The BBC have just announced the results of the tenders for their local news reporting project in which they are funding journalists across the country to write up council meetings. The scheme is described as a working agreement with the News Media Association (NMA) but if you are looking for a model for how this partnership might work think Ribbentrop and Molotov rather than Lennon and McCartney.
The corporation has had its arms twisted to fund the project out of the licence fee after the representative body of the regional newspapers complained to parliament that the BBC’s operations were systematically lifting their content and unfairly competing with them in local news. As a result it was claimed a democratic deficit had developed particularly in the area of local authority news coverage.
Firstly, it would be wrong to ignore the big positive about this scheme. When it gets up and running 150 new journalism jobs will be created, even though the pay will not be great and there will be a requirement to work anti-social hours. However, once you have taken that on board it is very difficult to find anything else to applaud in the resulting scheme.
The BBC entered into this partnership with a gun to their head and the NMA clearly believed that it was a chance to get part of their activities subsidised by the licence fee. The negotiations have, by all accounts, been rather fraught and the launch of the scheme has been delayed more than once. At the beginning the papers felt that all that need to happen was that the Beeb needed to send the money and they would take care of the rest. Whether due to a desire for revenge or the bureaucratic morass that afflicts many BBC initiatives the structure of the scheme has put a lot more constraint on the papers than they would have hoped for. There is a specific bar on the reporters doing any work for existing titles outside the articles they do on this contract. The papers are also forbidden from switching existing staff onto the new contracts unless they can show a like for like replacement has been made.
One person who was involved in the process told me that the best way to look at the scheme is to think of it as the BBC contracting out their HR function. Nevertheless the scheme will provide a significant cash-flow benefit for NMA members. Each reporter is to be paid £23,000 (with a London supplement where appropriate) and the total contract value is £34,000. If you take away additional payroll costs and general expenses you are probably looking at a profit of between £6-7,000 for each reporter or close to one million collectively for the newspaper groups participating. Even divided between the main publishers this will represent a welcome boost to their bottom line. Nearly all the contracts went to Trinity Mirror, Johnson Press and Newsquest. One community radio station and one hyperlocal were included to give a fig leaf defence that this exercise wasn’t simply a subsidy to the larger newspaper groups but as they don’t have economies of scale the actual surplus non-NMA members make on the scheme is likely to be small. The NMA were able to influence the scheme to the extent that it was tailor-made for their corporate structures if not their employee needs.
Despite the democratic deficit being the justification for this process the structure of the contracts seems to work against this being reduced. There is a fairly onerous output requirement for the individual reporters in terms of quantity of articles which almost seems designed to prevent them doing any proper investigative reporting. Both the BBC and the local newspapers, dependent as they are on Council advertising, have little interest in turning over that many stones where local government is concerned. Also the notion that the problem with local news reporting is that journalists are not at Council meetings seems an outdated one – a succession of Local Government Acts has made local authorities largely instruments of central Government policy with very little policy making discretion left to them. Reporters generally stopped going to Council meetings because nothing important happened at them.
The brief for the reporters effectively will mean that they are effectively just minute-takers for the meetings that they are required to attend. Most Councils publish minutes anyway and so the biggest benefit in terms of public information will be that anyone interested (probably virtually nobody) will be able to read about what transpired at a meeting they weren’t bothered to attend a bit more quickly.
The newspapers get a cash boost from hosting the new reporters but what about an operational one? The content is very, very niche so has little value for their online presence. For hard copy it may be different. Many titles are now published from remote content production centres with little or no connection with the coverage area. A steady stream of articles to fill space may be welcome and will probably allow the publishers to make further savings on content production costs.
A quite large amount of licence fee payers’ money is therefore being spent on a scheme which will produce content that hardly anybody will read and may well result in some journalists losing their jobs. It is not surprising therefore that there seems to have been little noise being made about the progress of the scheme either from the BBC or the winning bidders from the larger publishers. David ‘Reg’ Holdsworth, who was overseeing the project, left his position immediately after the award of the contracts. Some at the Beeb see this as being useful in that it will allow any fallout to be directed towards the previous regime. Holdsworth saw the exercise as primarily being about mollifying the NMA which frustrated some of his colleagues who believed it represented a genuine opportunity to reinvigorate local media. The outcome is perilously close subsidising a section of the media in a way that would be a breach of the Charter. The BBC has also been unwise in giving the contract that covers K&C to Trinity Mirror in the view of some of its staff. In a previous post I’ve covered the issue of the dysfunctional local paper possibly being a contributory factor to the complaints of the Grenfell Tower residents being ignored. As someone at the BBC pointed out to me, the procurement department that decided the tenders will see the husk of the building everyday so it is something of a surprise that they didn’t see not treating the local contract as a special case was politically unwise.
However, I don’t think that the scheme will actually turn out to be that toxic for the BBC. The influence of the NMA has not declined along with the readership of their members’ titles and, generally speaking MPs remain well disposed to them. The Communications Select Committee always likes to find ways to bash the Beeb but they are unlikely to complain too loud about the cash heading the way of their local newspaper for fear of a few negative headlines about themselves.
I put it to some BBC staff that this whole thing is part of a long-term strategy by the BBC to punish the local newspapers for their made up claims about stolen content. At the end of the two year contract, those reporters that have stuck it out are unlikely to want to take a pay cut to continue working with the newspaper but the BBC will have a raft of potential trained up employees to significantly boost their regional output. With a new Charter safely secured the BBC could take on the NMA with no risk and at the same time fill the news vacuum being created by the local newspapers’ ever deeper cuts to content production. Sadly , nobody at the BBC believes this is likely or possible. The long sad decline of local reporting looks set to continue and this scheme represents the waste of a golden opportunity to do something about it.