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July 7, 2015

BBC news website under attack ahead of charter review as newspapers call for ‘behemoth’ to be ‘tamed’

By William Turvill

The BBC’s online news presence is set to come under scrutiny in the upcoming charter review, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has confirmed.

During a Parliamentary debate yesterday, Whittingdale was questioned on plans for the corporation by nearly 30 MPs, including two who focused on the impact of the BBC on newspaper websites.

And editorials in five national newspapers in the last two days – the Daily Mail, Sun, Times, Daily Telegraph and Financial Times – have backed Chancellor George Osborne’s criticism of the BBC’s online “imperialism”.

The Times highlighted the fact that the BBC has £174m a year dedicated to “online” (£47.8m goes towards news, sport and weather) – this equates to 5 per cent of its budget, and compares to £2,276m spent on TV (66 per cent) and £650m (19 per cent) spent on radio.

The BBC claims to have a weekly global news audience of 283m. It also claims that 55m people a week across the world access its news online.

On the day after the general election, 8 May, the BBC News website attracted a record 28.3m unique users from across the world. This was more than double the 13.7m who, according to ABC, visited Mail Online – the world’s biggest newspaper website – that day.

The BBC has set a target of increasing its total weekly global audience from 308m this year to 500m by 2022.

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In an editorial headlined “Imperial Overreach” today, The Times said: “The chancellor is right. The BBC’s online presence needs to be reined in.”

The newspaper said that it is “obvious” to start cutting the BBC “in areas well-served by its competitors, and online news is one”.

“This debate is about more than costs, however,” The Times said, saying that Osborne was right to “raise the alarm” over the BBC’s online ambitions.

It said: “The chancellor foresaw a day when all newspapers were all digital, erasing much of the distinction between them and the BBC website. The national broadcaster, he said, would effectively become the national newspaper as well. 

“The Times intends to go on printing newspapers as long as its readers wish to smell the ink and fill out the crossword with a biro. We will not surrender to imperialism in any form or on any platform, but the thrust of Mr Osborne’s argument is timely and acute. The BBC website must be tamed.”

It added: “Hitherto this newspaper has fought back largely on behalf of local and regional commercial news outlets which are in an unequal battle for market share with the BBC’s 58 local websites.

“Mr Osborne notes that the corporation’s online presence is a direct threat to national newspapers, and that is true too. The fact that we have an obvious interest in the matter does not make it less wrong.

“Having an overwhelmingly dominant state-funded news organisation is inimical to the genuine and robust diversity of views on which a true democracy depends.”

A Daily Mail editorial yesterday highlighted the number of local newspapers that have closed in the UK in the last decade and said that while advertising, the rising cost of newsprint and distribution and failure to adapt to the “digital age” can be blamed, “there’s doubt many were tipped over the edge by the relentless expansion of the BBC website”.

It said: “With its vast resources this behemoth is simply steamrollering papers out of business.

“National newspaper websites too, suffer from what Chancellor George Osborne yesterday rightly called the ‘imperial ambitions’ of the Corporation.

“The BBC is supposed to be a public service broadcaster but it is acting more like a rapacious commercial giant, trying to corner the market in news delivery.

“Why on earth should the taxpayer have to fund this naked empire-building?”

The Sun said yesterday: "When George Osborne talks about its 'imperial' ambition, he’s spot on.

"Whether it’s the BBC’s local news sites putting local newspapers out of business, or its main website behaving as if it should be a monopoly provider of news, the BBC uses the cushion of the licence fee to protect itself from competition that exists in the real world – and to distort the market for everyone else.

"It’s time there was a level playing field – and the BBC was brought back to reality."

A Telegraph editorial yesterday also backed Osborne, saying: “If ever there was an example of how the BBC has drifted from its core function, it is the website, which consumes vast sums of public money, with the apparent intention of competing with a British newspaper industry that already provides world?class online journalism.

“The BBC of late has forgotten why it exists and who pays for it. It must remember both, soon.”

The Financial Times, meanwhile, was generally critical of Osborne’s plans for the BBC’s to fund the licence fee for over-75s. But it said: “The chancellor was right to criticise the ‘imperial’ ambitions of the BBC’s sprawling news website.”

In Parliament yesterday, Conservative Northampton North MP Michael Ellis said to Whittingdale: “The Northampton Chronicle and Echo and the Northampton Herald & Post are very good local newspapers. Does he agree that they, and many other local newspapers around the country, should not be put in jeopardy by an overweening BBC website and other BBC branches and units that have had a tendency, using taxpayer-subsidised licence fees and other sources, to have an effect on those local press organisations?”

The Culture Secretary said: “I am aware of the concerns of the local newspaper industry and others about the impact of the BBC’s licence fee-funded activities on commercial providers. That is certainly one element that we will consider during the course of the charter review.”

David Rutley, Tory MP for Macclesfield, said: “Like many people in the House, I fully respect the BBC’s broadcasting values, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for a full review of its online ambitions to ensure that the national media, particularly national newspapers, are not disadvantaged?”

Whittingdale said: “I agree with my hon. Friend. It is time that we had a thorough review of every aspect of the BBC’s activities. That is the precise purpose of the charter review that we are shortly to embark upon.”

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