Almost as often as Bonfire Night follows Halloween, the start of the Society of Editors conference is usually followed at some point by a spat/dig/row/finger-pointing with the BBC.
This time, it was led by Theresa May, the home secretary, who said the BBC was harming local media by dominating the local news market.
Hold the Front Page editor Paul Linford wrote a blog post claiming Ms May was ‘in a time warp’ and had maybe picked up the wrong briefing note – one from four years ago when the BBC was planning to push harder into local news.
Likewise, Roy Greenslade in his weekly Evening Standard column said you couldn’t place the problems of the regional press at the BBC’s door. Then David Dimbleby waded in, saying the BBC could be damaging the local press, only for culture secretary Maria Miller to say it’s not really an issue at all.
For me, the BBC’s relationship with the local press is a bit like going to a school reunion and Billy Big Boots enters the room, helping himself to everything on offer, making his presence known, forgetting to say thank you on the way out and then saying what a poor night he had overall on Facebook – before ringing up one of the organisers a few weeks later to try and get a favour.
In that analogy, Billy isn’t harming his former classmates, but he is irritating them for not acknowledging what they’ve done for him, and not accepting that his life would be a lot tougher if they weren’t there – who would do his favours then? He can’t be blamed for all their problems, but he could certainly make things better for them.
There is a lot the BBC could do to help the local press. And why should it? Bluntly because local media still sets the agenda, uncovers more stories, attends more events and, as a result, provides a very valuable service to the BBC – ready-made leads which enable them to cover wide regions with very few staff.
Regional newsrooms have long had a joke that you can sometimes hear the pages of a local newspaper being turned during local radio news bulletins. That’s a myth – but one which grew up on the back of a sense that the Beeb wasn’t giving credit where it is due.
To me, the BBC is a threat, not because of the volume of content it provides, but the disregard it often treats the local Press with.
Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s head of newsgathering, told the conference: “Quite a lot of people have lifted BBC stories and put them in their papers without attributing them as well.
“The problems of local newspapers can not be laid at the BBC’s door.”
She’s right on the second bit, but I can’t think of a time – ever – when I had to rely on the BBC for quotes and information which we didn’t attribute back – normally because if we couldn’t get the quote we needed, we wanted to make jolly sure everyone knew where it had come from.
As Roy Greenslade pointed out in his criticism of May’s speech, if you look at the volume of content the BBC produces at a local level, it simply isn’t in the same league as the regional press. His argument is how can that be a competitor online? He’s right, but there’s also no escaping the fact that the local press make it easier for the BBC to do its job at a local level.
I would argue that as a national broadcaster with a guaranteed income (some might call it state funding, but it’s more subtle than that) it should be incumbent on the BBC to act in the interests of the communities it serves – and part of that should be doing what it can to support the local Press, not least because it also relies on the local media.
Would the likelihood of BBC Radio Lancashire covering a story in Clitheroe, a market town about 20 miles from its nearest office, diminish if the the Clitheroe Advertiser and Times, a weekly paid for newspaper, closed down tomorrow?
Given the Advertiser, by printing up to 150 stories a week about the Ribble Valley, delivers the Ribble Valley to Radio Lancashire’s front door once a week, I would say yes. Turn off the established newspaper, and you probably turn down the volume on the radio’s coverage too.
So rather than washing its hands of the problems facing the regional press, I would argue the BBC Newsroom should instead seek to help.
Here are five ways it could do that:
1. News can learn from Sport
BBC Sport is a beacon of brilliant, credit-where-it-is-due linking. If it finds something it likes, particularly in its live blogs, it quotes it and links back out. That makes a huge difference to regional news websites, and can in many cases, lead to fans of that content returning again and again. Links to news articles from BBC News still feel few and far between in comparison
2. Link to the best – and that tends to be local
The BBC will argue that its local news pages do link to regional news sites, be that ‘newspaper’ websites or hyperlocal sites. But far too often the links from a particular story will go to an overseas website, or a website out of the area which, with all due respect to those providing content feeds of national news, aren’t do anything more than the BBC. I understand that linking is automated, but surely it should be weighted in favour of the websites most likely to be doing content in more depth.
3. Why go overboard on every story which is doom and gloom about the Press?
Many feel the BBC has been far too friendly with supporters of Government control of the Press, like Hacked Off (anything which gives politicians the chance to regulate what we do via a two-thirds majority in a vote feels like Government control to me – look how many MPs voted to go to war in Iraq. If almost two thirds can commit to that…).
But to me, more irritating are the stories which do down the print industry. How much time would you expect the BBC to give to 7 people losing their jobs? Normally, not much. But when a newspaper company removed its street vendors – because not enough people were buying papers from them – it became a huge article on the BBC website. I’ve also known the BBC report that newspapers are closing when in fact they were going weekly.
To each of those stories, I’d apply the same test every journalist should: “What does the reader/listener/viewer get out of this story?” In those cases, not much, I’d argue. It’s a more a sign of how important the regional Press is to the BBC. Put another way – how big a story for the regional press was the proposed reduction in output at local radio stations?
4. Make the most of our experts
BBC Sport, again, is very good at plugging into our sports experts and spending a lot of time with them. They are, after all, experts in their field. The same can also be said for our political writers, health writers, crime writers, transport writers and so on. If we break a story which the BBC – like any other broadcaster or publisher – follows up on, why not turn to the expert source who has spent a long time on the story to provide some analysis? Then share your video report to use on our sites – everyone wins then
5. Credit where it is due
Instead of saying ‘reports say’ or ‘so and so is understood’ if they source is a website or a newspaper, just say so. To me, that’s a basic principle of transparent journalism.
Now, it’s reasonable to argue that the local Press should do the same if I’m saying the BBC should be a better neighbour – and it should. But the BBC is the big beast in the room. It sets itself up to be the gold standard in journalism, and in many ways, it is. Where it leads, others will follow.
Sometimes, I suspect the BBC doesn’t appreciate its own strength – and I know that’s just as much a frustration for many inside the corporation as it is outside it.