The chief executive of the News Media Association has accused the BBC of failing to engage in genuine negotiation with commercial publishers.
The NMA and some of its national and local members including Reach and News UK have argued for years that the BBC News website strays from its editorial remit and threatens the commercial viability of other news providers with some of its local news and softer feature content.
Owen Meredith (pictured), who joined the NMA as chief executive last July, has now accused the BBC of failing to negotiate properly over these concerns, saying his organisation has been having “very similar conversations for a very long time”.
On Tuesday he told MPs on the DCMS Committee, which is investigating the sustainability of local journalism: “We are trying to negotiate with the BBC and asking them to come to the table. They are not the most forthcoming in terms of genuine negotiation.”
Meredith said: “I think the BBC can be a great force for good and clearly the BBC does some excellent journalism. I think the question is where the boundaries lie and what the BBC’s role is, particularly in local news but also in soft content that it pushes out via its website and how that competes with the commercial sector or impinges the ability of the commercial sector to monetise its online news offering.
“I think if the BBC had a newspaper in print that was pumping out the volume of content and the volume of articles in the way that the BBC News website does which is essentially the largest single news website in the UK for audience, I think this committee and others would be calling in the BBC to ask questions and that wouldn’t be appropriate within its remit.
“But it’s essentially doing that but in a digital space so I think the BBC needs to come to the table with commercial publishers and negotiate where their remit and ours are clearly delineated. I think that would allow the opportunity for publishers to better monetise their content.”
Conservative MP Damian Lewis questioned whether telling the BBC to avoid certain types of local content would create gaps in provision in parts of the UK where there is no commercial provider.
However Meredith argued that NMA research had not identified any parts of the country that aren’t covered by a commercial local news provider, adding: “So I think that’s a myth despite the fact that clearly there has been a change in the number of titles covering certainly many patches in the UK.
“But I think what the BBC should do is just negotiate with the commercial sector around what its terms are and what it covers, what type of content it should be reporting on and publishing online, or syndicate with the local commercial providers and purchase articles from us.
“Far too often my members complain that they invest heavily through their journalists doing investigative journalism locally for example and then within hours of publishing that story a similar story has appeared on the BBC website without any reference back to the original source so we have a huge problem here in terms of how the BBC News operation online does interact with the commercial sector and I think by interaction and discussion we could come up with a much better model.”
Martin Steers, co-founder of the UK Community Radio Network, similarly claimed the BBC follows up stories without sufficient credit.
He told MPs: “We can find that community stations will go out and produce content about a local story in their local area and within hours or days that same story is then being covered from the BBC.”
Steers said that although some BBC radio stations see community radio as an “adversary for audience”, others do collaborate and share content. “We’d like to see a more nationalised approach & better relationship particularly in terms of sharing content and resources, career progression, even buying content from community stations,” he said.
Meredith said the Local Democracy Reporter Service, which sees the BBC fund 165 journalists to cover councils and other public bodies based at certain local titles but sharing the content with anyone signed up, was working because it supports the news ecosystem and that he would like to see it expanded. The NMA is the BBC’s strategic partner on the scheme.
However he warned against BBC proposals announced last year for more than 100 new digital reporter roles focused on serving “some of the UK’s most under-served communities” by increasing local coverage online.
Meredith said this would be “directly competing” with commercial publishers “but on nothing like the scale”.
“I think this is the problem… in terms of the BBC coming into a space however well intentioned they may be in doing so. By having a presence in a space they actually satisfy the passive demand for local news. They pick up the big stories, they satisfy that, and that stops that reader then reaching the commercial publisher’s website so the commercial publisher cannot monetise the content they’re investing in across the whole community because the BBC is mopping up that interesting one or two headline stories.”
A BBC spokesperson said in response: “The BBC works collaboratively across the industry and our partnership with the NMA has transformed coverage of local democracy across the UK.
“The BBC’s local online services are valued by audiences the length and breadth of the UK and there is no evidence that the BBC is crowding out other digital publishers.
“Our plans to strengthen these services were published last year – and we will continue to discuss these proposals with partners across the sector.”
Consolidation ‘incredibly important’
Meredith was also asked about the impact of major mergers on the market, with Conservative MP Giles Watling pointing to previous buyouts by Reach, called Trinity Mirror at the time of many such as its acquisition of Local World in 2015.
More recently Newsquest, the UK’s second biggest regional publisher, has bought Archant, the fourth largest. The deal is currently being assessed by the Culture Secretary, who has said she is “minded” to issue an intervention notice because of “plurality concerns”.
Meredith said consolidation within the local news market would help to ensure its sustainability.
He said: “I think consolidation within the industry is incredibly important in order to protect the viability of individual titles and I think that many of those titles that are part of essentially networked groups would simply not be viable without the ability to share back office costs in terms of HR, finance, marketing, procurement power etcetera.
“So there is certainly an important role for consolidation within the market and potentially further consolidation because of the economies of scale that that brings that then supports titles operating on the ground in individual communities.”
Meredith later added that he believed there “will have to be” further consolidation in the local news sector and that this will be cross-platform – covering print, online, audio and more.
“I think the way that we are going to secure the future for local journalism which we all value… there needs to be and I suspect there will have to be consolidation in the sector and that probably applies cross-platform because the sheer way that news is distributed is multi-platform and I think those regulatory boundaries between what is an online audio stream, podcast, radio broadcast etcetera – those boundaries are blurred in the public’s mind.”
Newsquest chief executive Henry Faure Walker has said the “additional scale” brought by the merger “will greatly assist Archant’s local news and Life brands in building a stronger future”.
A Newsquest spokesperson has also said: “By bringing Archant and Newsquest together we will be able to give their titles a much more secure future and be in a position to invest in the great local journalism that both companies do.”
Picture: Parliament TV