A convincing case of the BBC over-reaching remit

Lynne Anderson, deputy chief executive of News Media Association
Lynne Anderson, deputy chief executive of News Media Association
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Lynne Anderson is deputy chief executive of the News Media Association, which commissioned the report on the BBC

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.

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 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.

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.

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.