The BBC's "local video" initiative is an audacious plan to invest large amounts of funding generated by the licence fee into flooding 60 key cities throughout the country with online news, weather, travel, sport and community information. At face value this might seem a positive development, an attempt by the corporation to enhance the cohesion of British cities and strengthen the democratic process through the dissemination of news about local life. What's not to like?
Yet the knock-on effects of this plan threaten existing commercial local media outlets. Local newspapers, losing advertising revenues in the downturn, are struggling to invest in internet services. This new online competition will not help. Commercial radio stations will not welcome it either, especially as they are already fending off intense BBC opposition at local and national level. As a competitor to the regional media, the BBC is all the more formidable for being free from cross-media ownership rules which restrict the commercial sector.
Bristol is a case in point. The corporation already has BBC Radio Bristol, the regional evening news programme Points West and the Bristol adjunct to its all-powerful news website. Now it plans to flood the city with fresh reserves of journalists.Inevitably, two local newspapers will be driven to the point of extinction. The circulations of The Bristol Evening Post and The Western Daily Press are already down.
The impact on the local press also affects the national commercial media. The Bristol papers are owned by Northcliffe Media, part of the Daily Mail and General Trust. The publishers of The Guardian, The Daily Mirror and The Independent also rely on income from regional media interests.
Ofcom, the broadcasting watchdog, is due to report on the market impact on local press and radio of the BBC's proposals. The regulator is aware that a cash-strapped ITV network will not be in a position to provide local television news beyond 2012. It also knows from its Public Service Broadcasting Review that audiences are hostile to the idea of the BBC as their only source of news. It would be nothing short of a disgrace if the regulator allowed the BBC to drive Britain's local media to the wall.