I think a lot of us saw this coming, but I was still extremely disappointed to read the BBC Trust‘s decision of today. No, not about Russell Brand (frankly my dear I couldn’t give a damn, or any other rude word for that matter), but the BBC’s proposed launch of video news and reports on its local websites in the UK. And the answer is that the service is not to be launched – although there is an opportunity to comment on the draft answer here – I’d encourage you to do so. The decision and supporting documentation can be found here.

New BBC initiatives have to go through a ‘Public Value Test‘ – one of the most unusual aspects of media regulation ever devised. And weighing heavily in that process is an analysis of the impact of the BBC’s proposals on ‘the market’ (all hail) – leading to the bizarre situation where it is extremely clear that some of the things that the BBC has been doing for many years would easily fail the test – but it applies to significant new or amended services only, and thus it acts as a restriction on new ideas or fresh thinking. And that has never been clearer than in today’s draft answer, where the fact that the BBC websites would compete with the plans of local newspapers is a major part of sinking the scheme. Just imagine if the BBC (which of course had TV and radio services long before the commercial sector) were to suggest today that it would set up BBC1.

Indeed, reading some of the material leaves me very confused. Many of you are aware that ITV is very close to getting the thumbs-up to scale back its regional content even further (there is very little left of it in the English licence areas, in particular – this became very clear at last week’s conference in Norwich on Anglia TV and ITV histories, which I’ve yet to blog about)) – you’d think that this would make the case for a non-commercial approach better than anything, but apparently not. And the Trust’s report goes on at great length about how the proposed service would not reach out to all communities because it was broadband-only. Have they ever tried to watch streaming video over dial-up? It’s not the BBC being mean and elitist by launching a broadband service – it’s a recognition of reality. Indeed, the availability of high-quality content is well documented as something that encourages broadband take-up and/or consumer pressure on service providers and Government to widen access. But even aside from that, broadband has an awful lot more reach than digital radio (and I love my DAB radio, but it’s still a fairly marginal pursuit) and countless other technologies that we are being told are the ‘future’ – refusing to authorise an additional broadband service because some people don’t have broadband doesn’t seem sensible to me.

There’s also, I feel, a lack of recognition of the value of non-commercial public service content. The last thing we need is ‘old media’ where PSB values are present and ‘new media’ where they are not just absent but required to be absent. It flies in the face of the overwhelming majority of media studies scholarship (none of which appears to make it into the Trust’s report or Ofcom’s ‘Market Impact Assessment’) to suggest that BBC local video and the websites of local newspapers and commercial local websites are directly substitutable in a cultural or political sense. If they are, then we may as well fold up our tent and forget about non-commercial media altogether. I’m not suggesting that simply because the BBC would provide quality non-commercial content that it should be allowed to do everything it wants – it is of course important to avoid the destruction of alternative voices – but simply bending the knee to the existing market players (which is delivering an incomplete product at present) leaves a giant gap in local media provision in the UK.

Ofcom’s work is thorough and detailed but suffers from a limited set of marching orders which, under the PVT model, the Trust is supposed to complete. I fear that the Trust fails at this task – Ofcom’s modelling does appear to indicate that the BBC proposals would be a success (hence its finding that there would be a notable market impact) but the Trust then focuses on the various failings of the proposal (like excluding the non-broadbanders) in finding it would not be of public value. One really wonders how there can be enough local interest to destroy your friendly local newspaper yet not enough interest to contribute to the BBC’s mission (included in the PVT analysis) including in particular ‘representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities’.

The Trust is doing some very interesting work, and is giving me much to think about. However, this decision does revive the fear very ably expressed by David Puttnam last year, who responded to the Trust’s decision (in the light of pending state aid complaints) to shut down ‘digital curriculum’ service BBC Jam, by saying:

One of the tasks of the Trust, quite properly, is to balance the benefit of new digital services against the likely impact on the commercial marketplace. To judge by the BBC Jam debacle, the early signs are that the judgment calls of the Trust may become neurotically weighted toward the commercial impacts, at the expense of true public interest.

(His full article is here, with observations from Andrew Scott here).

Writing earlier this year, Steven Barnett (University of Westminster) was even more forthright, saying that BBC Jam was:

shut down because of complaints to Brussels by a tiny number of education software companies complaining that it “distorted the market” – and to hell with the public benefits that it brought the nation’s children. Please don’t tell me that the interests of plurality were served by that decision.

In the same article, Barnett points out how the Trust’s overall report plays down the audience research conducted for another consultation (bbc.co.uk). There’s a hint of the same in today’s report too, where if you go through the public consultation and the research there is a huge interest in and respect for what the BBC could bring to the public space (reflected in Ofcom’s work too) – but the negative comments (things like the BBC’s failure to reach all areas of a region i.e. focusing on the wrong town, or being ‘London-focused’) are used (misused, perhaps) to reach the conclusion that the service would not meet the goals that the Trust is charged with monitoring. Certainly, it is hardly sensible to prevent the BBC from using technology that could assist it with reaching unfeasibly small audiences (unfeasible, that is, when you’ve only got one transmitter or one frequency) on the grounds that some smaller communities feel left out at present. Indeed, it’s quite funny to see this conclusion being reached when we’re reminded in new law after new law and ‘visionary’ report after report that nothing should be done (in regulation) that would prevent the development of new services over new technologies. Apparently that doesn’t apply to a successful public broadcaster, only to the profit-making sector.

Anyway, one nice thing that I can say about the Trust is that there are piles and piles of things to read now up on the website: read them all here. And as mentioned above, this is now an open consultation (I’m looking forward to how supporters of the BBC like the Guardian reconcile this with their parent company’s vehement opposition to the BBC doing anything interesting online) – so don’t forget to have your say!