Government opens review into saving local papers - but 'ignores damage caused by BBC'

Christopher Hope
Theresa May - Copyright ©Heathcliff O'Malley

An official Government review into the sustainability of local newspapers looks unlikely to examine the claims from Theresa May that the BBC is “destroying” them.

Matt Hancock, the Culture secretary, set out the terms of reference of its review to support a free and independent press which made no reference to the BBC.

The 820-word terms of reference of the review examines “the overall state of the market” and “the threats to financial sustainability and the business models being developed in response”, without making any specific reference to the BBC.

This is despite Mrs May warning five years ago that the corporation’s dominant position on the internet was “destroying local newspapers”.

Simon Hart MP, a Tory member of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, said: "It seems odd that a review into the state of the market excludes a major part of it.

"With so many questionable news sources out there it’s never been more important to protect the trustworthiness of local news."

Ian Murray, the director of the Society of Editors, said it was "surprising and unfortunate", describing the BBC's absence from the terms of reference as "strange" and "the elephant in the room".

He said: "If you don't count the BBC as part of the local media then you should at least acknowledge that they play a role, particularly on the internet, as the Prime Minister has done formally."

Mr Murray urged the panel advising the review, which is led by Dame Frances Cairncross, a former Economist journalist, to include the BBC in the evidence gathering process for the review.

He added that "otherwise there will be some editors on some local newspapers who will raise an eyebrow and say well 'to simply pretend that they are not there is unusual'."

The panel comprises 10 other media figures, including three former or current senior journalists from The Guardian newspaper.

Culture secretary Matt Hancock Credit:  Barcroft Media/ Barcroft Media

Mr Hancock said: “Although the internet has been an immense force for good, it has torn apart the established order and raised real questions about the sustainability and profitability of traditional journalism. 

“Dame Frances will bring her experience in journalism and academia to tackle these issues with a view to examine the press and protect the future of high quality journalism.”

Dame Frances added: “This is both a challenging and an exciting time for the press, both locally and nationally, and I hope the review will clarify both ways to ensure the future of high quality journalism and the options for public policy.”

Mrs May, in a speech as Home secretary attacked the broadcaster's“ability to subsidise the provision of internet news using the licence fee”.

She said: “This makes it enormously difficult for local newspapers to compete. If the BBC can, as they do, provide all the locally significant news, what is left to motivate the local media to buy a paper?

“It’s destroying local newspapers and could eventually happen to national newspapers as well.”

She added: “Competition in the provision of news is essential to democracy and dimunition in competition is dangerous to the health of democratic politics.

“That is why it is important that the internet does not have the effect of making a plurality of newspapers commercially in Britain.”

A BBC spokesman said: “We wish the review well with its work and while the press is often a critic of the BBC, we believe that its sustainability is vital as we all face the challenges created by the rise of the west coast giants.”

A Government source said: "The review is looking at the threat to the press and will consider the wider news market, including the BBC."