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Regenerating Britain's local media: can public service broadcasting come to the rescue?

With local news services of all kinds in steady decline, and democracy under threat as a result, can the BBC step in to the breach?

Justin Schlosberg
24 August 2012
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 BBC Local Radio Regions

It is no secret that the traditional business models for delivering local news are in crisis. Faced with a slow but steady decline in readers and viewers, the migration of advertising online and a failure to monetise hyperlocal and other new online audiences, the economics of local news are looking grim. At the same time, unchecked media concentration over several decades has allowed some groups to accumulate vast amounts of revenue and influence, with disastrous consequences for ethical journalism and democracy. 

Alongside concentration there has been decades worth of cutbacks. In the local context, this has meant removing journalists from the local beat and transplanting them to regional offices. It has meant turning dailies into weeklies. It has meant wholesale cuts to feature-writing and investigative reporting. And it has fostered the growth of ‘advertorial’ content in place of real journalism about real local issues. 

It is important to note that these changes have long preceded the internet, which has been routinely invoked in defence of further consolidation and cutbacks. Forty years ago, as a wave of death and consolidation swept local media, a study of the roles of the provincial press in the UK found that they carried out four central functions that were being lost as a result of closures and mergers: 1) fostering a sense of community identity and cohesion, and facilitating individual integration; 2) conveying political, institutional and cultural information and analysis, and creating a historical record of community affairs; 3) providing a platform for debate and complaint; and 4) publicising goods and services available, situations vacant, and announcements and notices (Jackson 1971).

This presents challenges not only to the newspaper industry, but - as Ofcom recently noted - to broadcast media as well: “We have recognised the critical role that local newspaper journalism plays in delivering public purposes. Local newspaper journalism not only underpins the delivery of local news on other media, but also makes a key contribution to the national news agenda” (Ofcom 2009). 

It is clear that the local paper still has an essential democratic function in the eyes of local communities themselves (Media Trust 2010) and it is equally clear that the market alone will not sustain local news. It is in this sense that the crisis has been recognised as a public service problem. The first attempt to address it in recent years was a set of proposals put forward by BBC management in 2008 to extend its local news services online. It followed a challenge by the BBC Trust “to respond to license fee payers wanting better local services” (Dianne Coyle, quoted in BBC Trust press release, June 2008). 

That same year, Ofcom had approved ITV plans to reduce its public service commitment to local and regional programming, including an overall reduction in news minutage as well as a 50 percent cut in non-news content. Against this backdrop, the BBC was fighting to protect its license fee revenue and avoid 'top slicing' as a solution to ITV's problems. The BBC signed up to proposals during the twilight of the last government's tenure that would have seen it share some of its content and production facilities with channel 3 providers. In the event, ITV’s recovery from the financial crisis and the change of government put a break on these proposals. Fierce resistance from the commercial sector forced the BBC Trust to reject the local news project.

The government backed the regional newspapers case primarily ‘on competition grounds’, on the assumption that the BBC proposals would negatively impact on the competitive health of the market, to the detriment of consumer welfare. This view was underpinned by Ofcom’s Market Impact Assessment (MIA) which found that the proposals would reduce commercial revenues by 4 per cent and have a serious negative effect “on future commercial innovation in online local news, sports and weather services” (Ofcom 2008). But it is not clear from the MIA report, nor from the Trust’s associated Public Value Test (PVT), how this impact was measured against the consumer and citizen benefit that might have been derived.

Indeed, the overwhelming response to the Trust’s public consultation supported the case for BBC expanding its digital local news services. But the proposals came on the back of a string of editorial crises at the Beeb, from Hutton to ‘queengate’, which made the political climate somewhat unfavourable. The scandal involving comedy presenters Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross coincided with deliberation over the proposals. The contrasting tone of the Trust’s chairman Michael Lyons prior to the scandal and following the decision is noteworthy:

There's nobody who can be satisfied with the quality of local news in most parts of the United Kingdom. - 15 October, in a speech

[The Trust recognises] the negative impact that the local video proposition could have on commercial media services which are valued by the public. - 21 November, BBC Trust press release

The response of the BBC management to the Trust’s decision suggested that expanding public service in local news markets was a dim prospect: "We should move on and not return to it for the foreseeable future” (Mark Thompson, November 2008). However, the gap in local news provision that prompted the BBC local proposals was not subsequently filled and there was little sign of the market doing what it claimed it would do in the absence of BBC expansion.

In response to the enduring challenges facing local news provision, the government has put local television, at least, at the heart of its cultural plans. Having rejected the previous Labour government’s proposals for Independently Funded News Consortia, it has now committed itself to a policy centred on commercial growth in local television services. Initially, these services will support only 10-12 local television stations, although the government has expressed belief that the number will increase later. The BBC, for its part, has had to part with £25 million to help with the set up costs and has committed to commissioning a further £5 million worth of local television content for the first three years. But the long-term sustainability of commercial local television remains uncertain. For one thing, it is difficult to see how the plans will lure back local advertisers to traditional advertising platforms and away from the dynamic pay-per-click models offered online. What’s more, it is classified advertising that has long provided the bare bones of local news revenues and which is unsuited to the medium of television.

More seriously, part of the local TV proposals included a commitment to significantly relax local cross-media ownership rules. Whilst this was presented as a sensible response to market conditions, it will likely result in increasing consolidation of ownership and business rationalisation that may, once more, diminish the ability of news to respond to the professed news needs of local communities. A better solution would be to follow a long-established policy principle across Europe that public responsibilities should be attached to significant media power. There is a need to ensure that not only the BBC but also dominant commercial news providers contribute to supporting those fledgling sectors of the media that are foundational to democracy.

Funds should be raised from groups with a dominant share of a given national media audience, as well as those that have attracted advertisers away from local papers. A negligible levy on these giants would be sufficient to make a substantive contribution to regenerating local journalism. Its rationale reflects a principle of cross-subsidy in the media that underpinned the formation of Channel Four and continues to support the likes of The Guardian and The Times.

It is also crucial that the allocation of public support does not favour one particular platform of local news, but rather exploits the full range of value provided by both traditional and new models of journalism. Be it niche blogs, co-operative newspapers, ‘local news hubs’ or the fledgling community radio sector, there are multiple routes to regenerating local journalism and, by extension, local democracy.

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