The news where we are

Glyn Mathias provides an insider’s view on how UTV and NWN Media were last week chosen to run an alternative Welsh news service on ITV

It is an ugly name for an exciting project. Independently Funded News Consortia (IFNC) are new beasts in the media jungle, and bring with them a new energy and hope for parts of the media which are struggling in a very competitive environment. In particular, it is an idea which brings in a new approach to national and local news in Wales which can reach out to far greater numbers of people.

It was an idea born out of Ofcom’s review of public service broadcasting, which, amongst other things, warned that the ITV model of regional programming was rapidly becoming unviable since costs were rapidly outweighing the benefits. As a result ITV would come under increasing pressure to drop regional programming altogether. The map of regional programme delivery in England had already been consolidated, and in Wales subjected to progressive cutbacks. In particular, if the ITV regional news was to disappear, this would leave the BBC without any realistic competitor. In Wales, with our own devolved institutions, this would have a hugely detrimental effect on our democracy. Plurality of sources of news is vital in a healthy democracy.

The government at Westminster, where responsibility for broadcasting still lies, accepted this analysis, and also accepted the logical conclusion – that an element of public funding would be necessary in order to maintain that all-important plurality. It was decided, following Ofcom’s lead, that news was the priority, and in the White Paper, Digital Britain, set out the plans for what were now to be called IFNCs. The legislative basis for the roll-out of IFNCs would be included in the Digital Economy Bill (at the time of writing still going through Parliament). In the meantime the concept would be tested in three pilot areas across the UK – in Wales, Scotland and the North East of England. It would be done by a process of competitive tendering, and the pilots would be funded from the underspend in the digital switchover help scheme. In Wales, that meant funding of up to six million pounds a year for each of the two years of the pilot.

But it was always intended to be more, much more, than just a replacement TV news programme. News on TV probably still has the greatest impact and reach, but this has always been about a multi-media provision of news which can engage with a far great number of citizens. The way people consume news is rapidly changing, so what was being looked for was how the different consortia would also deliver news online. There would not just be top-down bulletins but people in their communities would be involved so that they also contribute to the provision of news. Much was made of ‘hyper-local news’, small communities with perhaps their own website, feeding in what was important in their area. So the concept was a multi-platform approach using a variety of media with newspaper and radio partners to create the maximum reach through all the ways the public consume their news.

Back in January, I was surprised to receive a call asking me to sit on the panel which was going to select what were called ‘preferred bidders’ (I will come back to that) for three pilot areas across the United Kingdom. The call came from Richard Hooper, the highly experienced former deputy chair of Ofcom and chair of the Radio Authority, and now to be chair of the Selection Panel. I never quite understand how these appointment processes operate, but I put it down to my work on Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Wales, where I had been heavily involved in writing submissions to Ofcom’s review of public broadcasting. However, it was made clear that I was acting on this panel in an independent capacity.

We were immediately plunged into a fast-moving procurement process, which was both challenging and rigorous. It broadly followed a procedure called ‘competitive dialogue’, which included a pre-qualification questionnaire, followed by an invitation to short-listed bidders to participate in a dialogue stage, which allowed them to clarify and finalise their bids. This dialogue stage involved meetings between the bidders and an evaluation team of experts, and a series of meetings with the selection panel. The final tenders, submitted in early March, were then scored by the evaluation team against the criteria set out for the project. The final decision – or rather, the recommendation to the Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, as to who should be the preferred bidder – was made by the selection panel.

In addition, public meetings were held in each of the pilot areas at which each bidder could set out their stall. This was something of an innovation, and allowed the public a chance to get an idea of the process being followed. The selection panel was genuinely impressed with the numbers who attended the meeting in Cardiff – the largest gathering in all three pilot areas – and the level of interest and even enthusiasm there was for an unprecedented new approach to the delivery of news in Wales.

Behind the scenes, it was a demanding timetable, both for the bidders and the expert evaluation panel. The evaluation panel were assessing each bid against criteria designed to give an all-round view of the strengths and weaknesses of the different proposals. The criteria were divided up between the following general headings:

•    Clear and credible vision –10 per cent.

•    Quality, including television news, mix of content online and elsewhere, high editorial and journalistic quality and reach and impact –30 per cent.

•    Implementation and management, including effective management structure, credible and complete implementation plans, resourcing and risk –30 per cent.

•    Sustainability, including revenue generation, legacy and skills and training –12 per cent.

•    Financial criteria, including costs, risks and cost-effectiveness –18 per cent.

But it was not just a mechanistic process. There had to be a coherent vision of what the project was about, and clear leadership to ensure the project was delivered.

The bidding process across the three pilots brought together genuine consortia, from television companies syndicating with newspapers, to proposals for open access content and improving the whole newsgathering process. All the bidders were different, in varying degrees, over their approach to the mix of multi-platform news. It was generally accepted that the three shortlisted bids in Wales were collectively the strongest of all the pilot regions.

It is not possible for me to compare and contrast the three different bids in Wales. A lot of the material in those bids remains confidential, and, even if it wasn’t, it would be invidious to do so. All three bids were sufficiently credible to win, and the decision was relatively close. What I can do is give at least some of the reasons why the Wales Live consortium, consisting of UTV and NWN Media (the newspaper group based in north-east Wales), was eventually selected as the preferred bidder.

The Selection Panel agreed that this consortium had a clear vision of what they wanted to provide, based on a high quality and harder-edged news service to meet audience need. They felt that the bid had credible leadership with a strong track record in Northern Ireland. The bid promised to enhance coverage of the National Assembly, deliver greater local coverage, targeting their online provision at different parts of Wales. The partnership with NWN Media would assist in strengthening  coverage in north-east Wales, which they argue has hitherto felt relatively neglected.

In Scotland, the preferred bidder is the Scottish News Consortium, a consortium of major newspaper groups, including Johnston Press, DC Thompson and Newsquest, together with the Welsh-based production company, Tinopolis (via its Scottish subsidiary). In the Tyne Tees and Borders region, the preferred bidder is News 3, a consortium made up Trinity Mirror, the Press Association and a production company called Ten Alps.

I promised to come back to what it means to be the preferred bidder. There are various procedures still to complete, not least the signing of contracts with both the Department of Culture and ITV. Only when all that is completed, will the process be final. The selection of reserve bidders – in the case of Wales, Tinopolis – was in order not to have to go through the whole procurement process all over again in the event of the preferred bidder falling at the contract stage.

I am only too aware of the political uncertainty surrounding the IFNCs, given the general election which will intervene before the process of appointing the successful consortia can be finalised. I believe it would be hugely disappointing, and a disservice to the people of Wales, if the IFNC process was to be killed off. It has provided a glimpse of the future – of what media provision in Wales could aspire to – and it would be heartbreaking if that were to be snatched away.

• Glyn Mathias is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Wales. He was a Member of the Electoral Commission from 2001 to 2008 and was previously Political Editor of both ITN and BBC Wales.

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