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Mark Thompson: ‘Diminution’ of BBC news offering a ‘very big risk to take – and bad for the British public’

By William Turvill

Former BBC director general Mark Thompson has said cuts to the corporation's news offering would be "bad for the British public".

And Mark Thompson said there is no evidence UK newspapers are in a worse position because of the BBC.

In an interview with The Guardian, he said: "I think the public clearly rely [on the BBC] at every level for local, regional, national and international news.

"The idea, given the underlying economics of local regional and even international newspapers, that a diminution of the BBC would lead to more investment in news is very big risk to take – and bad for the British public."

Thompson was director general of the BBC between 2004 and 2012 and is now president and chief executive officer of The New York Times Company. 

Suggesting the BBC is being blamed for the plight of falling newspaper revenues and circulations, he added: “It is not as if there is any evidence at all that UK newspapers are doing worse than newspapers in countries without the BBC.”

Several national newspapers have called for the BBC's news website to be "tamed" in recent months. 

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In an interview with Press Gazette last month, Times editor John Witherow said: "The BBC was set up as a broadcaster, and obviously radio migrated into TV. It was not set up as a publisher. And it’s become de facto, with nobody agreeing to it, a publisher spending more money on, essentially, the printed digital word than we spend by a long way – and, I’m sure, [what] you spend and almost everybody spends.

“And this is undermining regional newspapers and, I think, national. If you can get good content from a state-sponsored publisher, you’re less likely to subscribe to papers like ours. And if we want a diversity of media, it’s really important.

“I don’t think they should be a publisher. I think they should put up their content, their broadcast and radio content, online with maybe a few words or something. But they shouldn’t be blogging and writing articles – that’s not what they were set up to do. And it’s a back-door state publisher.”

In the Guardian interview, Thompson also said it is wrong that the broadcaster has to bear the cost of TV licences for over-75s. He described it as "welfare" and said it is "totally inappropriate".

The BBC agreed to take over responsibility for funding TV licences for over-75s from the Government earlier this year.

Thompson said the corporation faces more difficulties than it did when he was at the helm.

He told The Guardian: "In 2015 the political circumstances are very different and it is much tougher for the BBC."

But he said his remarks were not a criticism of director-general Tony Hall and the current management, telling the newspaper: "You have to be in the room and I am not going to second-guess anything that Tony and the current leaders of the BBC have done."

The BBC's Royal Charter, due to expire in 2016, is currently under Government review.

Speaking about the charter renewal process, he said: "I am just very anxious at the end of all the questioning that we come up with the right answers. And for me the right answer is a strong, properly funded BBC of scale and scope."

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