The British Broadcasting Company began transmitting radio signals from London in 1922. Under the watchful eye of John Reith, its 33-year-old, Scots-born general manager, the company received its royal charter five years later and became the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Fellow Scot, John Logie Baird, used the BBC’s frequencies in 1929 for some of the earliest experiments with his mechanical television sets and regular TV broadcasts were introduced in 1936, before being curtailed by the outbreak of the Second World War.
Now the media landscape has changed beyond all recognition and the BBC has grown arms and legs and now delivers text-based news stories through its website and on mobile phones. During an age in which newspapers are under pressure through falling circulation and advertisers shifting online, should the BBC be forced to charge readers for access to its news website so that newspapers have the opportunity to do the same? Could public libraries be granted free access to the website to make sure poorer members of our communities wouldn’t miss out?
“From the newspaper industry’s perspective, it’s the expansion of online services that’s the problem because the BBC is providing information and material that goes way beyond the remit of a broadcaster,” explains John McLellan, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society and a former editor-in-chief at The Scotsman Publications.
“What that means is you get the BBC news website going head-to-head with the print media’s online services. Top-quality writers are now being recruited to the BBC to do a bit of punditry but a lot of writing. The BBC is competing in markets in which it was traditionally never present. The divisions between broadcast and the written word used to be very clear – now that’s not the case.”
In November, the BBC Trust – the corporation’s governing body – launched its final service review as part of the ongoing deliberations over renewal of the broadcaster’s royal charter. The consultation covers radio, TV, online and current affairs in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
“It would be very easy just to say ‘Stick a paywall on the BBC news website’ and you’d see the traffic drop overnight,” says McLellan, who is also professor of journalism at the University of Stirling. “That’s not feasible without a review of the whole way the BBC is funded and I’m not persuaded that scrapping the licence fee and turning the BBC into a purely commercial service is the right way to go. I’d rather they reined in their online content.
“It’s about a fairer landscape brought about by sensible reform and not about smashing something we all hold dear. But it has to change – even people within the BBC recognise that.”
James Blake, director of the Centre for Media & Culture at Edinburgh Napier University, thinks charges are unlikely to be introduced for the BBC news website. “Clearly the size and scope of BBC news content, particularly online services, has a significant negative impact on its commercial rivals,” he says. “Over the past few years, the BBC has been in a privileged position – and relatively recession-proof – as a result of the licence fee, whereas commercial news organisations, particularly in regional and local press, have been going to the wall financially. After all, who can compete with the juggernaut of the BBC news website?
“This is one thing that charter renewal is designed to tackle. However, I am sure the BBC will resist any attempt to make it charge for news services. In its submission to the public consultation, the BBC reaffirms its public service ‘mission’ to provide content ‘free at the point of use’. Charging for BBC news goes against the original ethos of the corporation. It’s much more likely that the scope of online BBC news services will be scaled back to some extent.”
Julian Calvert, 13 years a newspaper editor and now assistant head at the Department of Social Sciences, Media & Journalism at Glasgow Caledonian University, points out that the BBC news website isn’t the only challenge for newspapers.
“The BBC website having free content is an issue for newspapers, especially in areas where the content is localised,” he admits. “I don’t know if charging for BBC news content would solve the problem in itself though, since the culture of news being free at the point of consumption is now very firmly established.
“The importance of the Metro, which distributes 1.3 million copies a day, has always been underestimated in this regard, as well as in its impact on the sales of paid-for newspapers. In essence, the genie is out of the bottle – the public expect most news and sport content to be free, and the ubiquity of social media has only enhanced this situation.”