What The Papers (Should) Say

It must be something in the air. That’s the only explanation that I can think of for my current state of mind, in agreeing wholeheartedly with a Conservative veteran and my own BBC Controller this week. Let me explain.

As a union rep, I’ve had my fair share of run ins (and stand up rows) with David Holdsworth, the controller of BBC English Regions. As a senior manager, he’s had to preside of cuts across Local Radio, including the controversial move to introduce an England wide evening show. Every individual station has had to endure its own cuts. Journalists and support staff have been lost, programmes have been cut – although the BBC still enjoys some of the best resources in the industry – which always puts a few noses out of joint.

So it was good to see David – at a staff meeting this week – dismissing claims by the Home Secretary that the BBC was somehow killing local newspapers. Her comments are hardly surprising – she was addressing the Society of Editors, the trade body for newspaper bosses. But as veteran newspaper hack Roy Greenslade pointed out, she was wrong – and demonstrably so..

Arguments over whether the BBC is helping or hindering the local press are nothing new. Right down to local rivalries. Not so long ago, a newspaper colleague wrote a blog declaring BBC Local Radio to be “story stealers” – a reference to counting how many articles from the paper had also appeared on the radio. They didn’t take into account that at least half the stories “stolen” had, in fact, come from press releases and other publicly available documents.

What’s more, local newspapers enjoy free advertising, thanks to your licence fee. Here’s a screen grab of the BBC Nottingham home page:

Local newspaper content is proudly displayed, right in the centre of the page. Before our own local sport. And just to counter that “story stealers” claim, you’ll often see content from those papers which is far more up to date than our own. It’s hardly “killing” the local press.

So to Conservative veterans and – I’m not going to try and hide my glee here – but there are few things more satisfying than watching two career politicians at each other’s throats. A couple of weeks ago, Grant Schapps claimed that the BBC was biased, and suggested a cut in the Licence Fee could be on the cards unless Auntie makes amends. Now, the former Conservative Chairman Lord Patten – in his role as Chair of the BBC Trust – has called the comments “exceptionally ill judged”.

Like me, what really galled Lord Patten was not the general (and justified) disdain of executive payoffs and general mismanagement, but the individual attack on a respected journalist – which was then used as an assumption of some kind of institutional problems.

Schapps is right to say that a certain culture pervades all BBC newsrooms. It’s one that (with a couple of exceptions) checks the facts, verifies information, and then presents it in an open and transparent way to the audience. Contrast this with reports that one political party is airbrushing history by deleting old speeches from its website.

Of course the BBC is in a different position, entrusted with public money. Unaccountable and over funded, according to the critics. Which might hold some weight, had the BBC Trust not been running three major public consultations into its services – one of which being the BBC’s news services. It’s even asking what kind of reporting should happen during the forthcoming Scots independence referendum.

Perhaps Ms May and Mr Schapps would like to demonstrate their commitment to democracy by taking part.

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