Another Tory MP fired a shot across the BBC’s bows at the Society of Editors conference this week, claiming that the corporation’s online activities are undermining local newspapers.
Theresa May said that the BBC’s claims that they were opening up new markets were nonsense and that it was, in fact dominating them, and that may have severe consequences for the small local newspapers such as The Maidenhead Advertiser, which covers her own constituency.
“If the BBC can provide all the locally-significant news, what reason is left for local people to buy a newspaper? That’s as dangerous for local politics as it is for local journalism,” she said.
It would actually be a very good question if it were in any way accurate, which it isn’t, and to blame the demise of the local press on the BBC is actually ignoring many of the very real issues which face local journalism in this country.
Anyone who has taken a few minutes to look at the BBC’s online output will realise that any local news comes from its network of local radio stations and regional television operations, which have been operating for more than 40 years.
Because of the geography, this means the BBC simply cannot provide the granular level of coverage that the local press provide, and which their audiences appreciate.
On top of that the ‘local’ press isn’t really a network of small local businesses operating in isolation; most local newspapers are owned by one of the large publishers such as Trinity Mirror, Associated, Gannett-owned Newsquest or Johnston Press.
These companies are perfectly capable of standing up to the BBC as was shown a few years ago when the BBC tried a pilot scheme to provide an “ultra-local” video news service, again based in its West Midlands local radio stations.
The pilot was not taken to full service after complaints from the newspaper editors that this would be a barrier to them providing such services, even though none of them had any resources to do so anyway; had they worked with the BBC rather than opposing them things might have been very different and there might be a lot more local video journalism jobs around than there are today.
As it is, the owners of local newspapers are feeling the squeeze and have shareholders to pay, so they aren’t investing in local newsrooms, which means fewer journalists, all of whom are welded to their desks turning round press releases from councils, MPs and charities and doing check calls rather than getting out and reporting on their local community properly.
Then there are the free-sheets. As one commenter on The Guardian story said: “Why buy a local paper when a free one comes through your letter box every week?”
Very often some of these free-sheets are paid for by local councils who don’t want their propaganda to be filtered by the professional journalists on their local paper, and so they produce their own newspapers, usually at the council tax payer’s expense, rather than engage with the local press where they might be, heaven forbid, criticised.
It’s not just in print, but online too – as Simon’s previous post highlights – many organisations now have their own online news services to provide news and information to people, not just the football clubs, and this too undermines the work of the local press, and this is a trend that’s on the rise.
Funnily enough, many MPs do that as well, don’t they Mrs May?