Faure Walker: Ofcom Must Awake From Its Slumber And Intervene On BBC Local News Plans

Ofcom must “awake from its slumber” and intervene to prevent the BBC crowding out commercial providers with plans to ramp up its own digital local news services, Newsquest chief executive Henry Faure Walker said.

Speaking on The Media Show hosted by Katie Razzall, Mr Faure Walker said the industry was very concerned about the BBC’s expansion into local online news which is “potentially very damaging” to commercial providers.

“It 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. It diverts those eyeballs to the BBC,” Mr Faure Walker said.

He added: “We absolutely think there is a case for Ofcom to intervene and I have to say we are disappointed by the passivity of that regulator, and we think they left the door open in 2019 when they let the BBC expand substantially in Scotland by starting up a dedicated Scottish channel.

“I think the BBC now employs more news journalists in Scotland than any other media organisation, that just seems unbalanced to me. We hope that Ofcom will awake from its slumber and do something about this.”

Under the BBC Charter, the BBC must avoid adverse impacts on competition. The government is currently working on the BBC Mid Term Review, including evaluating how the BBC and Ofcom assess the market impact, with regard to commercial radio and local news sectors.

Also speaking on the Media Show yesterday, BBC director of nations Rhodri Talfan Davies said that the reason Bradford, Wolverhampton, Sunderland and Peterborough had been selected as key areas to boost the BBC’s local news was because research showed audiences in those areas felt they had a “weaker connection” with the BBC, rather than the areas being undersupplied by commercial local news providers. 

Mr Faure Walker added: “I heard Rhodri cite Bradford earlier and he talks of some deficit in Bradford – we are the proud publishers of the Bradford Telegraph and 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 called Peterborough Today, 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.   

Also speaking on the programme, head of research at Enders Analysis Alice Enders pointed to the enormous pressures on revenues faced by the local news sector over the last decade. She said it was a “real shame” that the Local News Partnership between the NMA sand BBC had not been considered as a means to collaborate further.

“All those who are independent thought it was a really good way for the BBC and local media to join forces at the local level,” she said.

Separately, the DCMS Select Committee announced today an evidence session for 1 December to quiz BBC executives on the plans to cut local radio and invest more into local digital services.

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.”