It’s not surprising the newspaper industry is sensitive about the BBC. This is the organisation that might have killed off newsprint with radio news in the 1920s, had another go a decade later with television and now, as papers try to find revenue in digital distribution, gives away some of the world’s most compelling editorial material to anyone with an internet connection.
Like previous threats, the latest challenge is incidental rather than deliberate. But if it’s nothing personal as far as the BBC is concerned, it’s deeply personal for the Mail, Telegraph, Sun and Times. The website issue has given them a casus belli, crystallising more deeply felt grievances. The competitive, private-sector British newspaper industry cannot forgive the BBC its generous public funding, bien pensant liberal-left complacency, generous contracts for celebrity presenters, top heavy management and – most heinous – its sanctimonious approach to the popular press, even as it was pulling a Newsnight investigation into the wholesale sexual abuse practised by its own Jimmy Savile.
No wonder several editors believe that the fundamental review of BBC funding announced by the culture secretary, John Whittingdale, is an opportunity to put the boot in. There is a political question: do we need a public service media operator (for the term “broadcaster” is surely redundant in a digital age)? A practical one: if we do, how should it be funded? And a competition issue: how do we ensure commercial businesses can compete with a publicly funded one?
Let us look at the last of these, for if the future of media is digital, how can commercial publications contend with a publisher that seeks neither subscription nor advertising revenue? In the words of the chancellor, George Osborne, speaking to Andrew Marr: “You wouldn’t want the BBC to completely crowd out national newspapers, and if you look at the BBC website, it’s a good product but it is becoming a bit more imperial in its ambitions.”
Until now, most discussion on the BBC and online has concentrated on local sites and the additional pressure placed on regional press. The BBC has looked at ways of playing more nicely, sharing resources and some journalism, acknowledging the papers from which it is accused of lifting stories and linking to commercial rivals. Now the debate moves to a national stage.
We may feel it is an open question whether the BBC is really to blame for the difficulties of the newspaper industry. We may think the proliferation of free stuff and alternative sources of news on the internet may have something to do with it too, but that is a view that will find little favour in the coming months. Its most vehement critics argue the BBC has no business even being online. It is, they say, a broadcaster. They, of course, are newspapers, so what are they doing online? The fact is that digital has broken down all the old definitions. Imagine what we licence payers would say if the BBC were not publishing websites.
Is the BBC coverage just too comprehensive? Should it make its sites less appealing? In a democracy we believe in news and information as a public good. Are we to ask the BBC to bridle the imagination of its journalists and produce less of these good things? It is hard to rein in creativity, impossible to uninvent technology.
Perhaps the new model and reduction in BBC funding that are expected to follow the policy review will provide the solution. Imperial ambition is swiftly blunted by an absence of money to fulfil it. How newspaper editors would like to see the BBC compete after implementing the kind of cuts their papers have suffered in recent years. But what if a less well-funded BBC resolved to spend less elsewhere and as much as ever on news? Who is to police its websites, to stop them covering subjects that newspapers regard as their own?
A more effective solution, at least in competition terms, has already been proposed by the former Channel 5 boss Dawn Airey, who now sits on the Whittingdale panel. She has said before that the BBC should charge for its websites. As the Times and Sun have found to their cost in reader numbers, there’s nothing like a paywall to make readers decide how much they really value the service. If that happens, and that cliché the playing field is made more level, we shall see how truly effective newspapers can be online.