The BBC’s plan to create a pool of up to 100 “public service reporters” is very revealing indeed about the beleaguered state of both the corporation and the regional newspaper industry.
It shows that the BBC, facing a charter review and heeding negative comments from certain ministers, is bending over backwards to accommodate powerful critics.
And it proves, yet again, that the regional newspaper publishers are no longer willing or able to fund public service journalism.
It shouldn’t have been necessary for the BBC to come up with this initiative. Output by its regional and local news outfits – whether on TV, radio or online – has not been a genuine threat to newspapers.
There have been instances where BBC journalists have followed up press stories and failed to give the relevant newspapers proper attribution. That has rightly upset publishers and editors. But that sin did not require this disproportionate act of repentance.
Let me forecast the outcome. When the BBC’s pool of reporters start sending in their reports and video clips from council meetings, coroners’ courts and so on, publishers will say thank you very much and seize on it as a justification to accelerate the reduction in their own journalistic staffs .
So the licence fee payers will end up subsidising the commercial newspaper industry. Despite the years of cuts – well, due to those very cuts – the industry has remained profitable. So it’s fair to say that newspaper owners and shareholders will benefit financially from the BBC’s “free” journalism service.
For those of us who have advocated a public subsidy for regional and local newspaper journalism, this may appear like welcome news. After all, we believe it vitally important for our democracy that voters receive adequate information.
But it is not how we envisioned it coming about and we must hope that the government recognises the value of the BBC’s generous, if defensive, initiative.
Lord (Tony) Hall, the BBC’s director-general, has put a good face on it by calling it “an exciting scheme” and declaring that it “will help local journalism to thrive.” But his arm has been twisted by the government’s antagonism towards the corporation.
Anyway, the project will need to be carefully monitored to ensure that publishers, having manipulated politicians into believing that the BBC has been guilty of “imperial ambitions”, do not take unfair advantage of the scheme.
Looked at in the round, what this represents is a turn of events dictated by the digital revolution. It spins on and traditional media, desperately clinging on for dear life, tries yet another new tactic to survive.