An Interesting Conflict

When it comes to local news and loyalties, you can bet that sports fans won’t give you much credit for anything you write or broadcast. A fiercely partisan and subjective part of the audience, they’ll always be quick to tell you when you get things wrong. And you do so at your peril.

So it was a curious headline from the Mansfield Chad today, which issued a grovelling apology to Mansfield Town for a post match report. It pointed out that the said report was not penned by its regular Stags correspondent, but a freelancer. They won’t be doing that again.

Or will they? Because the NUJ raised concerns last month that the Chad’s owners, Johnston Press, had decided to not set their reporter to any away games on the grounds of cost. After all, any old hack can write this stuff, right?

It’s hard not to put the ultimate blame at the door of JP’s Chief Executive, Ashley Highfield, who has spent much of the past few months berating the BBC for its “expansionist” agenda. Although it’s equally worth pointing out that this agenda was driven by the Government’s Charter Renewal process, which has actually urged the Corporation to collaborate more with local newspapers.

And what happens then? The BBC comes up with a plan to create 100 local reporters to cover all the kinds of stories that local newspapers no longer can or want to bother with. Whilst still digesting this proposal, Ashley Highfield went on the attack; with cries that Auntie was invading the territory reserved for local newspapers. You know, the ones that erm… don’t send football reporters to away games.

In a Guardian interview today Ashley yet again insists that the newspapers are right and the BBC is wrong – now calling for 25% of the BBC’s news budget to be made available to local publishers, so that they can hire the journalists rather than the Corporation. An impasse looms.

The Guardian rightly reminds us that Mr Highfield also wears three hats. He’s the CEO of JP, but also the Vice Chair of the News Media Association. And he’s one of the eight-strong Government-appointed panel to, you guessed it, help inform Culture Secretary John Whittingdale about that Charter Renewal.

Ashley claims he’s been open and transparent, and indeed his Twitter feed pulls no punches. But how can he possibly be impartial in advising a Government minister on the BBC? Well, he says he “loves” the BBC, having previously been its head of digital.

We’ll see.

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