Ashley Highfield Calls For ‘Genuinely Symbiotic” Partnership Between BBC and Local Press

News Media Association chairman Ashley Highfield has outlined at a Culture, Media and Sport Committee hearing the ways in which a “genuinely symbiotic” partnership between the BBC and local press industry could be achieved for the benefit of both parties and the general public.

Mr Highfield, Johnston Press chief executive, was giving evidence on behalf of the NMA at the hearing yesterday on the BBC’s role in relation to local journalism as part of its BBC Charter Review inquiry.

Mr Highfield told MPs that he believed an outcome in which content would flow both ways between the BBC and the local press industry would benefit both parties and the public, but that rules and guidelines were necessary to ensure that it was delivered.

Giving evidence, Mr Highfield said: “The idea of a symbiotic relationship is one where content could flow both ways to the benefits of both parties but there needs to be some guidelines and rules set down, and that then comes to the nub of what we’re trying to achieve with the BBC.

“We are in discussions with them and we hope to actually reach an agreement between the press and the BBC on how the content would flow both ways, how it would be properly attributed, how it might be paid for, commissioned, and that’s where I start from.

“I believe there is an outcome in this where the public win by getting more content, the BBC wins by extending its public reach and by getting content from us, and we win, bluntly, by getting paid for the content that might be commissioned from us that appears on the BBC.”

“We have huge audiences, whilst the audiences in print are in decline, actually a lot more shallow decline than I think people realise, our audiences online are in very strong growth, such that out net audience across almost every publication, remembers there’s a thousand plus regional publications, is in growth.  

“Our audiences have never been bigger.”

Mr Highfield continued: “The important point about that is we can bring to the BBC increased reach, particularly into some of the underserved sections of the community which the BBC may struggle to reach, and we can extend that reach, we can be trusted distribution partners for the BBC. 

“A principle actually that they have already suggested is that we have access to their data bank, the bucket of BBC content that we can take to a new audience. Likewise and going the other way, the BBC do already take our content, usually out of our newspapers or from our websites, and put them onto their website.

Mr Highfield said that the BBC’s initial proposals for 100 BBC journalists to work on local news would have been unhelpful to the local press industry and “backdoor expansionism.”

“A much more straightforward model would be to commission the regional press, given that it is our core skill in doing this, to provide more of that content to the BBC. We really don’t need to overcomplicate this and I think we would staff up, it would be a great opportunity for us to put some more certainty into the employment base of court and council reporting and know that we’ve got a revenue stream coming in from the BBC.”  

Mr Highfield outlined that areas where the BBC and local press could collaborate such as the BBC commissioning of court and council reporting from local press, the BBC paying for and attributing for content they take from local press, BBC providing content for local press, working together on data journalism, providing training and providing facilities for local reporters, and commissioning ad hoc investigative reporting from local press.

Mr Highfield added: “So there are a range of proposals which could add up to a meaningful source of revenue for the regional press as a source of content, and for the BBC likewise a meaningful amount of content.

“We want to have a fair ecosystem, an ecosystem where both sides can win so we are not going about this in the combative language, or we are trying to move on from that, and saying that there is a world where the BBC can get what they want, which is great local stories often in communities.. where they do not have any reporters on the ground. There are thousands of those.

“And in which circumstances we’d be happy to provide but we just want to be attributed, we want the links back to our websites which the BBC have always promised but not been able to deliver as it hasn’t been regulated, there’s been no quotas for any of that, and so with the best will in the world this simply hasn’t happened. We want proper attribution, proper linking back, and we want to be paid for the content that they take.

 Mr Highfield said: “I think if the objective is to ensure strong media plurality in the United Kingdom then it is in everyone’s interests to ensure that there is a healthy vibrant regional press.”