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Johnston Press CEO says regional press ready to end BBC spat

04 Nov 2014  |  David Pidgeon 
Johnston Press CEO says regional press ready to end BBC spat

Media journalist Torin Douglas speaking with Johnston Press CEO, Ashley Highfield, at Media Playground.

The long-running spat between the regional press and the BBC over content rights and fair attribution may be a step closer to being resolved.

The CEO of Johnston Press, Ashley Highfield, has met with Tony Hall, the director general of the BBC, and James Harding, the Corporation's head of news, to try and map out a "collaborative" approach that will see a "two-way flow of traffic" that benefits both parties.

Highfield, who has previously worked for BBC Online and helped launch iPlayer, said that he met with Hall, Harding and other publishers last week, telling an audience at MediaTel's Media Playground conference that "both sides want change."

"Both [Hall and Harding] are very keen to see if we can change the relationship," Highfield said, arguing that the regional press should be allowed to take any content from the BBC and put it on to its websites, so long as it is properly attributed.

"A lot of local stories would benefit from having BBC content [particularly video] on our websites, and in return we could help bring a much bigger audience to the BBC."

Currently, Johnston Press has a monthly audience across its print and digital platforms of almost 25 million. Highfield said that part of the argument is to get the BBC to share its bigger budget, local content, and in return the regional press will help "increase the public value" of the BBC.

"Counter-wise, if [the BBC] is going to use our content, then properly attribute us and link back to us so the traffic flows two ways."

Currently, the BBC's performance is measured by the traffic to its platforms - which means, Highfield said, the measurement system needs to change.

"It's not in the BBC's interests to do it because it is measured by the traffic to its products and assets - so it doesn't get properly credited for people consuming the BBC off the BBC. But there needs to be a change in the measurement so that we can get BBC content spread more widely across the web. We want a more collaborative approach."

In a speech delivered in June, James Harding said the "squabbles" in recent years between the local press and the BBC are "getting us all nowhere - we have looked like a circular firing squad."

He added that the "assault" on the business models of the local press "is not the BBC's fault and, I'm afraid, the BBC will not be able to fix the problem.

"But, that said, we genuinely would like to help. And I know there will be a few world weary groans at this point: 'Oh, here they go again,' some of you may say. 'Charter renewal is on the horizon and the BBC comes over all Good Samaritan, full of warm words but little action.'

"But I ask you not to surrender to that cynicism. The BBC has a very real stake in the success of the local and regional news business."

Highfield added that he was aware that, commercially, if local news platforms were to use BBC content they would need to be mindful about the level of advertising associated with it.

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