Geraint Talfan Davies says there may be more than meets the eye in the bids to supply news of Wales to the ITV1 channel
One of the key words in Ofcom’s recent review of public service broadcasting was ‘contestability’ – that is, introducing some element of competition into the distribution of public money for programmes. The concept has now gone live, with the competition for a contract to be the first ‘independently financed news consortium’ (IFNC –another Ofcom concept) to provide a news service for ITV in Wales.
Judging by last week’s beauty parade in a packed room at the Wales Millennium Centre Centre, contestability looks like passing its first test. In Wales the competition has produced three bidders – Tinopolis, Taliesin News, and UTV. This is – one more than the number of bidders for similar contracts in Scotland and the north east of England. And Richard Hooper, chair of the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport selection panel, told the meeting that the three bids were of “high quality and very different”.
However, on the day similarities were more obvious than differences, since unlike applications for commercial radio licences, the details of the proposals are not in the public domain. Commercial confidentiality was cited as the reason for this coyness. Yet the rush to get the whole selection process done before the end of March, and the disruption of a General Election, probably has more to do with it. Conservative spokesmen are opposed to IFNCs.
In their seven-minute presentations all three bidders committed to taking on the existing news staff of ITV Wales, to making their news material freely available for re-versioning by others, and to providing ambitious websites as well as to encouraging ‘citizen journalism’ – the last of which mixes the estimable value of participation with inestimable value of being free. The beauty parade was not without its coating of cliché – promotional videos with driving music, big headlines and promises of “fresh and innovative approaches”. Who would offer ‘stale and boring’ approaches?
Not surprisingly, Tinopolis, the Llanelli-based production company, made much of the fact that it was the only Welsh company bidding, and that it would launch an online service, Wales 24, taking material from reporters and citizens right across Wales. Its presentation also flagged that one of its subsidiaries is the producer of the BBC’s Question Time. Winning this bid would add another significant income stream to its many high volume programme strands in Wales – for S4C – and elsewhere in the UK.
Clive Jones, Chair of Taliesin News, emphasised the busload of Welsh partners in Taliesin’s consortium, carefully masking the fact that the bid is being made by ITN – the other ‘partners’ are not joint owners. (ITN is clearly concerned that any fragmentation of news provision beyond the ITV companies themselves, throughout the nations and regions of the UK, could undermine its own capacity for comprehensive coverage of the UK, with some impact on its own business model.) Taliesin’s reporters would be ‘embedded’ in the newsrooms of the three partner newspaper companies – the South Wales Evening Post, the South Wales Argus, and Tindle Newspapers, owners of several weekly newspapers. It would also deploy a fund to train citizen journalists – a concept beginning to sound strangely like the newspaper ‘stringers’ of old.
UTV, Northern Ireland’s ITV company, and owner of two Swansea radio stations, in a noticeably harder-edged presentation, did not hold back from stressing that its news programme for Ulster is the best performing in the whole of the ITV system, with an audience share of 34 per cent, more than twice the share of the current ITV Wales programme. UTV’s managing director, Michael Wilson, said, rather pointedly, that their programme for Wales would be ‘solid news’ from beginning to end, and we would not being seeing “celebrity interviews after 12 minutes”.
On the money front Clive Jones, for Taliesin, hoped that eventually the service could be self-sustaining. But Ron Jones, Executive Chairman of Tinopolis, disagreed and thought that some element of public funding would be needed in Wales for the foreseeable future. He said there had to be protection against market failure. Michael Wilson, for UTV, wanted the IFNC in Wales to be able to retain any advertising revenue arising from the Welsh news slot, something ITV is strenuously resisting. “It’s time ITV gave something back,” he said. UTV was also the only one to mention that it would be keen to extend into other programmes if ITV could be persuaded to release more slots in the schedule.
The absence of detail behind the PR presentations, however understandable given the tight timescale, is a major flaw in the process since we have no detailed statements about:
i) the approach of all three parties to the desirable nature of news coverage in Wales;
ii) he precise level of resource to be deployed;
iii) the extent of specialist coverage; or
iv) the ways in which this deployment of public money would strengthen the news infrastructure beyond the winners own programme and related online site.
On the last point the answer may be more obviously implicit in the breadth of the Taliesin consortium, although one of the merits of the IFNC proposal is that, as intended, it creates an open rather than closed system. All kinds of permutations could develop over time regardless of what bidders say at this moment.
Another long term implication is already apparent, which may become more significant than anything else: namely that this may be a first skirmish in a battle for the ITV franchise in Wales, when the current ITV licences come to an end in 2014. For the first time the Digital Economy Bill gives Ofcom the ability to create single licences for Scotland and England. One already exists for Northern Ireland. Although Wales is not specifically mentioned in the bill, a licence for the whole of England might imply a licence for Wales by default. In that situation it is not difficult to foresee a tussle between Tinopolis and UTV for the Welsh licence.
All in all Wales has a clear interest in ensuring that the IFNC concept is not derailed.