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April 29, 2024

James Harding warns BBC podcast ads will ‘drain advertising away from journalism’

House of Lords also hears that Spiked has been put on advertising blacklist.

By Bron Maher

Former BBC director of news and current affairs James Harding has said that the BBC “will drain advertising away from journalism” if it pushes ahead with plans to place ads alongside its podcasts.

The BBC announced in March that it is exploring selling ads alongside its podcasts on third-party apps such as Apple Podcasts and Spotify “where adverts are the norm”. BBC podcasts on its own audio platform, BBC Sounds, would remain advert-free.

[Read more: Global slams BBC plan to carry advertising on UK podcasts]

‘We worry about, in a very material way, what will happen to advertising against our podcasts’

Speaking to the Lords Digital and Communications Committee this week Harding, who since 2018 has been editor of audio-first newsroom Tortoise, said: “I’ve actually written to [Ofcom chief executive] Melanie Dawes, to Ofcom, just to try and spell out how problematic that is for new news companies… It will drain advertising away from journalism in the podcast market. It means that we worry about, in a very material way, what will happen to advertising against our podcasts.”

Harding said he thought the plan would “rebound really badly on the BBC”.

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“People will start saying: ‘Hang on a second, why am I as a licence fee payer also then effectively being charged twice so that the BBC can get advertising in the UK?’

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“I think when people start to ask that question, people in the film and TV side will say: ‘Well hang on, if BBC has crossed the threshold in terms of taking advertising revenue in the UK for audio, will it do that for video as well?’ 

“So I’m against it for us, I’m against it for journalism and for news, but I’m also worried about it for the BBC.”

Harding also expressed frustration that more third-party podcasts have not been allowed onto the BBC Sounds audio app.

“By any measure, if you look at what we do, it’s public service journalism – but the BBC won’t allow you on its platform where we could have a real impact and a real reach in terms of our journalism.”

The BBC first announced that it would open up Sounds in 2020, and some third-party podcasts are on the platform, including popular shows The Rest is History and No Such Thing as a Fish. Although The Times and Sunday Times’ flagship podcast The Story is available on Sounds, few other non-BBC news publishers appear to be on the platform.

Harding added opening up Sounds would “help with diversity of views and opinions and the range of voices that BBC audiences hear from”.

Spiked put on advertising blacklist by Global Disinformation Index

Harding was appearing before the Lords to discuss the sustainability and future of news alongside executives from two other mid-size publishers, youth-focused Joe Media and libertarian web magazine Spiked.

Spiked editor Tom Slater said 70% of the unpaywalled site’s revenue comes from donations, with “the vast majority” recurring monthly payments of around £5.

Slater said Spiked was “finding a whole plethora of our content that we put out on Youtube will just be almost instantly demonetised” regardless of topic.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to it other than the fact that it’s a dissenting opinion, at least from our perspective, and that’s something which can have a direct impact on your ability to a) reach people and b) make money.”

Spiked has published content which is critical of Covid lockdowns and aired forthright views around trans rights.

Slater said Spiked had lost out on website advertising revenue after being flagged as brand-unsafe by anti-misinformation non-profit Global Disinformation Index.

Unherd’s experience very closely mirrors ours,” he told peers. “We found that our advertising went from being about 25% of our revenue to plunging very quickly. 

“And then we find out through, basically people working at the advertising companies, that one of these brand safety organisations… called the Global Disinformation Index, had put us on one of these blacklists. 

“And this is despite the fact that we’re a reputable news organisation, we have standard editorial policies in place. Rival brand safety organisations like Newsguard* give us a 100% rating – we’ve got about 15 points on The New York Times in terms of our transparency and editorial processes according to their perspective.” (In February Newsguard docked The New York Times 12.5 points, saying it regularly inserts opinionated statements into news stories.)

Slater continued: “Because of this new anti-disinformation industry – but really I see it as a kind of anti-dissent industry in many respects – you can find yourself being defunded on a particular platform very quickly and having to scramble around to make up for it, changing platforms…

“I think a lot of people don’t even know these companies exist. It’s such a long chain of organisations between the news publisher, their advertising agent, the brand safety company that they work with, the disinformation company that they subcontract their responsibilities to, that it’s often difficult to even know what’s going on, let alone who to [talk to] when something goes wrong.”

Joe Media mulls subscriptions model

John Quinlan, the chief executive of Joe Media, also disclosed some details about his business, which earlier this month was bought out of administration for the second time in four years.

Quinlan said programmatic ads make up 20% of Joe’s revenue and that its flagship channel Politics Joe receives approximately one million video views a day. Last year, he said, Joe’s channels collectively received some seven billion views across all content.

He did not discuss the company’s recent financial difficulties, but appeared to hint at a possible move toward a membership model: “Our big bet, as it were, is the scale and the credibility of our brand…

“We want to get our brand in front of as many people as possible, and then we will also try and monetise that brand in lots of different ways, and that may include subscriptions or supporters.”

*The author of this article was previously a Newsguard employee.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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