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BBC chief Tim Davie says undermining local news in search ‘would not be acceptable’

The director-general said local news provision is not "zero sum".

By Bron Maher

BBC director-general Tim Davie told a Commons select committee on Thursday that it would “not be acceptable” for British democracy if the corporation harmed local news publishers’ online performance.

Amid accusations the BBC has leached page views from local news providers, Davie emphasised the corporation’s investment in the local democracy reporting scheme but argued “you can’t change the macroeconomics” affecting local markets.

Davie was appearing before the Public Accounts Committee to answer questions about the BBC’s finances as it prepares for an increasingly online future. 

Committee chair Dame Meg Hillier MP, herself a former local reporter, asked Davie: “We know that newspapers are very much struggling, or disappearing indeed, in many areas, and yet they’re actually a very good resource to feed news stories into local BBC outlets.

“How are you navigating that in the new digital world? Because there’s a lot of online news, but the BBC does have a pretty good brand and pretty good dominance on all the search engines.”

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The News Media Association claimed in January last year that the BBC’s plan to expand its local news provision was “directly threatening the sustainability of independent local journalism”.

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And at an October event held by the NMA, Liverpool Echo editor Maria Breslin argued: “It’s wrong that our Facebook audience will never see some of our most important work because of an algorithm I just cannot begin to try to understand, or that the BBC will always rank higher in search engines when we have the boots on the ground.”

Davie responded to Hillier by pushing back against a “zero sum” framing of local news provision.

“Obviously, we’re talking very much to other providers in terms of our role in the local democracy reporters – we’re totally committed in keeping that budget in there, just for what it’s worth.

“We see it as working. It’s been a success. I mean, it’s gone beyond my personal expectations, because I was wondering whether we’d really be getting the pull. We are getting the pull, people are using the articles.

“And I think there’s also a question of: how do we ensure we are linking through to other providers, how does that work, and how can we make sure that we’re testing things in that area where we’re supporting each other?”

Davie appeared to dispute the argument, sometimes used in debates over the BBC’s effect on local news, that regional journalism is doing better financially in the US because it does not have to compete with a free public broadcaster.

“If you look at the performance of the local press in America – I’m not talking about the state-wide New York Times level… this is a structural issue based on advertising money moving to digital.

“If you’re interested in news in Bradford, it may be that you go to a couple of providers. Are there ways in which we can help each other and support each other in terms of doing that rather than purely being a zero sum game? I think it’s an interesting question.”

Hillier asked: “So it’s not a plan by BBC online to take out local news media?”

To which Davie replied: “That would be an unacceptable situation for the UK and our democratic process.

“But what I would say is that you can’t change some of the macroeconomics to fit around some of these markets, and that is very difficult.”

Davie was also asked about the departure, reported the day before, of three longstanding BBC News presenters – Joanna Gosling, David Eades and Tim Willcox. The voluntary redundancies were prompted by an upcoming merger of the BBC News and BBC World News channels, which entailed the presenters applying for new roles on the combined channel.

“It’s obviously sad when people decide to take VR and leave. But you need less presenters. And I think that’s appropriate.

“Sorry to be blunt – I think that we are in a position where we’re going to make changes, some people will leave the BBC, some people will stay. Actually, so-called churn in the newsroom is very low, historically. And actually you talk about three outstanding presenters who have chosen to move on – that gives opportunities and allows people to move through the organisation.”

The merger is part of a major cost-cutting exercise prompted by a real-terms cut to the licence fee that funds the BBC. The BBC has said previously that the freeze to the fee, which prevented it rising in line with inflation for two years, would produce a £285m a year shortfall by 2027/28. The corporation’s director of nations Rhodri Talfan Davies suggested in November that surging inflation could see that annual shortfall reach £400m.

Davie said that “the risk profile for the BBC is high in this” and “we’re going to have to box very clever”.

Despite the cuts across the BBC, Davie told MPs: “We are continuing to keep the investment in local. If I’m being provocative, our plan on local is very disruptive, but it’s actually keeping the money in local.

“If you take our investment in England, regions and local investment is broadly flat. We’re going to come to all the other areas of pain we have to take to cope with the 30% real-terms cut, but it’s broadly flat.

“So why are we causing ourselves this trouble? The answer is because of the numbers. Because you pay for a licence fee based on your usage, you support the licence fee based on usage.”

The NMA hit out at a comment by Davie made during this explanation that “we’re really going to ensure that our online offer’s competitive”.

Its chief executive Owen Meredith said: “Tim Davie’s admission that the BBC plans to make its online local news service ‘competitive’ lays bare the corporation’s ambition to compete directly with independent local news providers.

“The Charter requires the BBC not to act in a way that distorts the commercial marketplace yet by aggressively expanding its local news offering into markets already well served by commercial providers, it will do just that… If the BBC took a similar approach in the print newspaper market, I have no doubt Ofcom would step in and stop them. The plans must be halted before it is too late.”

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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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