Lord Black of Brentwood, chairman of the News Media Association’s legal, policy and regulatory affairs committee, has called for “tighter controls” on the BBC’s online news services to prevent it from crowding out commercial rivals through an unsustainable competitive advantage.
Speaking in a House of Lords debate on the BBC yesterday (Thursday) Lord Black, executive director of Telegraph Media Group, called for the BBC to enter into a “genuine partnership role” with the commercial sector.
Lord Black said: “Our reverence for the BBC’s role as a content provider – about which we have heard a great deal, and which I share – must not be allowed to obscure the realities of its commercial impact on the rest of the media; in particular, the private sector news media publishers, which face an extremely tough time as they transit from print-based operations to global digital news suppliers.
“If we are to have a vibrant democracy in which government is held effectively to account, then we need plural provision of news, with a commercially successful private sector news market, providing a range of partial and campaigning journalism, operating alongside licensed and impartial TV news provision. How these two parts of the media ecosystem develop over the next 10 years and relate to each other is the crucial issue at the heart of the charter review, especially with regard to the BBC’s digital operations, on which I wish to concentrate.
“In this period of rapid transition, the impact of a continually expanding and licence fee-funded online news operation, using the BBC’s network of overseas journalists to underpin those commercial news operations and producing ever more local UK news and magazine-style content, will, if not tackled, be highly damaging for the development of commercial news brands—if not lethal for many.
“The sums of money the BBC invests in BBC Online are huge. The headline figure alone is £201 million, but that masks the huge advantage from the £l billion spent on the World Service and BBC Radio. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that that is how the BBC is crowding out its commercial rivals. It provides a competitive advantage which is unsustainable if we are to maintain a plural media market.
“Rather than seeking continually to expand online content at a time when resources are stretched, surely the time is now right to subject it to far tighter control in terms of its market impact, something particularly important in the local market.”