The relationship between the BBC and the commercial news media sector has long been the subject of intense debate within the industry.
Commercial news brands – newspapers in print and digital – followed by the BBC are the two largest news providers in the UK, and both are vital to the overall news ecology and to democracy. How these two players develop and relate to each other will determine the future of the UK’s plural and diverse news provision sector.
Commercial publishers – local, national and international – have often felt that the licence fee-funded BBC with its vast resources and ability to cross- promote across different platforms is in danger of becoming the dominant UK news provider in an area already well catered for by independent news media businesses.
The BBC brings enormous value to the UK news media landscape but it cannot be in anyone’s interests to have a news provider with £3.7bn per year of public funding acting in a way that is harmful to the independent commercial sector.
In the background of the BBC Charter Review, the News Media Association commissioned Oliver and Ohlbaum Associates to examine the changing market for news services and the BBC’s role within that market. Their report, published today, finds that the broader UK news sector remains vibrant and innovative.
This is a crucial point because it rebuts any suggestion of a market failure in the industry which may need to be plugged by the BBC. Where there are any uncertainties in the UK news market, the corporation’s focus should be on support and co-operation, not the displacement of those services with BBC services funded by the licence fee, the report says.
The report proposes an alternative philosophy that the BBC could adopt in working in transparent partnerships with other organisations that would enable all parts of the news media market to thrive. This could be via joint venture vehicles or by more open trading of news assets between the BBC and commercial news sector.
In all instances, the BBC should be under obligation to review its options for partnership working before – and in explicit preference to – any expansion of its own online news services.
Looking at the BBC’s scale and scope, the report finds that its stated ambition to expand online news provision threatens to crowd out commercial news providers. An example is the BBC’s drive to create its own suite of local news services across the breadth of the UK’s communities which is unnecessary and risks damaging the local press sector which is currently in transition to a sustainable digital world.
The local newspaper industry has for years been putting forward innovative and practical ideas for working together, but many of them have not been taken up despite the rhetoric of co-operation from the Corporation’s senior management.
The report also found that editorial scope of the BBC’s national online news services is rapidly expanding, drawing it further from its core broadcasting remit into traditionally commercial editorial areas such as “soft” news articles, magazine “lifestyle” content, and celebrity columnists.
On the back of the report, the NMA is calling for a series of fundamental changes to the BBC’s Charter which will put co-operation at the heart of its interaction with the independent sector.
Guiding principles should be set out spelling out how the BBC should work with the commercial sector. A specific control around the scope of BBC online should be introduced as well as commitment to source news content from existing news providers rather than seeking to replicate their coverage.
The NMA believes that, by working as a partner with the commercial news sector, the BBC can benefit from extended reach and a deeper pool of available content than it can hope to fund as a standalone organisation – of great importance given increasing calls for limits to licence fee funding.
Working with other news providers can make the BBC’s investment go further and support UK citizens by helping to sustain a genuine plurality of news provision from multiple commercial providers.
In order to seed a culture change within the organisation, a clear mandate and accountability needs to start from the top –the BBC Trust needs to be replaced with a credible independent body.
The recent track record of unchecked BBC activity has seen the organisation expand its online portfolio to take it into more direct competition with other news outlets. Therefore governance and remit changes are required to ensure that the UK can continue to enjoy a high quality, market-driven plurality of news supply from the UK’s successful and globally respected news market.
Lynne Anderson is deputy chief executive of the News Media Association.