BBC Trust chair Rona Fairhead has said it is “difficult” to see how the corporation could buy local news from the regional press in a quota system.
Press industry body the News Media Association is currently in discussions with the BBC about how the corporation can buy content from the regional press. Culture Secretary John Whittingdale this morning told the Society of Editors conference he welcomed such a move, as the debate around next year's renewal of the BBC charter continues.
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Fairhead spoke at the same conference in the afternoon about “growing concern that, whatever the cause, a democratic deficit may be starting to emerge” in terms of local media coverage.
She said: “I want to call on the BBC and the wider industry to work together to find a sustainable solution.”
She added: “Some local council meetings are going unreported. Some court reporting is starting to fall by the wayside. This is not simply a matter of increasing cost-pressures translating into fewer front-line reporters.
“It also reflects the growing complexity of the business councils transact and the cases courts try – meaning that reporting courts and councils properly has become more resource-intensive at a time when costs are under acute pressure."
Citing Press Gazette research which shows 300 local newspapers have closed over the last ten years, she said: “As a result, the media’s ability to hold to account those who wield power in local communities may be starting to decay…
“This should concern us all – not just as media professionals but as citizens too.”
The BBC has proposed paying for 100 journalists to report on councils, court and public services, sharing their content with publishers.
And the BBC is currently holding a public consultation on the way it delivers local and nations news.
Fairhead said that it is already “pretty clear from the early reaction to the BBC's proposals that there is – how can I put this – that there was not a huge appetite for all of these ideas from all local newspapers”.
On the idea, that a quota should be imposed on the BBC for local news reporting commissioned from non-BBC providers, Fairhead said this “raises some difficult issues”.
Explaining these, she said: “Firstly news has always been exempt from the independent production quota – for perfectly good reasons.
“News is central to what the BBC does and, as publisher the BBC has to stand 100 per cent behind the integrity, accuracy and impartiality of its news output.
"It is hard to see how the BBC could ensure compliance with its editorial standards in a fast-moving news environment if it did not have some control of the personnel involved, their training and their editorial culture.
“Secondly, the quota proposal is effectively another proposal for top-slicing the licence fee, and we been very clear in the trust that we are opposed to top-slicing. Such a proposal would undermine the funding settlement agreed in the Budget.
“And finally, a local news quota is unlikely to add to the total sum of local coverage – which seems to be what may be needed here – it would simply alter the sources the coverage came from.
“I’m not saying that this would stop BBC News exploring the possibility of commissioning some local news-related coverage from non-BBC sources – and indeed the BBC News has already said it is examining the idea. But a local news quota does raise some fairly fundamental issues.”
Fairhead was more positive about the issue of the BBC getting better at crediting the stories it sources from local newspapers.
She said: “The Trust has been encouraged to hear that the leadership of BBC News commits to this principle and has made a start in improving linking and credits to external local sources, as well as agreeing to a formal audit of how many BBC website stories originate in the local press.”
Whatever new settlement is agreed with regard to BBC local news provision, Fairhead said the trust would apply the following principles to whatever plan is agreed: “Firstly, whatever arrangements the BBC agreed with local media, the resulting journalism would have to meet the BBC’s editorial standards of impartiality and accuracy if it were to be published by the BBC.
“Secondly, editorial compliance arrangements at least as rigorous as those in force within the BBC would need to be in place.
“And thirdly, any financial arrangements would have to be transparent and take full account of state aid rules.”