Time to illuminate the BBC's news shadow just a little?

By: Rob Corbidge, 26 May 2022

A Mid-Term Review of the BBC will include important scrutiny of the impact it has on other media.

Some 15 years ago, my then-editor looked steadily around the conference table in his office and told us, his assembled section heads, that "the bloody BBC is killing us all".  He wasn't some embittered media radical, just a man with a duty to keep hundreds of people in a good job.

He didn't of course mean that the Corporation was intent on choking the breath out of each of us, but he did mean it was choking the life out of our business, a commercial media company. 

Even worse to reflect for me at the time was that there was no intent in this: with a public service mandate, and a general self-belief within its people in what would otherwise be called a corporate mission, the BBC couldn't help but to do the thing it was doing to us. It settles into its chair and looks to its audience, unconcerned about what it has squashed beneath its backside.

Simply by existing and producing content, the BBC will always take a large bite out of any audience pie - in the English language and many more besides, what with its many foreign language services. It exists with the the consent of (pretty much) everyone in its nation, and as an ambitious project to inform, entertain and promote national cohesion, it's easy to argue it has been globally unmatched. 

Yet there's a bit of a wobble at the BBC right now. The organisation can often become a bit of a political football, but in this case anyone in our industry can identify some or even all of those eddies causing such a wobble, even if the reasons behind them are debatable.

This week, the UK's Department of Culture, Media and Sport (a name more like an accident in a railway shunting yard than a government department) announced that the BBC would be undertaking a Mid-Term Review halfway through its present 10-year charter. 

Importantly for the publishing industry, the review will "inspect the corporation’s market impact on the UK media landscape, in particular in areas such as the commercial radio and local news sectors".

This was immediately welcomed by some industry bodies, such as the News Media Association.

It's worth keeping in mind that it was only earlier this year that the BBC reiterated plans first made in 2021 to increase the number of local news journalists it employs by 165 across the country. 

One hundred and sixty five is a lot of editorial staff - a powerful media machine in its own right even if all them are writing into a broken WordPress blog, never mind utilising the BBC's powerful digital media toolset. 

Set against small local newspapers trying to keep a couple of reporters in work, it's David vs Goliath. 

The NMA made its objections to the plans clear earlier this year and it seems the DCMS has been listening. Crucially, it seems its objections have a degree of cross-party support too.

November 14 this year marks the BBC's centenary of broadcasting. One hundred years is both a long time, and a blink. Powerful organisations often end up with their primary driving force being the desire to perpetuate themselves and the central force of their argument being the fact they exist.

We spend plenty of time here pointing out the disproportionate size and dominance of Google and reiterating the way its elephant feet can crush countless ants without even realising. It would be remiss of us not to accept that argument could easily be levelled at the BBC too, if it is not careful.

Perhaps a timely debate about the scale of the shadow the Corporation casts, and comparing its service to its audience versus service to itself, and how other new, things can grow in the media light, unhindered, is no bad thing.