STOP BLAMING THE BBC FOR THE PLIGHT OF SCOTLAND’S NEWSPAPERS

 JIM CHISHOLM says the plight of the regional press is being used as an argument for muzzling the BBC’s local news services.

In Scotland, the issue is both more complex and more critical. The players are being encouraged in part by the conspirators against the BBC in government and beyond.

The inevitable debate regarding the extent of Scotland’s own Public Service Broadcasting provision is a good thing. Should we have our own “SBC”? Is there a viable market for another Scottish independent station, void of UK and global content?

Alongside this is the fact that such a high proportion of the Scottish Press is owned and controlled outside Scotland, some from London, much by proprietors who are domiciled outside the UK. This is highly unusual.

And then there is the murky issue of whether a deal should be struck between the BBC and the publishers as to who provides citizens with their news and information. I would strongly argue that any such deal is a disaster for Press Freedom, the “free market” and of no benefit to either the BBC or the local press.

The big debate has to be what is best for Scotland, Scots, news employees and participants, and the economy which relies on a healthy advertising multiplier.

The next step in the consolidation of the UK regional press is the much rumoured acquisition of Johnston Press by Gannett’s Newsquest. This would involve The Scotsman being overtaken by The Herald.

Small beer in the UK context but a keg of complexity here in Scotland.

There are a number of strong signs that such a merger could happen. First up is the regularly propounded views of Bob Dickey, the President of Gannett, the ultimate parent of the Herald, who when appointed, stated: “Acquisition is one of the key pillars in our growth strategy.”

His comment in July that: “We are looking for markets that provide good synergies for us” is not only logical in Scotland but also in Yorkshire and the South of England. It is one of many similar signals.

Since Dickey took over a year ago the Gannet share price has risen by 52%.

Another is the current low price of Johnston Press, at 41 pence yesterday, compared with 166 pence a year ago.

Yet if all the regional press came under a similar umbrella, not dissimilar to ITV, then the combined local press business would be significantly smaller than ITV in terms of sales and reach, and a fraction of its market value.

All of this puts any suggestion that the BBC should be either muzzled or required to source, for a fee, its local news from local publishers into context.

Consolidation of what effectively are already local news monopolies into a strong group, able to exploit synergies that provide an improved, sustainable local news service funded by a stronger united competitive position for advertising, makes sense.

But the idea that this should be the sole provider of local news to the state owned broadcaster would be unacceptable in terms of plurality and press freedom.

In Scotland, it would be completely inconceivable.

There is a strong belief among regional press publishers that the BBC is somehow to blame for its difficulties. The UK is no different to other European countries, or the USA, where Public Service Broadcasting is far from as polished as that of the BBC.

However a recent survey, undertaken by DJS Research, found that“95 per cent of the public believe that it is important that the BBC carry on publishing news content on its apps and website. A further 75 per cent said that the corporation should continue to do so even if it makes print newspapers struggle to make money and draw in readership. Just 6 per cent said they believed that the negative impact that online journalism has on print media means that the BBC should stop publishing their news content online.”

Another detailed analysis by KPMG found “there is no clear evidence, from the available data, that any increase (decrease) in the level of BBC activity has resulted in a decline (increase) in…… local newspapers’ readership or revenues.”

In addition KPMG found that “there is little evidence of other Public Service Broadcasters across the world crowding out private sector activity.”

So let’s accept that the suggestion that the BBC has or is damaging the local newspaper industry is demonstrably untrue. To argue otherwise is simply to transfer blame for bad performance.

Both should be left to deal with what is becoming a far wider and rougher news environment, where Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon et al, are all nurturing their own versions of a news service and pouring millions into their ventures in the UK and beyond.

Twenty years after the lure of the internet first presented itself, a number of UK publishers are realising the opportunities of the digital age.

Further consolidation between publishers is inevitable, and can be a good thing for society. But its protagonists should look within to identify their challenges rather than trying to blame and muzzle what is the best PSB service in the world.

Jim Chisholm is a former director of the Scottish Newspaper Society

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