BBC fails to quell fear over impact of ultra-local TV

Deep scepticism remains in the higher echelons of the regional press after BBC director general Mark Thompson presented senior representatives of the sector with details of its nine-month £3 million local TV pilot in the West Midlands which ended last week.

The BBC has proposed a licence feefunded online video news service across the country which some see as a threat to the regional newspaper industry and its move into the digital arena. The BBC has countered this by saying it could work in partnership with regional newspapers.

Although those at Monday's meeting welcomed the transparency of the corporation's proposals and consultation with the regional press, serious concerns were raised. These included a lack of distinction between the BBC's pilot and existing regional newspapers' digital strategies as well as the service being publicly funded.

Among those present were Johnston Press chief executive Tim Bowdler, Trinity Mirror Birmingham Post & Mail editorial director Mark Dickinson, Hull Daily Mail editor John Meehan, director of the Newspaper Society David Newell and senior BBC managers.

Meehan, who represented Northcliffe, said he is unconvinced the BBC's pilot is distinctive from what the Hull Daily Mail is doing with its online video news service.

He said: "Having seen the work they have done in the Midlands I was struck by the fact that there wasn't anything in their trial that we hadn't done in Hull in the last three months. I question whether their proposition that their prospective services will be distinctive actually stands up to any sort of robust examination.

"There is a significant issue about the BBC proposing to make a huge investment of public money on services that are already being provided in places like Hull or will be provided in time by commercial operators at no cost to licence payers.

"There is a real danger of the BBC strangling innovation by the regional press in digital media and I think it's fair to say the representatives of the regional press remained deeply concerned about the BBC using its public funding, considerable resources and its brand strength to compete against us in our local marketplaces."

Tim Bowdler told Press Gazette: "I think there is a clear recognition on the BBC's part that we have well-founded concerns and that they are keen to address those and to demonstrate that there can be benefits and upsides, but as yet they have not been sufficiently explained. I think there are some philosophical difficulties over it, such as the use of public money and an increased licence fee.

"It seems fundamentally wrong that they are proposing to enter a marketplace which can be adequately served by the private sector.

"Their involvement will distort the market and conceivably deter the private investment which is planned.

"At the moment, certainly for Johnston Press, we have an open mind and are willing to listen but as of yet we have heard nothing to remove the concerns we have. I thought the overwhelming view of those participants from the regional press was of real continuing concern."

Mark Dickinson said: "The issue that the BBC are comforting themselves with, though I'm not sure any of us are, is that they will grow a market into which we can all happily compete. The real issue is that by coming more local they are diving into an area that we are already serving well.

"The Shropshire Star and Rugby Advertiser have got involved in copromotions with BBC sites.

"They have dropped hints of possible quotas for service supply to the BBC as independent producers. Small carrots have been dangled by the BBC about the possible training of video journalists which may materialise."

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