What can and should the BBC do about local news?

The Government want BBC to provide for market failure, except in the one instance where there is a clear case for it, the delivery of local news.

Angela Phillips
13 October 2015

flickr/Sarah Marshall. Some rights reserved.

The Government has framed its consultation on the BBC Green Paper on the assumption that the BBC remit should be narrowed. It has made it clear that it sees the BBC’s role as providing only for market failure. The Media Reform Coalition in its submission to the DCMS does not accept the premise that the BBC should be judged primarily on whether its existence impedes other organisations from operating in the UK broadcast market. It should be evaluated simply on the extent to which it is delivering a high quality public service.

The inconsistency of the market argument is demonstrated in the one area of clear market failure: the delivery of local news. Here the concept of market failure is being used, not as a means of enabling intervention where it is required, but of preventing it at all costs.  The UK is very badly served by commercial news providers at local level. Large swathes of the country have no local news service at all (on or off line) and where news services have survived they cover very large areas, do little original reporting and are increasingly run as local monopolies yet, unlike broadcasters, they have no obligation to be impartial in their coverage of local politics. 

This democratic deficit is clearly a matter of public concern and yet any attempt by the BBC to move into this vacuum and provide a service to licence fee payers, is met by a roar of disapproval about ‘unfair competition’ or ‘empire building’ from news organisations that have already shown themselves incapable of sustaining local services for news, even while they continue to derive profits from local advertisers.

If we look at other markets, for example, the USA, the collapse of local and regional newspapers was in no way prevented by the non-existence of publicly funded

broadcasting.  On the other hand, in Norway, we see that well-funded public broadcasting has had little negative impact on the health of the commercial sector. Indeed Norway has one of the highest levels of newspaper readership in the world  (on and off line). Public broadcasting has also had a positive impact on the education, knowledge and (arguably) cohesion of societies in northern Europe (Aalberg and Curran, 2012).

 The predators, both in the USA and in the UK, are not the BBC but the huge global companies such as Facebook Google which, in company with local free advertising networks, have deprived local news organisations of their income. The loss of advertising revenue is not the fault of the BBC and it is not up to the BBC to recompense the losses of over-leveraged media chains. The solution for local commercial media lies in finding a solution to the advertising crisis, not in hampering diversity by stopping alternative services. Audiences need to be served with news programming, while the commercial sector struggles to find a solution, otherwise increasing numbers, particularly among the young and the poorly educated, will be cut off from any source of news and current affairs information.

 The delivery of local news is of great importance to the health of the entire news ecology. While commercial services struggle to deliver it, all news organisations are suffering and so indeed are the communities that are under-served and have no means of monitoring the behaviour of their local councils or their representatives in Parliament. The simple solution would be to empower the BBC to move into areas where the commercial sector has failed.  But this has been strenuously opposed by the commercial sector, instead the local newspaper magnates are asking for about BBC content sharing at local level.  This is an interesting development, but the BBC has public service obligations that do not apply to the local press. While local newspapers are free to campaign in elections, BBC journalists cannot do so and it would be wrong for BBC content to be re-purposed in any way that would breach impartiality regulations.

The use of local newspaper reporters, trained to provide content that could be used by the BBC, would not get around the problem. The way in which material is now used online and in social media, means that context is often removed. It would be damaging to the BBC, if reporters used in BBC programming were also seen to be providing content that was explicitly biased.  Any move towards collaboration at this level must therefore involve discussions about safeguards and impartiality guidelines.

There needs to be a means of injecting more money into local news production but, if the BBC is ‘top sliced’ to prop up the failing local press, it will simply lose journalists.

Money is indeed required but it might be more useful to require Google and Facebook to provide an independent levy for the support of local democracy (and independent journalism) rather than taking it from one of the few providers that is still capable of providing a regional news service and is doing so within broadcasting regulations which require balanced coverage of political issues.

This is excerpted from the Media Reform Coalition submission to the DCMS. Media Reform is the organiser of the Media Democracy Festival at Goldsmiths College on Saturday 17th October 2015. 

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