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BBC threat to papers like the Indie: ‘A state-funded juggernaut on course to suffocate independent journalism’

If the BBC was a family and lived in the house next door to you, it would be the neighbour from hell.

That's the verdict of some of the most experienced local newspaper editors in the country, who now regard the BBC as little more than a state-funded juggernaut on course to suffocate independent journalism in every city, town and village in the UK.

The BBC seems to be on a mission to be the only show in town – having taken an axe to its much-loved local radio stations so it can start writing news stories online which you can get from local newspapers like the Indie, which are already battling with tech platforms like Google, Meta and Apple.

Unlike Google, Meta and co, the BBC’s funding is guaranteed by the licence fee, meaning the British public is underwriting the biggest threat local journalism has ever faced.

It is splashing YOUR cash on local news websites and making it increasingly difficult for proud, independent news sites to survive in the long term.

How is it doing this? In October 2022, the BBC laid out plans to strengthen local online news provision in communities across England. The scheme includes the creation of 130 additional posts. More journalism would normally be welcomed, but the BBC’s plans put at risk thousands of existing jobs on titles known to their communities for generations.

The BBC says the plans will deliver “a stronger and more distinctive local online news service for 43 different local areas in England – all available on the BBC News website and app”.

What it fails to adequately resolve is the impact this will undoubtedly have on the diverse but fragile independent news sector in each community.

It is our reporters who hold local decision-makers to account, campaign on your behalf, research and share essential information, hold up the mirror to local successes and have no other interest than in telling the truth. We're also the turn-to source for the BBC when it wants to know what's going on.

Most local reporters share their stories and videos with readers through the opaque algorithms of the giant global tech companies like Facebook and Google. As the BBC carries no advertising and is entirely free to read, its stories tend to be prioritised by the big search engines over our journalism. At the same time, the BBC uses its vast monopolistic strength to promote its content. So, it has a huge anti-competitive advantage.

While independent local journalism is regulated by the tough Independent Press Standards Organisation, the BBC is watched over by Ofcom, which seems largely indifferent to the harm it is causing.

Editors are convinced that as they juggle the realities of the cost-of-living crisis, the BBC – immune from the same commercial pressures – is fixated on stealing their readers, their businesses and the jobs of their journalists. It either knows what it is doing and doesn’t care or is ignorant to the impact it will have. What a shameful legacy that would be for Tim Davie, the 17th Director-General of the BBC.

If the BBC wants to compete fairly and support a diverse and trusted local news reporting ecosystem, as it claims to do, it must act now.

It should focus its efforts on providing a snapshot of life in its 12 English regions, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and abandon its roll-out of 34 local websites, which directly compete with publishers who have cared about local news online during the last decade when the Beeb repeatedly showed it didn’t.

It could do so much more to link to local publishers, helping them to thrive, rather than trying to close them down. Even such a simple act, repeatedly asked for over the years, seems beyond the BBC.

The Government is taking welcome steps to tackle the market abuses by Meta and Google through the Digital Markets Bill, which will create a level playing field between publishers and tech platforms – and, in response to letters to them from the Indie, local MPs like Julie Marson, Kemi Badenoch, Oliver Heald and Robert Halfon have indicated their support for this legislation. Yet the BBC will remain as an equally potent threat, all but unchecked by Ofcom.

Earlier this year we called on the BBC to be a better neighbour. It is time the BBC showed that it is not the biggest threat to local community independent journalism, but a global broadcaster focused on delivering the very best television and radio in line with its charter.

*This article is co-authored by Ian Carter, editorial director of the Indie’s publisher Iliffe Media; Toby Granville, Newsquest editorial development director; Gary Shipton, National World editorial director; Jeremy Spooner, chair of the News Media Association Independent Publishers Forum; Paul Rowland, Reach Regionals editorial director; and Martin Wright, Midland News Association editor in chief.

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