Editor's view: The BBC is distorting local news markets and needs to be stopped
For most people, paying the BBC licence fee is a fact of life. Lots of us consume BBC content every day, whether it’s television or radio. Many of us also have strong views on the BBC’s output – particularly when it comes to its news coverage.
But what is not as widely appreciated is what the BBC is doing here, in Wolverhampton, and the impact that its actions are having on newspapers such as the Express & Star.
Earlier this year, the BBC announced major cuts to its local radio services, services that clearly fulfil a need that is not being met by commercial providers, which is precisely the point of a public service broadcaster. Then, last week, the BBC announced major cuts to one of its flagship current affairs programmes, Newsnight.
The BBC says these cuts are necessary to deliver £500m of savings, a result of a two-year freeze in the licence fee.
And yet, at the same time as making these cuts, the BBC is going to expand its local news coverage online – recruiting more journalists and increasing its output. In other words, it is going to use licence payers’ money to compete in a market that is already brilliantly served by local publishers, such as the Express & Star.
Why does this matter and why should you care?
The world of local publishing is difficult, and it has been for many years. Hundreds of local newspapers have already closed, and more will follow unless the industry can find a sustainable business model.
As reader habits change, more of our audience is switching from reading our newspapers and instead choosing to read our content online. And while our audience is now larger than ever, the stark reality is that the advertising we carry on our websites does not cover the cost of our newsrooms.
This, in a nutshell, is why we have introduced a paywall on our websites. We are passionate about local journalism, and continuing to serve our loyal audience – a role we have been fulfilling since 1874.
A vibrant, free press is vital in a healthy democracy, holding decision-makers to account and standing up for and campaigning on behalf of our readers, as well as providing a valuable platform for putting advertisers in touch with our audience.
In recent months, we have continued our Feed a Family campaign, which you have continued to support wholeheartedly; we have highlighting the devastating impact of knife crime, with our campaign being recognised by the Prime Minister; and we have shone a spotlight on the talent all around us when we staged the Black Country Ladder Apprenticeship Awards. The BBC would not be able to run any of these campaigns.
The BBC’s plan to expand its local coverage make the task of finding a sustainable business model even more difficult.
Far from improving local coverage, it threatens to deal a fatal blow to many local newspaper publishers. Remember, the BBC does not have to survive as a commercial operation, it doesn’t rely on advertising and it has massive budgets (paid for by us, the licence fee payers).
The BBC’s plans are also at odds with its commitment to government not to distort the markets it operates in, and they fly in the face of its promises to ministers that it wants to help the local news industry, big and small.
Make no mistake, more newspapers will face closure if this plan goes ahead.
That is why it is so important to halt the BBC’s expansion, and why the newspaper industry has united in its opposition for perhaps the first time in its history.
The BBC must focus its investment where there is a clear gap that is not being met by commercial operators; it must not be allowed to undermine the vital work of local publishers who already deliver comprehensive, trusted local news.