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Ashley Highfield calls on BBC to close ‘under-performing local websites’ and work with regional press

By William Turvill

Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield has called on the BBC to close down "under-performing local websites" and work with regional publishers.

Highfield suggested the licence fee-funded corporation should share its content with local newspapers and their websites in order to better serve the public and help sustain the regional press.

Speaking at the Newspaper Society's annual general meeting today, Highfield, who used to be technology director at the corporation, said the BBC could become a “local media distribution partner” and use local papers to distribute their content to the public. 

Highfield said the BBC should "keep their regional brands – Look North, BBC North West et al – but close their under-performing local websites and work with us".

He said the BBC “seems to be wishing for [the regional press’s] demise by questioning – at what seems like every opportunity – whether local newspapers are already dead”, adding that the BBC could even "hasten our demise".

Highfield said: “I suggest now is the time for Auntie to put on some different spectacles and start looking at local press differently: as a genuine partner to take the BBC to a wider audience.”

He said the BBC, in its current state is not "best placed to reach regional audiences", and should use its local content through others to reach them.

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Put simply, we can provide more reach (and thus more public value) to BBC content  through our websites, our papers, our routes to market, but still within a trusted, regulated environment, than they can through their sub-scale (or wherever) sites,” he said.

“Local newspapers and their associated web brands can actually bolster the BBC’s value if they stop viewing us as the competition and work with us to distribute their content.

“The BBC is one of the country’s most important cultural institutions and the relationship it has with us as a nation is truly astounding. But it’s not the BBC which has a direct relationship with people in Pocklington, Peterborough or Portsmouth. It’s us – the local media operators.”

He added: “We can increase public value by increasing the reach of BBC content if the BBC allows us to access it – all of it – from video content to weather – free of charge, and take it to market.

“Anything with a potential regional benefit should be made available, free, to regional publishers. A great big content bucket, properly tagged and indexed, that we (trusted, accredited, local publishers), can dip in to.

“There are pilots being worked on in the BBC to offer this already. This is not a fantasy.”

Highfield pointed to the BBC weather app, which is commissioned from an independent, as an example, saying that the “public value generated could be just as high, if not higher, had the BBC chosen to syndicate the functionality to regional publishers”.

In this instance, he said, the BBC would still deliver public value, but the publisher would benefit commercially.

“The BBC needs to stop trying to be all things to all people, and focus on what they are best at – creating world-class content," he said.

“We’ll give proper attribution to that content, which ever medium we publish it in, whilst ensuring we keep our own local voice. This way, plurality of voice is maintained.

“In return the BBC can focus on being innovative whilst fulfilling its duty of delivering great education, information, and entertainment. And much like its regulated quota for the amount of content it commissions from Independent TV production companies, it could be given specific content targets for how much content we use, by a beefed up regulator.

“But the traffic this content gets on our platforms would count towards the BBC’s reach too – be counted in any Public Value Test when re-assessing a Service Licence.”

He set his speech in the context of the BBC’s Royal Charter, which is set for renewal in 2016. He said it was important for the regional press to have their views heard now.

He said: “So, we’ll change the rhetoric, and stop talking about parking tanks on our lawns, instead BBC, plant your content offerings on our lawns, we’ll look after them and water them, and bring new and increased audiences to them.

“And vice-versa, if you want to take our content on to your regional radio services or national channels, fine, but credit us, pay us (perhaps by an extension of the mechanism already put in place for the local TV channels), and we’ll find a thousand flowers will bloom.

“We, the regional press and publishers, will help you the BBC fulfil your charter objective ‘to truly serve and reflect the nations, regions and communities that make up the UK’ and we might actually be pretty good at it.”

Highfield's speech is available to read in full on the Yorkshire Post's website.

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