BBC to fund 100 reporters to “provide impartial reporting on councils and public services.”

Naughie and Humphries read the real news

Naughie and Humphries read the real news

IN the semi-conscious blur of an early, school-morning wake-up, I could swear I heard John Humphries tell me the BBC was going to fund a pool of 100 reporters to help local papers.

I jolted awake.

Humphries, rather than standing shouting at the end of my bed, was on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, being typically bombastic, appearing not to have read the story he was discussing live on air.

Media pundit Steve Hewlett filled in the gaps: The BBC, the state broadcaster, funded by taxation via your licence fee, was proposing to fund 100 reporters across the country to cover public affairs stories (that’s anything involving councils and court) and share their content with regional newspapers.

Hang on, I hear you ask, surely court and council stories are already covered by local papers; in fact, aren’t they the bread and butter of regional news? Isn’t that what every cub reporter spends their early years covering, honing their shaky shorthand and getting shouted at by angry relatives of defendants, or councillors who have opened their mouths without thinking (again)?

No. Those days are gone. In reality, apart from the papers based in bigger cities, and those who are still producing a daily print run, the chances are that your local paper (which you probably read online rather in print), will no longer send a reporter to council meetings unless there is something particularly sexy on the agenda, (and I use the word ‘sexy’ purely because it stands so uncomfortably alongside the word ‘council’).

Instead, the paper might cut-and-paste a press release written by a communications officer at the council (who probably used to work at the paper but now earns twice the salary without having to cover evenings and weekends).
Chances are, the taxpayer-funded press and communications office for your local council or police force will have more staff than the combined newsrooms of all the media outlets in the area. But I digress.

Would you, as an editor of a regional weekly paper and associated website, with one and half reporters available on a given day, 30 pages of editorial to fill and a target from management of several thousand web hits, then send a reporter to cover a council meeting or court case that may take hours to get to the interesting bit? Oh, and then give them time off in lieu for working late? Or would you use the press release version with its already-sourced quote instead and get on with the other stuff?

Similarly, you will probably have seen your local papers publish slightly out-of-date sentencing results of court cases, sent by HM Courts Service in an attempt to show they do manage to drag some wrong-uns through the archaic justice system. It’s as popular these days to trawl the lists of convictions for people you might know, as your parents would have scanned the Births, Marriages and Deaths section of the paper in its print heyday.

But is there a regular court reporter, either for a paper, a broadcaster or as a freelance, actually based inside your local magistrates or crown court? Are cases covered in full if they don’t involve rape and murder? Again, highly unlikely unless you are in London or a large city.

Many would argue that unlike in past decades, this means the Fourth Estate is failing in its duty to demonstrate democracy and justice being seen to be done. And I’d also argue that some cracking tales, the ones that inevitably crop up buried in a weighty council agenda, or during a full day spent in court, are also being missed.

And all this at a time when there is a gigantic audience, a massive thirst and an enormous platform, via smartphones and tablets, for genuinely interesting stories. Think no one is reading papers? Imagine that all the people you saw today reading smartphones were actually reading newspapers – chances are they will all have clicked at least one news site.

Anyway, back to the promised 100 new journos, armed with their sharpened pencils, ready to throw themselves into the farthest reaches of council chambers and crown courts from Carlisle to Truro,. (There are 91 Crown Courts, 330 magistrates courts and 400 odd council chambers).

In his speech today (7/9/15) BBC Director General Tony Hall (a former BBC broadcast journalist) stated: “We’ve been working with our local newspaper partners on an exciting scheme.

“Local democracy really interests me. I’ve seen for myself how important our local radio stations are, and I’m really proud of the way they serve their communities. But I now want us to go further. So, in future, The BBC would set aside licence fee funding to invest in a service that reports on councils, courts and public services. And we would make available our regional video and local audio for immediate use on the internet services of local and regional news organisations.

“In my view, that’s good for audiences, good for the industry but we look forward to hearing the views of others. Together with our partners we look forward to consulting on this scheme and adapting it as we learn from the consultation.”

Naturally, the immediate reaction about the proposal was pretty one-sided (of course it’s far easier to vent on news stories these days via the comments section, rather than having to find a pen, write a letter, buy a stamp, go to the postbox…).

The initial general reaction online could be nutshelled as follows: Why should taxpayers’ money be used to prop up large commercial media organisations who have asset stripped the newsrooms of once popular regional papers?

And this is before the big newsgroups got involved. By the afternoon they were venting via the Guardian.

In the detail of its proposal the corporation says the operation would have to be “run by the BBC” and that any news organisation, “as well as the BBC itself”, could compete to win reporting contracts.

“It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the BBC’s proposal … [is] anything other than BBC expansion into local news provision and recruitment of more BBC local journalists through the back door,” said Ashley Highfield, the vice chairman of the News Media Association and chief executive of regional publisher Johnston Press.*

John McLellan, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society, was equally scathing, describing the plan as a “Trojan horse” and a “further expansion of the BBC’s encroachment”.

“It’s a Trojan horse because under the guise of being helpful, the BBC would end up replacing independent local news and worse than that would replace local news agencies,” McLellan told Radio 4’s World at One. “”It means the BBC effectively replaces local newsgathering.”

*[…and former BBC employee who dreams of being DG one day, I reckon…]

Back again to my unexpected news alarm from John Humphries.

I pay my BBC licence fee and think overall we get pretty good service. But you want to save some money in your charter renewal Mr State Broadcaster? Here’s some ideas:

  • Stop putting half a dozen reporters and presenters on a story that only needs one. Stop doing expensive live OB reports in front of darkened buildings, especially Downing Street.
  • Help your regional TV reporters by pool-sharing jobs with papers or hyperlocals – your broadcasters are stretched by the huge areas they cover. Let them be journalists.
  • Stop equating the success of your local radio stations to their Facebook likes. Good stuff will be shared anyway.
  • Invest in your local stations. But let them cover features and long form investigations and stop wasting time and money repeating what the papers already do better.
  • I love BBC4, but I think a lot of it could be on BBC2. Keep the content, just move it and make room by binning all of those ridiculously expensive lifestyle programs with ‘celebrities’, especially home-makeovers and chefs (except Bake-Off, keep that). Let the commercial channels do them, where they can ‘product place’ to their heart’s content.
  • BBC3 is more important than you think and should stay as a terrestrial channel (seeing as it is the only youth channel available).
  • Get over your obsession with ‘Talent’ and hire people who know what they are doing.
  • Have fewer meetings, make quicker decisions and implement stuff faster.

Feel free to add your own, as I’m in a post-news story ramble.

Apart from being interested in this stuff as a journalist, journalism academic (I lecture in journalism to university undergraduates) and better-half of a local newspaper editor, it bothers me as a member of the public too. We should be getting more impartial coverage of public affairs. And there are some really essential stories we’re not hearing enough about.

OK, it’s a universal truth that newspaper journalists have always liked to bitch about BBC journalists (they get paid more, they nick our stuff without giving credit or links (I’m looking at you Radio 4), they actually DO talk like they are in the spoof W1A, they might be posh/public school/Oxbridge, they still get expenses, and they get better reception from punters simply by saying ‘I’m from the BBC.”

But that’s just banter. There are some really fantastic, dedicated regional BBC reporters and presenters who work their backsides off to get their programmes out for their non-Londoncentric audience and they will be wondering what this latest idea will mean for them.

The real reason Humphries woke me with a start this morning is because I’ve actually been sitting on the consultation panel between the BBC, regional publishers and hyperlocal media organisations for the past year. We’re supposed to be having a further meeting and more detailed feedback session next week.

Early on in the discussions, in the ‘blue sky thinking’ phase, I raised the idea of the state broadcaster staffing council or court in areas where court and council wasn’t already covered, and sharing content with everyone else, similar to what happens during visits involving the Royals via the ‘Royal rota pool’.

The idea was deemed too expensive to do properly, and politely shelved.

Or so I thought . . .

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