BBC news chief James Harding has previously gone out of his way to reassure the newspaper industry that the Corporation is not out to eat regional newspapers’ lunches.
Until now, the UK director of news and current affairs has spoken instead of partnership, but now the gloves are well and truly off.
In Harding’s new document, “The Future of News” he couldn’t be more blunt: “Journalism,” he writes, “is failing people where it matters most, namely where people live and work.”
And in singling out Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror for criticism, the clear message from the former Times editor is it’s no more Mr Nice Guy.
He continues: “There is a democratic deficit in the UK. Parts of the country are not properly reported; in others, public services and people in power are not effectively held to account.”
Harding’s answer is, of course, an expanded and ever-more powerful BBC which, he says, is “the only news organisation that is required to serve all audiences in all parts of the UK… providing essential information, underpinning communities, connecting people where they live and holding public figures to account.”
And if there is any doubt where the BBC stands in relation to established local news providers, it has now been swept away in one sentence: “The economic issues facing the newspaper business are not of the BBC’s making, nor will they be alleviated by the BBC standing aside.”
Harding makes the mistake, as do so many commentators, of seeing the fortunes of newspaper companies only through the prism of hard copy sales, not the huge audiences being reached through internet and mobile services.
And ironically, in seeking to address the needs of the UK’s regions he takes a blanket approach to the whole of the UK which fails to acknowledge considerable variations within it.
If there is any truth in his claims, it is certainly not to be found in Scotland where every corner of this country is covered by effective and vibrant local titles, from the Shetland Times down to the Inverness Courier, the Aberdeen Press and Journal, the Stirling Observer, the Daily Record and Herald, the Sothern Reporter and on to the Annandale Observer. All with digital as well as print services.
Let there be no doubt, a news provider funded by the tax-payer under a system whereby failure to pay can still ultimately end up in jail, will always distort any commercial market it enters. A news organisation like the BBC, hidebound by its charter, can never chose to be partisan in the same way as the best newspaper campaigns and the BBC, certainly in Scotland still relies on newspapers to unearth the exclusives upon which it relies so regularly.
No-one denies the news business is tough, but to think that the further intervention of the state broadcaster will somehow make things better for the public is fanciful in the extreme.
In talks with senior BBC Scotland figures, including Controller Ken MacQuarrie, head of news John Boothman and the BBC Trust’s Scotland representative Bill Matthews, the Scottish Newspaper Society has been assured the BBC in Scotland has no intention of encroaching on the markets served by established Scottish news brands.
And after a bruising Referendum campaign, accusations of democratic deficit were, however unfairly, if anything levelled more at the BBC than any other news organisation. With the devolution of more power to the Scottish Parliament, the more fundamental issue about how the state broadcaster covers Scotland is one which will not go away.
At least “The Future of News” recognises there is much to talk about, and reminds us that Auntie can be a far from the benign, benevolent institution it would have us believe. It is unfortunate Harding was unable to accept a recent invitation from the SNS to address these matters.
BBC Scotland has a relatively good relationship with the rest of the Scottish media industry, but Harding’s new bullish approach threatens to change all that.
Perhaps the next step after “The Future of News” is for the BBC to launch its own version of the Smith Commission and plan for the proper devolution of power to make BBC Scotland fully responsible for its actions and relationships.
It will be one thing if his report forces the BBC to reconsider its approach to Scotland and the structures which underpin it, but not if it means smashing established news services while ignoring its own problems.