COULD the BBC get me my old job back?
No is the short answer, sadly. But there is something strange afoot between the BBC and the publishers of regional newspapers, according to a report in the Times, as picked up by the Press Gazette.
Apparently local newspaper groups want the BBC to pay for 364 newspaper reporters to cover court and council reporting. This is something of a U-turn from the publishers of regional newspapers – a screeching, Top Gear-style handbrake turn indeed.
When this idea was first floated by the corporation last September, publishers rejected it on the grounds that they did not want BBC-funded journalists working in their newsrooms. But now they seem to have changed their minds. Perhaps a gimlet-eyed accountant spotted the potential savings and, falling over his wallet, shouted: “Hold on!”
The newspaper publishers and the corporation are said to be in negotiations ahead of the BBC’s new charter being agreed by the end of this year.
Is it an odd notion that the licence fee should help pay for local newspaper reporters? It might well seem that way, but George Osborne has already saddled the corporation with a hefty bill for free TV licences for the over-75s, so perhaps it is not that far-fetched.
What is strange is the apparent change of mind from the publishers. To the outsider newspapers and the BBC might appear to be on the same side, as both are providers of news (and much more in the BBC’s case). Yet ancient hostilities litter the relationship. It is almost an article of faith among regional newspaper editors that they must hate the BBC. Perhaps there is something editors have to sign when they get the job, as hostility towards the BBC is so common.
Partly this is because they blame the BBC’s website for sabotaging their own editorial efforts; and partly because local newspapers feel that local BBC radio stations trawl their pages for news (this is pretty much true, although it must work the other way round occasionally).
Also regional newspapers, in common with all the other good old inky sheets, have struggled in recent years, and look with envy on the BBC’s massive budget. But it’s not all sunshine at the Beeb. Head of news James Harding told staff in February that he will have to cut £80 million a year from his budget by 2021, so money is tight there too.
Now the News Media Association, which represents local publishers, wants a cut too: £14 million a year from the BBC’s licence fee income, according to the Times.
Here are a couple of thoughts… Is the BBC now the go-to place for anyone seeking a handout, from the government wishing to offload a bit of social spending to regional newspaper groups facing tough times? And by this same token, could local ITV news programmes demand some of the Beeb’s millions when their budgets are tight?
Regional newspapers have always mixed doing business with providing a service to the public; the owners want to make as much money as possible, while also publishing news for their readers and website users.
Local newspapers are tightly run businesses, it is true. But they are often owned by large media groups, so it seems odd that these mega businesses believe the BBC should help them out. This is especially so when you consider that local newspapers are said to have cut around half of their reporters since 2008, according to the Press Gazette.
Providing news properly is an expensive business, which is why newspaper groups slashed their reporting staff. Maybe a deal with the BBC could work. But there would have to be a safeguard that stopped newspaper publishers hiring one BBC-funded reporter and quietly laying off one they paid for.
And if that sounds cynical, put it down to the wary eye of experience.