Ashley Highfield: Time to look afresh at the role of the BBC

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THE government is about to kick off the process of working out what it ought to be doing in return for another 10 year BBC Royal Charter. So we need to start shaping the discussion now.

As a former BBC man – so I speak with some authority – the BBC debate all too often focuses on the BBC as it is now, rather than as it could and should be. The BBC is at its best when it is using its strength and its brand to innovate: it is at its worst when it is using its strength and its brand to dominate.

The BBC purports to support regional press, yet seems to be wishing for its demise by questioning – at what seems like every opportunity – whether local newspapers are already dead. And the BBC may actually hasten our demise if, as warned by Newspaper Society Chair Adrian Jeakings early this year at the Culture, Media and Sport select committee about the future of the BBC, they are allowed “unconstrained commercial expenditure [which], if taken to its limit, could wipe out the local press.”

The Newspaper Society, and me personally, were keen to explore a more positive, symbiotic relationship between the BBC and regional publishers, whereby local newspapers would be appropriately credited, and rewarded, for creating content for the BBC and sharing it with them.

Despite the best of intentions, a pilot scheme in Leeds – which saw local press working alongside the BBC to create content – has proved a challenge to say the least and is far from the Great White Hope it set out to be.

So I suggest now is the time for Auntie to put on some different spectacles and start looking at local press differently: as a genuine partner to take the BBC to a wider audience. There are two motes in her eyes that need removing first, however:

Firstly, the assumption that in this digital age the BBC needs to own all of its own distribution. It doesn’t. With its local content, or indeed any of its content that might have local resonance or interest, it should work through others to reach its audiences with this quality content.

Secondly, that the BBC is best placed to reach regional audiences. It’s not. BBC Salford and other initiatives have not materially helped the BBC to understand or connect with regional, or rural, audiences.

Put simply, we can provide more reach (and thus more public value) to BBC content through our websites, our papers, our routes to market, but still within a trusted, regulated environment, than they can through their sub-scale (or wherever) sites.

According to a survey just last month - by none other than the BBC - many people in the UK feel a growing connection with others in their neighbourhood but shrinking ties with their own country, so surely now is absolutely the time for a shift of attitude and approach to address this return we’re seeing to community engagement – and fashioning a wholly new relationship between the local press and the BBC.

Local newspapers and their associated web brands can actually bolster the BBC’s value if they stop viewing us as the competition and work with us to distribute their content.

The BBC is one of the country’s most important cultural institutions and the relationship it has with us as a nation is truly astounding. But it’s not the BBC which has a direct relationship with people in Pocklington, Peterborough or Portsmouth. It’s us – the local media operators.

Local people, local businesses, local stories – that’s what we do. In fact, we – Johnston Press - have been doing it at a hyper-local level, for 300 years since the first Stamford Mercury was published.

We can increase public value by increasing the reach of BBC content if the BBC allows us to access it – all of it – from video content to weather - free of charge, and take it to market. Anything with a potential regional benefit should be made available, free, to regional publishers. A great big content bucket, properly tagged and indexed, that we (trusted, accredited, local publishers), can dip in to. There are pilots being worked on in the BBC to offer this already. This is not a fantasy.

Take the BBC weather app, for example. This isn’t even BBC content as it was commissioned from an independent. It directly takes eyeballs away from local and regional media offerings. The public value generated could be just as high, if not higher, had the BBC chosen to syndicate the functionality to regional publishers. The public would get its local weather (alongside its local traffic updates, news, and information that we provide), and the BBC would get the credit. They’d deliver public value, and we’d keep the commercial value, and thus commercial viability.

The BBC needs to stop trying to be all things to all people, and focus on what they are best at – creating world-class content. They can keep their regional brands – Look North, BBC North West et al, but close their under-performing local websites and work with us, rather than against us, as we become their local media distribution partner and fully utilise our own, highly trafficked, rapidly growing, hyper local sites.

We’ll give proper attribution to that content, which ever medium we publish it in, whilst ensuring we keep our own local voice. This way, plurality of voice is maintained. In return the BBC can focus on being innovative whilst fulfilling its duty of delivering great education, information, and entertainment. And much like its regulated quota for the amount of content it commissions from Independent TV production companies, it could be given specific content targets for how much content we use, by a beefed up regulator. But the traffic this content gets on our platforms would count towards the BBC’s reach too – be counted in any Public Value Test when re-assessing a Service Licence.

Of course, whilst the Charter Review of the BBC is a constant source of industry discussion, the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ probably couldn’t care less how the licence fee was used outside London.

But John the Baker in Bourne, Clare the stylist in Scarborough and Sarah the Florist in Forfar would be the first to suffer if they couldn’t grow their business as a result of their local media partner going out of business due to BBC market impact. And, in this fragile economic recovery outside London, let’s not forget that local media, across print and online, is the main channel by which small to medium sized businesses, the lifeblood of the economic recovery, can reach new customers.

So, we’ll change the rhetoric, and stop talking about parking tanks on our lawns, instead BBC, plant your content offerings on our lawns, we’ll look after them and water them, and bring new and increased audiences to them. And vice-versa, if you want to take our content on to your regional radio services or national channels, fine, but credit us, pay us (perhaps by an extension of the mechanism already put in place for the local TV channels), and we’ll find a thousand flowers will bloom. We, the regional press and publishers, will help you the BBC fulfil your charter objective ‘to truly serve and reflect the nations, regions and communities that make up the UK’ and we might actually be pretty good at it!

• Ashley Highfield is Chief Executive Officer of Johnston Press, publisher of The Yorkshire Post. This is an edited version of his speech to The Newspaper Society.