Opinion: BBC plan to expand local reporting could kill off historic titles vital to their community
There are many views of the modern BBC. Is it a bloated and outdated monolith, or a necessary corrective to the sometimes skewed world view proffered by the more excitable tabloids? Is the licence fee a punitive tax or a small price to pay for its services? These debates will continue to rage.
And the Beeb’s nickname of Auntie, unwittingly, sums this up division. Is it the comforting and constant face of Britain in the face of a changing world, or a slightly twee and unwanted figure who spends too long in your house when you have other pressing needs to attend to?
However, one development in the last year should give less cause for argument.
Two years ago the corporation unveiled an expansion plan called Across the UK, which included a huge investment in local reporting. It is running in tandem with a plan to cut local radio stations’ unique programming and share more radio content across regions.
Sounds fair, you might think? Well, no.
Both sides of the plan have damaging effects. Local radio is the area that the BBC, while obviously not unique, does better than most other competitors. Its consistency of tone, its knowledge of what works for its pockets of audience and its focus on hyperlocal issues are to be admired. As an example, tune into your local BBC station early in the morning and keep an ear out for the travel updates. It is real-time information that people want.
On top of that, stations around the country provide a genuine community for the older generation who can not or may not want to embrace a fully digital lifestyle. As licence fee-payers, they are being shortchanged by losing their local station’s identity - a point made well by MP Caroline Dinenage, the chair of the Commons’ Culture, Media & Sport Committee. She asked the Minister for Media, Tourism & Creative Industries, John Whittingdale: “Local radio is such a lifeline to many of the elderly, vulnerable and isolated people in our communities. I wonder what the Minister’s view is as to what the public service in the BBC’s public service remit actually means.
“Shouldn’t it include reaching everyone with local news and information, and not just those who are digitally enabled?”
Sir John replied: “Many people still value local radio and will regret and be very concerned about the reduction in output of local radio that the BBC proposed, particularly in evenings and weekends.”
Then we come on to the second half of the plan.
We - along with many people across the country in our industry - have serious reservations about what expanding BBC local news coverage will mean for the regional press.
Regional media have had a harsh enough decade as it is, with Google and Facebook taking huge chunks of cash from a media economy already battered by recession and austerity and then Covid. It is a delicate ecosystem, and one which may not survive if the BBC pours funds into expanding the number of its own local journalists.
Put simply, in the modern world eyeballs mean revenue and stability. The regional press - which gives a voice to local communities, campaigns on their behalf and gets grassroots stories the exposure they deserve - is working towards becoming sustainable and needs time to get there. It does not need the unfair competition of a government and taxpayer-funded organisation flooding the market with extra staff. This is not fair rivalry over chasing a story, but an uneven playing field. This kind of investment should not be used to create an existential crisis in an industry that plays a vital role in local democracy.
You can love the BBC, you can praise its drama, enjoy its election coverage and watch News at Ten every night - but you cannot say for one moment that threatening the existence of historic titles rooted in communities up and down the land is what the licence fee was designed for. This plan needs to be rethought - and fast. And we'd like to see MPs standing up for their local papers and websites as well as their local radio stations.