Tag Archives: BBC charter renewal

The BBC White Paper and what it could mean for journalists

WHILE the main rumours circulating about the BBC’s future have been about the salaries of celebrity presenters and whether Strictly clashes with the X-Factor, there are more important issues buried in the paperwork — including whether the regional press is holding councils and quangos to account.

As a journalist and academic, I’ve been a member of the working group into the relationship between the BBC and the regional press since it was set up in June 2014. The group’s discussions fed into the white paper published today.

It’s pretty much guaranteed that if you raised the issue, over a pint in the pub, of whether the regional media has declined/failed/is dead, you’d get a tidal wave of negativity from people who claim never to read a paper anymore.

They wouldn’t understand that most of the information about their local team/school/hospital they get is still investigated and reported by the local media — but published online.

If they were not so overwhelmed by the demands of constant deadlines to feed their organisation’s websites, the journalists might be in the pub to point this out themselves, but those days are long gone. You’re far more likely to see a local reporter, be they from a paper, local radio or TV, in a Starbucks or McDonald’s car park, balancing a laptop and a phone on their knee while simultaneously trying to upload images and write the story straight on to pages via erratic free Wi-Fi.

“I don’t buy a papers, I get my news from Twitter and Facebook,” is a line guaranteed to bait the most unflappable of journalists. No. You don’t get news from social media, not the full story anyway. What you get is a headline, a tease, and you then click through to — guess what? — the newspapers and broadcasters you think you don’t read. Social media is simply a noisy vendor; a billboard, a town crier directing you to find out what’s going on. It’s rarely the actual story, except, of course, when it is eyewitnesses Tweeting live from an unfolding disaster, or a Facebook fundraiser for a poorly child. Even those live events will see readers looking for validation; for authority and confirmation, by checking what the established news providers are saying.

There is no doubt, regardless of how much the owners and managers of regional papers and broadcasters will tell you otherwise, that the number of journalists in the regions has rapidly decreased. Newspapers have closed high street offices and moved production into ‘hubs,’ often on industrial estates with no physical contact with the public, producing dozens of papers that may be many miles away. Reporters, if they’re lucky, may still be out on their ‘patch’, but instead of returning to an office to file their story, they do it from the aforementioned car park — wi-fi and phone signal permitting. Office-based staff are having to produce more copy faster than ever before, because they are now also writing all the ‘non-news’ text — the property edit, the what’s ons, the sports results — that used to be someone else’s job.

This is not confined to the newspapers, as both the commercial and BBC local TV reporters also have to cover larger and larger areas and often don’t have the time to attend, interview and edit for same-day broadcast deadlines. And yet the regions have a much larger audience than all the nationals put together.

The decline in print is not simply down to fewer people buying papers because they can get the same content via their smartphones. Newspapers never made their money through the cover price, they make it through advertising, and in the pre-internet years, that advertising was almost exclusively purchased in print. If you wanted to get a job, buy a house or sell a car, you bought a local paper. If you wanted to get eyes on these areas as a business, advertising in the local paper was the only, and often expensive, way to attract customers.

News and feature pages were essential to attract in those readers who might also want to buy a car, or a house, or whatever: the news media is a healthy business if you can make people pay for it, and if the cost of printing had not gone through the roof.

However much reporters want to be the messenger of truth between The Establishment and The People, bringing news is a business, and in print, those numbers just didn’t make the profits the ever-larger publishers wanted, and the online revenue has been slow in coming.

Even back in the most recent heyday, management were tasked with making savings, by reducing the number of editions, or making one reporter cover the job of two, by making expenses claims such a long-winded process that reporters simply stopped doing anything that required claiming. But it was unquestionably better staffed than today.

A big regional daily like the Yorkshire Post, Birmingham Mail or Manchester Evening News will still have a good number of ‘portfolioed’ reporters — like an education correspondent, court reporter and most likely a politics editor, covering council and the various authorities and quangos. The big papers will be making sure that issues like planning, schools, pub licensing, health, transport, leisure facilities and local councillors’ expenses are brought to the public’s attention. But on a weekly paper in a small town like Northampton? Maybe not.

Here you’re unlikely to find a reporter able to give their attention and expertise to one area like the council. They’re likely to be half the entire reporting staff on a given day, assuming no-one ever takes annual leave.
Council agendas (have a go at reading one, they’re online) take time to read and analyse. Meetings are usually in the evenings, and if you’ve been the only reporter on the day shift, it’s unlikely you’ll be awake enough to do the late shift too, and that’s assuming you have no life and responsibilities outside of the office.
And those ex-journalists who took redundancy in the last round of cuts, are now in council press offices, writing handy news-style, pro-council press releases, which are just so easy to slip into that gaping hole in your paper or website. They’ve done the hard work for you, haven’t they? The public can even watch the meeting on a council-run webcam.

So what has all this got to do with the BBC White Paper?

The BBC’s current Royal Charter — the agreement which sets the broadcaster’s rules and purpose — expires at the end of December and a public consultation into its future was launched last year.

Tory Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, who oversees charter renewal, has published detailed government proposals for the BBC’s TV licence-fee-funded future in this White Paper.

Included was a section on “Supporting and invigorating local news provision across the UK”, which included a commitment to provide 150 extra

BBC-funded journalists nationwide, who will be based in newspaper offices but share content to all local providers, as “a Local Public Sector Reporting Service — investing in a service to report on local institutions.”

The White Paper continues: “… a service that sees the BBC providing some funding for local journalists to provide reporting for use by the BBC and other news providers. These proposals could provide a positive contribution to the diversity and quality of local news provision. The government welcomes the BBC’s commitment to continue to work with the industry to develop and implement these plans and its commitment to provide funding for 150 journalists from 2017, given the public interest in a plurality of local and regional news provision. This number could rise to 200…”

Hang on, why has the BBC got to prop up the staff of local (commercial) papers at a cost of £8million of BBC license-fee coffers?

Is it just to make friends? To stop criticism by the press that the liberally state-funded BBC killed local journalism with its early regional websites? (Press Gazette, 2007)

Going back to the original set-up of the working group by new BBC news chief James Harding in 2014, and further back still, there has always been ‘tension’ between the state-funded BBC journalists and everyone else.

Newspapers still think the BBC ‘steals’ their stories and simply reads them out on air, however vociferously BBC newsrooms will argue that they don’t, and that news is rarely exclusive.

A generation of current print editors will remember how they started their career on a paper on £7,000, while their fellow trainee reporters slithered into the BBC on £18,000 for doing the same job. They claimed it was impossible for commercial news providers to compete with well-staffed, state-funded newsrooms whose reporters were only writing-up one story a day, while their own staff covered half-a-dozen or more, only to see them ‘stolen’ by the BBC. They’ll say that the newspapers, both regional and national, do all the legwork on an investigation and the broadcasters will just mop up the headline and conclusion. This was still being claimed at the Revival of Local Journalism conference two years ago that sparked Harding’s working party.

I’ve been to every one of the meetings over the two years and made several observations: the most notable being that for all their efforts, the tensions between the BBC and the regional newspapers, and the Press Association, and hyperlocal independent publishers, the commercial regional TV stations, all represented on the panel, are still there.

Some are further evolved than others, and have joined schemes that see newspaper website stories cross-promoted on BBC regional sites (the data on whether this helps the newspapers is still to come). There have, as detailed in the White Paper, been ideas about sharing the vast BBC archive, creating a shared data unit and distributing video to regional publications to use online. This could easily happen if the technology allows.

Meanwhile, some editors will struggle to even contemplate liaising with their local BBC, who they view as their competition, along with whatever other rivals they may have in print.

The idea of the BBC funding ‘extra’ reporters was originally thrown into the mix at an early working party meeting, as a way of covering not council, but court. Many around the table thought court reporting was being neglected in all but the cities, but subsequent enquiries saw this idea discarded.

Then it appeared again last September in an announcement by BBC DG Tony Hall, this time as a potential way for the BBC to be seen to be spreading some of their funds to report on courts and council matters. The announcement came as a surprise to the working party who had previously been told it wasn’t a cost-effective idea, because all areas of the UK, even those where council was already adequately covered by larger papers, would have to be included. That’s before you even consider the logistics of where to put a BBC-paid reporter who wasn’t to be based in a BBC office and who would have to share content between rival newsgroups, much like a rota reporter on a royal visit.

The idea was again rubbished, especially by Ashley Highfield, head of newspaper publisher Johnston Press, and Vice Chair of the News Media Association (formerly the Newspaper Society). He accused the BBC of ‘recruitment of more BBC journalists through the back door.”

But away from the working party, meetings were arranged between Harding of the BBC, and regional newspaper bosses including Highfield, with presumably his JP hat on top of his NMA one, to thrash out an idea of the BBC funding journalists who would work within the newspaper groups, which is pretty much what was revealed today.

Two major questions:

If the BBC funds new reporters to cover council and quango matters for the newspapers, what’s to stop the newspaper groups getting rid of their existing reporting staff? I asked this at the last working party meeting and remain unconvinced that it will be prevented from happening by ‘editorial gatekeepers.’

If there are 150, or even 200 new reporters funded by the BBC in the regions, which everyone would welcome, newspapers would be able to ‘bid’ to have one. Why would happen if, say, the Chronicle & Echo ‘got’ a BBC-funded council reporter, and they were expected to share their brilliant council story (at exactly the same moment) with BBC Northampton and the Herald & Post? Anyone who knows journalists will know the idea of sharing is never as attractive as beating the opposition to a fat exclusive. And newspapers have high targets for reader ‘hits’ just as they do for maintaining high print circulation. A good exclusive will not be given up easily.

Will the 150 reporters ever materialize? If the time it’s taken to get this far is anything to go by, I wouldn’t hold my breath. But I might cross my fingers, and meanwhile try and support my local papers by advertising, clicking through to pages online and picking up the print papers whenever possible. You might not think you need them but you’ll certainly miss them if they go, when the BBC could be the last man standing.

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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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