An offer from the BBC that's not as generous as it sounds

Local news groups need the BBC's money rather than its stories, argues Tim Luckhurst
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The Independent Online

John Reith, the BBC's first director general, greeted the General Strike of 1926 as a "stupendous opportunity" to show what the BBC could do in a national emergency. Today his amiable successor, Mark Thompson, appears resolutely determined to demonstrate its virility in a different crisis.

Beyond the licence-fee funded security of BBC News, journalism is in crisis. Local newspapers are being eviscerated by a cruel combination of collapsing advertising revenues and migration to the internet. ITV and Channel 4 are staring into the abyss. One visible consequence is less original news reporting. In parts of Britain, councillors could discuss making public nudity mandatory without exposure. Local press lacks resources for scrutiny of such meetings and court reporting is similarly diminished.

The threat to democracy is plain. Without reporters to ask questions and investigate probity Britain has few mechanisms with which to hold power to account between elections. And so the BBC offers a solution. It will share its resources with rival newspapers, TV and radio stations.

The offer appears generous. Andy Burnham, the culture secretary, is keen and so is Ofcom. Cash-strapped local news providers will gain access to BBC audio and video. Their reporters will get access to the BBC school of journalism. ITV may move local journalists into BBC buildings. Local news will be revived by a big dollop of generosity from the licence fee.

But is the BBC really being generous or is it offering cash-strapped commercial rivals a sinister death cuddle from which they will emerge impotent if they survive at all? To secure effective public service reporting a democratic polity must ensure plurality of news provision. Only totalitarian states prefer a single source: 'One people, One State, One News Agency.'

This argument underlies the principles on which media ownership is regulated in the UK. It is crucial to the BBC's place in Britain's media ecology. From its earliest days policy makers recognised that the BBC might damage diversity. The licence granted to it in 1923 specified it should not broadcast any news except that obtained from commercial news agencies.

Newspaper proprietors feared that it would destroy their products. The BBC chafed against such restrictions and fought for the right to make news of its own. Thank goodness it did. The BBC sets standards of excellence for which it is widely respected and lavishly resourced. It is also instinctively imperialist. The logic of the universal licence fee compels it to argue that the BBC must offer something for everyone. This universalist philosophy was, until recently, accepted by all but the most ideologically hostile critics. It must be challenged.

Behind the logic that says "everyone pays it, so everyone is entitled to something from the licence fee," lurks a very real danger that the BBC is about to embark on a project that will undermine diversity and damage its own reputation. The BBC is masquerading as the saviour of British journalism, but that is not its real objective. Thompson's apparent generosity to rivals disguises his pursuit of the BBC's most intransigent conviction: that the licence fee must endure and that all of it must go to the BBC.

Giving local and regional media access to BBC news footage might easily result in a narrowing of the news agenda. Local and regional rivals would only gain access to what the BBC chose to cover.

Local broadcasters are bound by the same rules of objectivity and balance as their BBC rivals, but their audiences are different and their story choices are distinctive. Local newspapers are even less compatible with the BBC model. They are under no obligation to remain neutral on matters of political controversy.

The BBC's editorial model is incompatible with true diversity. That is why it has never been allowed to function as the nation's sole provider of news. If it was not wedded to the assumption that it alone can provide public interest journalism the BBC would acknowledge this and drop its patronising offer of an Anschluss in local news.

There is an obvious alternative. By top-slicing the licence fee the Government could create a fund to support local journalism independent of the BBC. The corporation would benefit if it did. It has always been at its best when faced by robust, independent competition.

Tim Luckhurst is Professor of Journalism at the University of Kent and head of the University's Centre for Journalism