Raymond Snoddy on Media: BBC should think smaller

Raymond Snoddy
Raymond Snoddy

The BBC Trust would do well to call for a scaling back of the Corporation's online expansion plans.R

The intensifying row over BBC proposals for expansion of its local online services is almost enough to make you feel sorry for Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust.

The intensifying row over BBC proposals for expansion of its local online services is almost enough to make you feel sorry for Sir Michael Lyons, chairman of the BBC Trust.

Whatever preliminary conclusion he and the Trust announce on Friday, they are sure to be damned by someone.

The local and regional newspaper industry has rarely been so hot under the collar about the BBC and what they see as unfair competition in 'their' markets. This anger is obviously fuelled by the pain caused by the recession, with group after group reporting catastrophic falls in classified ad revenue - nearly 50%, in the case of property.

Few newspaper publishers are making significant sums from their online services, while the BBC is investing up to £23m a year in its web presence, which could foreclose future streams of revenue for the industry.

Speakers at the Society of Editors conference last week in Bristol were practically queueing up to have a go at the Corporation.

Sly Bailey, Trinity Mirror chief executive, denounced the BBC proposal as a 'threat to the development and diversity of regional media', claiming its plans were not distinctive, innovative, or new, as well as anti-competitive, unnecessary and a waste of public money.

Asked what she actually wanted to happen now, the Trinity Mirror chief replied that she wanted the BBC 'to go no further than they already are'.

That is where the problems begin. Can you decree that the BBC should not develop its websites, ever? That moving pictures should not be allowed on local BBC sites when everyone else is moving that way? It's almost saying the BBC should stick to black and white.

The Beeb's expansion plans include limits on the number of items carried, and the offer of material to newspaper websites. It would also co-operate with the industry. Society of Editors conference speakers likened this plan for co-operation with the BBC to co-operating, variously, with a very big elephant or a boa constrictor.

There is the additional issue of due process. The Trust instructed BBC management to provide better value by improving local services. Now the same Trust is conducting an economic impact assessment on the proposals. Naturally, the Trust can be factual, objective, even-handed.

However, Sir Michael, who has spent most of his working life in local government, dug the hole a bit deeper last month, when he told reporters that no one could be satisfied with the quality of local news in most parts of the UK.
There are many issues, not strictly part of a narrow economic assessment, which should be taken into account.

The BBC has never voluntarily given up a major service, always finding money to expand across the years. Its unique privilege of more than £21bn in guaranteed income over the current licence-fee period should lead to unique levels of accountability.

Despite this, BBC staff were warned by director-general Mark Thompson that the organisation was not immune to recession, and was being hit by every-thing from collapsing property prices to rising utility bills.

He warned costs would be cut, but promised to 'minimise any further large-scale job losses'. Yet the BBC wants to expand again, albeit with funds from internal savings.

For many reasons, the Trust would be wise to assert in its preliminary findings that the BBC has every right to add video to local websites and that the scheme passes the 'public value' test.

But it should also elect either to scale back the plans for now, or order a moratorium until the recession is over.

Raymond Snoddy is a media journalist and presenter of BBC's Newswatch

30 seconds on...   Sir Michael Lyons

 

  • Lyons chaired the Audit Commission and has been involved in key reports on local government, including an inquiry into its future, role and funding.
  • In 2004 he chaired a review of public sector relocation commissioned by the Chancellor and Prime Minister.
  • His 2007 appointment to the BBC Trust drew fire from a House of Lords select committee concerned by the level of ministerial involvement.
  • Lyons has been a non-executive director of Central Television and chairman of ITV's regional advisory council.
  • He began his career as an economist, and has held academic posts at Wallbrook College London and the University of Nottingham.
  • In 2000, Lyons received a knighthood for services to local government in his roles as chief executive of Birmingham, Nottinghamshire and Wolverhampton councils.
  • Lyons is also a governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company and has been the chairman of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

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