Regionals rebuff BBC's olive branch

BBC director general Mark Thompson has been rebuffed by regional newspaper editors following his bid to ease their fears about the corporation's move into "ultra-local" TV.

Speaking at the Society of Editors conference, Thompson promised that online local TV would work in "partnership" with local newspapers, and even pay them for content.

But in the words of one regional newspaper executive, the most constructive thing Thompson could have said would have been: "We're not going to do it."

Thompson told the Glasgow conference this week: "In addition to our own local and regional newsrooms, we want to draw on the newsgathering clout of the UK's local and regional newspapers — and we'll pay for it. That means a revenue stream, but also visibility and credit on the BBC's new local service."

David Newell, director of regional press owners' group, the Newspaper Society, said: "If [the BBC] isn't able to supply these services on its own and is going to use taxpayers' money to pay for newspapers to provide the services via the BBC, it seems a strange use of public money."

In 2005, the BBC announced proposals to launch around 60 "ultra-local" digital news and information services across the country available via satellite, cable and broadband.

This alarmed regional newspaper publishers, who feared its huge publicly-funded resources would create unfair competition with commercial publishers and stifle their video news services.

Archant's development director Ian Davies said of Thompson's speech: "It's the same olive branch that he has hung out before, isn't it? I'm not sure the BBC have necessarily used the word ‘money' [before] in quite the same sense as they have here, but I'm not sure that's the point. "If all we wanted to be was news agencies, then I think we'd have a very different business than we've got today. "We need to have something that is uniquely ours, is different, goes deeper and is more local, that allows us to develop a business model that gives us the money to allow us to continue operating. I don't see that selling our content is the answer, although it may be a useful bonus in some cases."

Asked whether Thompson could have said anything more constructive, Davies said: "That's very easy: ‘We're not going to do it.' "

Johnston Press chief executive Tim Bowdler said: "The primary issue is whether or not the BBC ought to be using public money to fund a service which is capable of being provided by commercial organisations, including local and regional newspapers.

"The one clear view I do have is that we are pressing ahead to widen our coverage through the implementation of our digital strategy, which involves investment in a capability to carry audio-visual material. That is an inevitable process. Down the line, if the BBC gets the green light and there are ways it can be attractive to work co-operatively, that's something we would be open-minded about. I'm never frightened of taking somebody's money."

Hull Daily Mail editor John Meehan —who has been pioneering video journalism on his paper's website — criticised Thompson's inability to provide further details about possible payments to regional newspapers, when he was quizzed by editors after his speech.

He said: "People at the conference were surprised by the offer of payment, but then even more surprised that the director general couldn't follow up with specifics. Responses to the questions were exceptionally vague. It clearly hadn't been thought through."


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