The BBC Strategy Review: the Newspaper Society responds

The Newspaper Society gives its verdict on the BBC Strategy Review: boundaries aren't properly set and the incursion into the provision of local news continues.
The Newspaper
6 June 2010

1. The Newspaper Society represents the regional media industry.  Its print, online and broadcast platforms now deliver trusted local and regional news, views, information and entertainment to 40 million print readers a week and 37 million web users a month through 1200 newspapers, 1500 websites, 600 niche and very local titles, 43 radio stations and 2 TV channels.

2. The BBC Trust and BBC Executive need to ‘set new boundaries’ which will immediately and truly reduce and restrict the BBC’s local role and local ambitions across all media platforms including print, online, radio and television and which will really curtail the BBC’s activities which have potential adverse impact upon its commercial competitors.  These need to be backed by strong oversight and enforcement measures. 

3. This really requires fundamental reform of the BBC Charter, Agreement and BBC Governance arrangements and funding, which ultimately may require government intervention. In the meantime, the BBC Trust and BBC Executive have ample powers to set and enforce clear and effective restrictions which would reduce the BBC’s existing activities and future ambitions in the nations, regions and localities.  The NS suggests some simple and pragmatic ways below to implement the necessary reduction and restriction by way of interim measures.

4. The issue is whether the BBC Trust and BBC Executive wish to exercise self-control or whether the strategy review may become the latest in a long line of BBC acknowledgment of criticism of its ever growing activities, without any effective action to curb and reduce them. The Newspaper Society will continue its dialogue with the BBC Trust and BBC Executive in the hope that the current review achieves simple and verifiable controls on the BBC’s local activities and ambitions. 

5. The industry’s fundamental concern is that the BBC Strategy Review‘s proposals will not result in reduction and restrictions upon BBC local activities.  The BBC Executive does acknowledge that ‘local services are an area where the BBC’s proposals have been criticized for their possible impact on commercial providers’ and that ‘the BBC needs to respond to the changes affecting other local news providers’.  But it fails to leave ‘a clear space for commercial providers’ or suggest the ‘right proposals for new boundaries and new BBC behaviours’ for BBC Trust consideration.

6. The BBC Executive suggests that it could develop a ‘new contract for local’ that sets out the BBC’s role as well as the limits to its ambitions.  Far from responding to the industry’s concerns, this demonstrates the extent to which the BBC intends to compete head on with regional and local media’s core content.

  Namely that:

  • ‘In local online, the BBC will only produce material in its core editorial areas of news, sport, travel, weather and local knowledge. It will not provide listings, local guides or similar feature material.
  • The BBC will be no more local in England than it is today on all platforms - that is, it will not increase the BBC’s number of local services on television, radio and online.’

7. The Review thus now confirms the BBC’s continued  intentions in local online to focus on core editorial areas of news, sport, weather, travel and local knowledge (i.e. supporting BBC initiatives where there is local relevance, but not general feature content) and improve the quality of its websites.

8. The Review also confirms the BBC’s intention to embark upon reporting of business, of the local democratic process – both staples of local newspaper coverage – via the BBC’s multiplatform coverage of local government and politics through Democracy Live; more prominence for audiovisual content; and its general development of interactive services.

9. The NS has already raised concerns in its continuing discussions with the BBC and BBC Trust about the BBC’s current development of its regional and local services, in direct competition with the regional press throughout the UK.   These already include the BBC’s current initiatives under its Nations and Regions news agenda and its implementation of the revised BBC Local proposals, encompassing the development of local radio websites (see below).

10. The regional press has of course always editorially focused upon local and regional news, sport, local knowledge, travel and weather, and has extended its audience beyond its core print titles to online and digital services.  The BBC Strategy Review starkly confirms the BBC’s intention to develop local online, in direct competition with the local commercial media, and exploiting fully the freedom of action conferred by its Charter, service licences, licence fee and flexible budgets.  It fails to pay any meaningful regard to the adverse impact of such BBC activity upon the independent commercial media. The only restrictions which the BBC is prepared to suggest are confined to the (albeit welcome) repetition of its past public concessions on dropping its production of listings, guides and similar feature material.

11. The BBC says that it will not increase the number of its local television, radio or online services.  This is welcome but still offers less comfort than is immediately apparent, since:

  • The BBC has no intention even in England of reducing its current local and regional services, nor of drawing back from the expansion of local and regional services already proposed, nor of restricting any development of any existing local and regional service which it deems does not amount to a service licence change requiring BBC Trust approval.  It also wants to develop its services in the North of England and elsewhere.
  • The BBC wants to be free to increase as well as develop its local television, radio and online services in Wales, Scotland,  Northern Ireland, (no doubt with reference to the past BBC Trust statements used to justify its original BBC Local ambitions).
  • If IFNCs or other such local partnerships involving the commercial independent media went ahead, successful bidders would face new competition, not a ‘clear space’ or concrete and useful partnership proposals from the BBC. 
  1. The BBC is silent on past pledges against revival of its local and regional print magazines, newspapers and other publications, or their electronic equivalents.

12. Nor is the BBC suggesting that it is about to adopt any new or more rigorous restrictions upon its aspirations for service development in England.

13. The Strategy Review simply appears to be repeating the BBC’s previous assurances as to the reduction of its original ‘ultra local services’ ambitions (which it originally presented as a natural and minor development of its existing services) first  as a result of budget revisions and  then the refusal of the BBC Trust to approve its original BBC Local Video proposals.  The BBC Trust’s online consultation says  that the BBC Director-General has suggested that this means ‘not offering any more localised services than the BBC already does - for example new services for individual towns or cities’. Obviously, welcome though this is, it would be helpful to have this assurance translated into a binding restriction, along the lines that are suggested below.

14. Moreover, the BBC Strategy Review is not proposing that the BBC would impose any restrictions on the content of its existing local services, or on any ways of tailoring content to produce localised material in response to individual demand, or on ways to access such material on any media platform.

Necessity for effective restrictions upon the BBC’s regional and local activities and ambitions 

15. The BBC’s local and regional activities and ambitions need to be reduced, not entrenched, as a result of the BBC Strategy Review. Comprehensive, consistent and coherent restrictions must be drawn up in consultation with the regional media on the BBC’s public service and commercially funded activities which adversely affect the regional media.  Pending radical review of BBC governance arrangements, they then need to be introduced, policed and enforced by the BBC and BBC Trust.  Appropriate changes must also be made to Service Licences, protocols, budgets, commercial and public policy strategies.

16. The restrictions must be clear and capable of implementation by staff in a straightforward manner.  Any breaches of controls over local services or local content should be capable of being quickly and easily detected and dealt with by BBC local management.  The local management must be able to address problems or resolve complaints by the local media quickly.  There must also be swift and effective procedures for local review of decisions and appeal, in addition to the established compliance and oversight procedures of the BBC Trust and BBC Executive.

17. Transparency is also necessary for the BBC’s competitors to be convinced that any controls will actually work in practice.  A comprehensive and detailed public audit (constantly updated) of the BBC’s local and regional activity is necessary, detailing all the BBC’s actual websites, online content, services, activities and ambitions - existing, planned and proposed (sourced to the relevant policy and strategy documents) - and then explaining the application of controls to them.  This includes details of the approval/oversight proposals and all budgets as allocated including specific breakdowns at local level, investment limits, and oversight mechanisms. 

18. Indeed it would be helpful if the BBC identified precisely the effects of the BBC Strategy Review’s proposed limits on its local activities and ambitions, with precise illustration of what it intends to retain, expand or develop and what would be dropped, whether in relation to the content itself or the means of accessing and selecting it.  The BBC’s competitors would then have a better understanding of what the BBC itself meant by them.  After all, the BBC Trust has yet to prove the effectiveness of its retrospective monitoring of the approved BBC Local Video services.  The NS is also concerned by the reappearance of the proposals and arguments for expansion advanced by the BBC for developing its local services, without any suggestion of effective controls to avoid detriment to the commercial media.

19. New controls should be placed on any BBC activities which compete for audience or revenue with the regional and local media – such as BBC’s print, online and audiovisual content and services however accessed or received and by whatever technological means.

20. In the short term, these may have to be simple restrictions, some along the general lines previously proposed by the BBC itself but more rigorous, provided they are strictly enforced.  

21. Maximum story count: Introduction and enforcement of a specific maximum number of regional and local stories and other material per day (midnight to midnight), published or otherwise available on each BBC local radio website and any other relevant BBC website, which carry local and regional material and which is accessible at any time by any means during the 24 hour period.  The restrictions would have to apply to all categories of content, irrespective of the BBC’s definition of its four core editorial content categories, or current categorization used by the BBC,  such as ‘news’ or associated headings such as ‘people and places’, ‘religion and ethics’, ‘things to do’, ‘history’, ‘arts and culture’, ‘science’ etc., which resemble local newspaper/media content (print/online) and other services, including user-generated content.  Live streaming, user generated content, updates and substitution of material should also be specifically limited and included in maximum daily count (avoiding easy bypass of limits – we refer you to our submission on BBC Local Video, an extract from which is attached, which explained why the BBC’s then proposed story count limit would be ineffective).

22. Links: As Ofcom concluded, links will not remedy the negative market impact upon the commercial media caused by BBC expansion into local media activities.  However, it could be helpful to include a specified minimum number of prominent links each day from the home page of any relevant BBC website, such as the BBC local radio/local online websites, to local commercial media websites and to stories originated by local commercial media, with agreed and appropriate description of the local media concerned.  The basis for the BBC’s choice must be transparent and agreed with local commercial media.  The BBC should not claim that it has thereby become, expressly or impliedly, the local portal for all local content and services.  Conversely, the BBC should not link through to websites in ways which would undermine the regional media’s revenue earning commercial and editorial relationships.

23. Monitoring of click-through: The use of the links and traffic engendered needs to be monitored and recorded, in ways verifiable and useful to local commercial media.

24. BBC acknowledgment of its source material: The BBC should be obliged to  identify fully and properly acknowledge, in accordance with the manner agreed with the local media,  its use of any material produced by a local media source (e.g. title, website) for any of its stories and other material used on air, online etc, by the BBC, whether the BBC picked up and recast the story or incorporated  it into its own report, with or without BBC original material, or simply reproduced it in whole or in part.

25. BBC link to local media’s story used as source material:  The BBC should be obliged to publish links to the local media’s full story where appropriate, (and with full and proper acknowledgment of this local media source as above), whenever and wherever the story is used by the BBC, whether on international, national or local website, broadcast, or other publications and however accessed.

26. Prohibition of BBC cross-promotion of its local and regional licence fee funded and commercial services should be introduced and enforced. 

27. Prohibitions on BBC online content or services: The BBC must be prevented from producing or publishing or facilitating anything similar to local commercial media services, such as listings, directories, classified advertising, public or private sector recruitment, local government and other public sector publicity and information, community information, statutory or other public notices; local guides, ticket sales and from launching or publishing any printed media, including newspapers and magazines, whether or not carrying third party advertising or public notices.

28. Pending radical review, simple agreed procedures should be introduced to maintain the agreed  controls  over the BBC’s local activities: 

  • Regular review in conjunction with the local media to ensure that prohibitions are understood, effective, clarified, updated and extended where necessary before adverse impact upon the local commercial media.
  • Simple procedures to ensure that any transgression by the BBC is immediately detected and rectified and prevented from re-occurring, with a record of each day made, retained and submitted and verified by local management;  reported, monitored and policed by  the BBC Executive at national level and by BBC Trust; also made available to the media/public. Simple and expedited complaint processes at every level will be needed.  Merely retrospective analysis of compliance needs to be avoided, since harm could be caused to the BBC’s competitors before any breach is even detected, much less put right.

29. Transparency, full disclosure, advance notice and continuing consultation about any activity planned by the BBC.  Prior local consultation of the regional and local media must be undertaken at the earliest stage and continue thereafter. Consultation must precede any proposed development or changes to BBC’s local services and then be maintained, if the proposals do proceed, in order to avoid any adverse impact upon the local commercial media.  Any proposed partnership arrangements with local public sector and local government of any kind must also be subject to appropriate restrictions, prior notification, detailed consultation and controls.

30. Regular reviews of the operation of the controls, at local level upwards, would be necessary to ensure compliance, detect problems, update and extend restrictions where necessary.

31. Transparent accounting, transparent detailed budgets (local/regional/ national/service) and financial information should also be readily available from the BBC to supplement its own explanation of the true extent of the BBC’s  investment in BBC’s local and regional activities in any particular area, whether licence fee funded or otherwise.  This includes the precise budgets, specific details of proposed expenditure broken down by service, service content definition and service licence controls.

32. These obligations would exist in addition to any formal existing obligations upon the BBC and BBC Trust in respect of Fair Trading Rules, PVT assessment, review of service licences, budget arrangements.

33. The NS and its members have of course repeatedly put these points to the BBC Executive and the BBC Trust (see attached).We hope that the BBC Trust and BBC Executive will now actually discuss, consult and then implement strong and effective controls over its local and regional activities, as  part of its current dialogue with the industry. 

34. Fundamental reform of the BBC, BBC governance and BBC funding remains necessary. 

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