted towards the BBC’s reach too. 

 “Like Whittingdale, we fully support the need for a more symbiotic relationship between local media and the BBC, one that can allow the BBC to play its role in the provision of local news to the best of its ability, without stretching its resources, and  at the same time allow local media to thrive.” 

Lynne Anderson, News Media Association deputy chief executive, said: “The news media industry has long been keen to explore a more positive relationship with the BBC; one in which independent commercial newspaper companies would be appropriately credited, and rewarded, for sharing their local – and global – content with the BBC, while being able to access publicly-funded content from the BBC.

“The BBC must not be permitted to expand its services in such a way that could have harmful consequences for independent national and local news media. This position has been stressed to the BBC for many years and endorsed by senior politicians at the top of Government.

“The NMA would welcome a thorough review of the BBC’s role and remit which properly examines how the BBC could benefit from and support a successful independent commercial news media rather than seeking to provide the universal solution for a market failure which doesn’t exist.”

The report noted that while the BBC World Service remained “vitally important” countries such as Russia and China were investing far more in their global news channels and warned that its activities should not have an “adverse impact” on independent news media.

The report expressed concern about proposals to combine the role of the BBC deputy director of news with that of the director of the World Service which could “dilute the influence and the independent voice of the World Service within the BBC.”

The report said: “There are major benefits from the BBC undertaking commercial activities as the profits generated by the exploitation of the BBC’s intellectual property can be reinvested in the BBC’s public services, to the benefit of licence fee payers.

“However, BBC Worldwide’s activities must not risk jeopardising the reputation of the BBC or be allowed to have an adverse impact on its commercial competitors. We continue to believe that the approach of BBC’s commercial activities should be limited to those closely linked to its programmes and its public service remit.

“There is a potential risk that BBC dependence on returns from BBC Worldwide to fund UK public service content, as a co-producer of new content or through dividends to bolster the finance of the BBC’s PSB operations, could lead to UK PSB content focused more on global commercial appeal and return rather than primarily aimed at serving domestic audiences in the first instance. We believe that investing in public service content for UK audiences must remain the priority for BBC Worldwide beyond 2016.

The report added: “We recommend that the independent panel and Charter Review process consider whether changes are needed to existing oversight provisions in the Charter and Framework Agreement for BBC Worldwide and for the BBC’s other commercial activities.”