BBC presses on with ultra local plans via radio network

BBC chiefs are heading for a clash with newspaper publishers over plans to seek the go-ahead to expand their 40 local radio stations to provide online local news.

The BBC has already abandoned controversial proposals to develop a network of ultra local television stations, after the Newspaper Society warned it could damage local newspapers.

But director general Mark Thompson has told peers the BBC now intends to press ahead with plans to expand local radio and will seek the approval of the BBC Trust in the spring.

If the move is sanctioned by the Trust, the plans will be subject to a public value test by media regulator Ofcom to assess its impact on the market.

Thompson sought to reassure newspaper publishers when he disclosed the plans to the House of Lords Communications Committee.

Baroness Thornton told him the Newspaper Society had expressed its concerns to the committee. She said: ‘It would be awful if local newspapers were jeopardised.”

Thompson said the local radio stations covered wide areas which embraced five, six or even eight local newspapers. ‘We would expect our services to link and complement local newspaper websites,’he said.

‘We intend to come up with proposals we feel will be complementary to what the market is providing.’

Thompson confirmed the BBC had dropped plans to develop local TV. He said that, with the lower-than-requested BBC licence fee settlement, ‘we don’t think that is credible”.

He added that the licence fee settlement had also forced the BBC to abandon plans to open more local radio stations planned for Cheshire and Somerset.

But he assured MPs that, despite proposals to axe 400 journalists’ jobs nationally, reducing the number of journalists to 6,800, the BBC intended to ‘invest in local news”. He said 380 journalists had applied for voluntary redundancy.

Thompson also said the BBC would resist demands that it hands over some of its licence fee to fund ITV regional news. ‘Weakening the BBC is going to help public service broadcasting”, he agreed.

Other broadcasters

Ministers are currently examining proposals from the all-party media select committee for the BBC to give up some of its licence fee to help fund children’s programmes and regional programming by other public service broadcasters.

ITV has already pulled out of children’s programming and has sparked a political row by indicating it plans to reduce the number of flagship regional news shows from 17 to nine.

Thompson told the committee: ‘I would need much convincing that top-slicing the licence fee is the right way forward.

‘I believe there are very, very strong arguments against top-slicing the licence fee.”

Media regulator Ofcom is facing growing political pressure to reject ITV’s plans.

More than 80 MPs have backed a Commons motion calling on Ofcom and the Government to work with ITV to come up with proposals that would generate sufficient income to maintain a regional news network.

Ofcom is to embark on its own review of public service broadcasting and the Government is to bring forward a separate review to examine whether licence fee revenue should be extended to other public service broadcasters.

Selby Labour MP John Grogan, chairman of the all-party BBC group, told media minister Margaret Hodge in the Commons last week that ITV chairman Michael Grade ‘has threatened that if he does not get his way and Ofcom does not agree to the cuts, he will keep the same number of news programmes, but cut the quality, sack journalists”.

Hodge told MPs: ‘We recognise the pressures on ITV, but we believe that regional news remains a core part of ITV’s public service remit.

‘Therefore, Ofcom must carefully consider whether the proposals set out by ITV will enable broadcasters to sustain those close regional relationships with their audiences.”

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