BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporting Service under threat?

By Hamish Mackay in the Scottish Review

The BBC has rejected claims it ‘crowds out’ the regional press after demands were made to scrap a scheme that would create more than 100 journalism jobs.

Hold the Front Page reports that the corporation has hit back after the News Media Association (NMA) wrote to the BBC’s board to demand a U-turn on proposals to create a new network of digital community reporters.

HTFP explains: ‘Under the proposals, announced in March last year, the BBC will launch the network to cover some of the UK’s most under-served communities as part of a major investment in local journalism.

‘At the time, it sparked accusations from the NMA that the BBC was forgetting the existing Local News Partnership with the regional press industry, which includes the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporting Service’.

NMA chief executive, Owen Meredith, had renewed his attack on the digital community reporter plans in an opinion piece in The Times in October, describing it as an ‘unprecedented assault’ on the regional press.

HTFP tells us: ‘He has now gone one step further, calling for that proposal to be scrapped altogether and stating it represents a direct threat to the economic sustainability of the regional press. But the BBC has hit back, claiming there is no evidence that it crowds out local newspapers with its own regional coverage’.

A BBC spokesperson said: ‘The BBC’s commitment to impartial local journalism across radio and online is long-standing. Our services are trusted by millions of people. There is no evidence the BBC crowds out other providers and no reason to think we will in the future. Industry analysis and international comparisons show it is the decline of advertising revenues that’s the biggest challenge to local commercial journalism – not the BBC.

‘We spend up to £8m a year supporting the local commercial news sector through our Local Democracy Reporting Service. We pay for 165 journalists across the UK who produce stories used by a range of local media providers every day. We offer this support because we believe audiences value having a real choice of local news provision.’

The NMA’s demand comes amid a national debate over future BBC funding after the UK Government’s Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, revealed a plan to freeze the licence fee for the next two years at £159 before abolishing it altogether in 2027.

Owen Meredith wrote in the letter to the BBC board: ‘It is increasingly evident the BBC’s proposals, funded by taxpayers through the licence fee, represent a direct threat to the economic sustainability of independent local news media, in turn undermining media plurality, diversity and consumer choice.

‘In the BBC’s centenary year, as it searches for relevance in a digital world, it is unthinkable that it should seek – intentionally or otherwise – to undermine the viability of commercial news providers and the many diverse community voices these publishers represent, leaving the BBC a monolithic provider of news in the UK.

‘We therefore ask the BBC board to withdraw the local news plans set out in Across the UK and commit to working in a meaningful way with the independent commercial news sector, setting boundaries to the BBC’s online news remit, to ensure access to quality journalism, from a range of sources, remains a cornerstone of UK democratic society.’

Meantime, the BBC’s director-general, Tim Davie, has refused to rule out axing BBC2, BBC4 or Radio 5 Live as a result of the two-year licence fee standstill deal announced by Nadine Dorries on 16 January. In a response to the new deal, Davie said ‘everything’s on the agenda’ for cuts because the licence freeze at £159 would lead to a £285m funding shortfall by 2027 that will affect the BBC’s frontline output.

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