Opinion: Perspective - Why newspaper owners need ISPs, not the BBC

It's a rare thing - and to be honest, a bit disconcerting - to find myself in agreement with Rupert Murdoch.

Or at least with one of his companies, News International, which this week rejected a deal embraced by The Guardian, the Daily Mail, The Independent and The Daily Telegraph, to run selected news video content from the BBC on their websites.

On the face of it, the tie-up is a no-brainer - the ability to run content created by the BBC on subjects from politics to science - saving your own newspaper time and money, adding to the user experience, and even attracting a few extra hits at the same time.

If the deal gets extended to local newspaper websites, the potential benefits could be even greater - although let's not forget that, last November, the BBC Trust rejected proposals for a £68 million investment in video content for BBC local news sites. Regional newspaper publishers strongly opposed those plans, even though they might have granted their papers some access to the BBC videos.

And News International, ITN and the Press Association don't see any benefit at all. The deal, far from being a boon from a public-service organisation, they say, is rather an unscrupulous bid to get free publicity for the BBC's own site and steal a march on commercial rivals. Such an assertion goes deeply against the ideals of the internet. Content, surely, should be freely available, easily shared and accessible via an almost limitless multitude of access points, shouldn't it?

And while I don't think for a minute that the BBC is doing anything other than fulfilling its aim of distributing its own excellent stuff to as wide an audience as possible, I also think that NI, vested interest with Sky notwithstanding, has got a point this time.

Quite apart from the wider implications of such a deal - how can commercial organisations complain about the BBC's dominance of online while running its content on their own sites? - it worries me that so many great newspapers are prepared to consider using BBC-produced videos rather than creating their own.

I'm not suggesting this deal is going to mean the BBC will become the only provider of online video content - yet. It will, however, help the Corporation maintain what is already a dominant position in a growing market. And that's not good for newspapers, especially as they struggle to monetise their web products amid plummeting print circulations.

Thankfully, the recession has finally led Murdoch and his fellow proprietors to explore the possibility of charging for online content. But if you accept that the very existence of the BBC is going to make that very difficult to do in the UK, then you've got to start looking at more complicated methods.

To me, an obvious route is via delivery systems, particularly for online video. In the old days, newspaper proprietors printed the newspapers, got them to newsagents and felt secure in the knowledge that the readers would pay for them. Now, although it's true that people have got used to being able to access content for free, they're still prepared to cough up for their broadband subscriptions.

Last month, a bid by BT to get content providers to support its demands that the BBC pay for the bandwidth used to watch online video fell on resoundingly deaf ears. But BT's other suggestion was that consumers should pay for the bandwidth. This seems deeply sensible to me, particularly if you consider the prospect of revenue-share agreements that could give newspaper publishers a much-needed new online revenue stream.

A tie-up between content providers and ISPs might seem difficult to swallow, but surely it's no harder to get your head around than a deal with the BBC. And you can be sure that anyone who owns both ISPs and newspapers will be looking hard at this option. Like Murdoch, for example.

Claire Beale is away.

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