Don’t blame the BBC for the “death spiral” of local news

Local papers are dropping like flies—and it’s fashionable to blame the Beeb and Big Tech for swatting them. But the Corporation is part of the solution, not the problem 

August 25, 2023
Image: Radharc Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Radharc Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Imagine the following scenario. Britain’s national newspapers are on their knees financially, and, one by one, decide they can no longer afford to staff costly offices at Westminster. Parliamentary and Whitehall coverage is, for the foreseeable future, cancelled.

Now imagine the consequences. Hands up all those who think our democracy would be stronger? No, I didn’t think so. Hands up all those who think there would be a surge of corruption, dodgy contracts, dubious appointments, financial wrongdoing, general incompetence and laxness? Well, quite.

Our newspapers are, God knows, not perfect. But the phrase “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” coined 110 years ago by the distinguished US jurist Louis Brandeis, best describes what—at their best—they do. 

Now, there’s no immediate danger of such a scenario happening at Westminster. But it is already happening up and down the land as local newspapers, struggling to stay afloat, drastically cut back on their coverage of courts, councils, public services, planning committees and much else. 

Who knows what corruption is flourishing because of the searchlight being dimmed, or turned off altogether? What bungs and backhanders? What shady planning deals? What useless police or health service management? It’s a great time to be incompetent, lazy or bent—or even all three—safe in the knowledge that you’re unlikely to find yourself embarrassed by messy headlines.

The creeping extinction of local newspaper titles—approaching 400 gone in the UK in the past 14 years—is tragic. And many of the ones that have survived have been rolled up into conglomerates with little true feeling for the communities they serve. The “death spiral” of news is everywhere: falling revenues = fewer journalists = worse products = fewer readers = falling revenues = fewer journalists. Rinse and repeat.

Are there easy villains? Well, we can all throw rotting tomatoes at the tech giants, who have undeniably been responsible for the more than 70 per cent falls in the advertising that used to keep local journalism alive. Set aside the question of whether they should be paying for linking to, promoting, or exploiting mainstream news. Their chief crime is to have devised a more cost-effective way of advertising. Welcome to capitalism.

The other culprit, it is frequently suggested—not least by the owners of newspaper chains—is the BBC. If only the Corporation would butt out of local news, the argument goes, then sanity would be restored, along with profits.

It’s a plausible-sounding complaint, but it doesn’t really hold water. The US has nothing remotely like the BBC, and yet its local newspapers are in even more desperate trouble, dying off at a rate of two a week. Since around 2005, more than 2,500 newspapers have closed and 30,000 or more journalists have lost their jobs.

Wishing the BBC would go away ignores the primary reason for the plight of local newspapers: it’s what economics students learn to call “market failure”. In simple terms, it’s increasingly difficult to make a business out of doing good journalism.

The latest voice to urge the BBC to pull out of local radio was the great Max Hastings, in an otherwise admirable Times column calling for greater investment in the World Service. He’s right about the value of the World Service—but, in my humble opinion, entirely wrong to suggest that local radio should be a sacrificial lamb.

Economics students also learn to talk about “public goods”—services that are essential to a good society, but which the market itself can’t support. National defence, effective policing, a functioning ambulance service and clean air come to mind. 

The question is whether serious news coverage of our services, representative bodies and institutions amounts to a public good.

It may help to think about Donald Trump. You remember how, as president, he waged a remorseless war to discredit all mainstream news, especially the hallowed New York Times, as “fake news”?

He knows we live in a world of information chaos, where fewer and fewer people know what to believe or whom on earth to trust. If even the New York Times is fake, then let me introduce you to Fox News. Or you might even believe what I, Donald Trump, tell you? That’s how you end up with a country where 70 per cent of Republicans and a third of Americans overall still don’t believe that Joe Biden won the 2020 election.

So, yes, it is absolutely a public good that people should have access to reliable, clean information—just as they have the need for clean water and the right to expect that a fire engine will turn up if they have a chip fire in their kitchen. 

Join the dots. We need a source of agreed facts about the things that matter in our communities. The old ways of funding are rapidly disappearing, so we need to have an urgent conversation about what will work in future. If news is thought of as a public service, it may be that a form of levy or subsidy is needed to make it viable.

Oh, hang on, we already have something that looks like that: it’s called the BBC.

Happily, Rishi Sunak seems less obsessed with waging war on the BBC than, say, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss or Nadine Dorries. The Cairncross Review which looked at a sustainable future for journalism four years ago recommended establishing an Institute for Public Interest News, working in partnership with the BBC.

That idea has, so far, gone nowhere. But sooner or later the nagging question will return about how a society remains well-informed in an age of information chaos. I’m pretty sure that the BBC will be central to any solution.

So, yes, let’s fund the World Service properly. And, no, don’t junk BBC local radio. We need both—perhaps more than we realise.