Hunt kills off an innovation in news

Geraint Talfan Davies assesses the UK Culture Secretary’s decision to ditch plans for an independent news service for ITV in Wales

If ever there was an argument for some devolution of responsibility for broadcasting, it was yesterday’s speech by Jeremy Hunt, the UK Culture Secretary, which managed to deal with vitally important areas of our media infrastructure, without any reference whatsoever to the possibility that the needs and circumstances of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland might differ in important respects.

It was as if the whole debate on the future of public broadcasting – Ofcom’s two-year review of public service broadcasting, the views of the Welsh and Scottish Governments, the reports of the Assembly Culture and Communities Committee, the Welsh Government’s Broadcasting Advisory Group, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission – had not happened.

He brushed aside the notion of Independently Financed News Consortia (IFNC) to deliver news for Wales, Scotland and the regions of England as simply ‘misguided’, stating only that it would have created ‘subsidy junkies’. No deeper reasoning, no consideration of the uncertainties surrounding the existing regional news system, no consideration that the existence of effective Parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland create needs different to those in English regions, no evidence of consultation with the territorial Secretaries of State or with the devolved administrations, and no parallel announcement from ITV plc about what it will now do.

The IFNCs are being put aside in favour of an experiment in local television, a totally unproven concept, whose viability is suspect even in England where conditions are certainly going to be more favourable than in Wales where political, demographic and commercial conditions are quite different. IFNCs were the right answer to the key problem. Hunt, on the other hand, is turning his back on the bird in the hand in favour of two in a bush that has yet to be planted, and where the chief executive of an investment bank is being asked to measure whether the soil is at all favourable.

I am told that, in answer to a question at the event, Hunt said that he expected ITV to continue to discharge its present public service obligations until the end of the licence in 2014. Glad to hear it, but for a decade past we have been listening to ITV plc telling us on every possible occasion that it could not afford these obligations, and would have to ditch them. ITV plc has cut its general programming almost entirely, reduced its regional news services and diluted their resources.

There are rumours that the new chairman, Archie Norman, is now taking a different view, but we have not heard it first hand. The uncertainty continues for ITV’s staff in Wales and for the Welsh public. ITV plc needs to tell us all very quickly whether it intends to stand by those obligations – which embrace not only the news service but also 90 minutes a general programming – and that it will sustain at least the current level of journalistic resource. .

All this sits very oddly with Hunt’s bold declaration that “I consider my responsibility for media policy to be one of the most sacred I have. This is because the way our media operates – indeed its very existence as a voice wholly independent of government – is totally fundamental to our existence as a free society.”

He continued, with unintended irony: “Karl Popper rightly thought that the key to both freedom and progress is the existence of open debate between plural and diverse voices. He would no doubt have agreed with Thomas Paine who said that ‘those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it’.” Quite so, Mr. Hunt.

And again: “Core to the success of British broadcasting overall has been not just a strong BBC, but also strong competition to the BBC. We need to make sure that continues as well.” Precisely.

The only support offered yesterday was a relaxation of ownership regulation, that is likely to be of more relevance to print and radio owners than to ITV, and where consolidation of ownership, if past form is any guide, is more likely to benefit shareholders than consumers. That is not to say that relaxation of ownership regulation should necessarily be opposed, but that the benefits in Wales may be marginal and will not certainly not aid pluralism of news supply.

The IFNC concept, on the other hand, would have allowed some real innovation that could have strengthened Wales’s fragile media infrastructure in ways that would have  benefited not only the vitally important core ITV Wales proposition, but also news provision in commercial radio and online – an area where the ITV proposition to date has been notably weak.

The contest for pilot IFNC contracts produced a strong list of bidders in Wales. Indeed, members of the selection panel thought that the contest here was much stronger than in the two other pilot areas. They were also taken aback by the intense interest shown at the packed public meeting in Cardiff when the bidders presented their plans – unlike similar meetings in Scotland and the north east of England.

Yes, there would have been an element of public funding, but only through a funding source that already exists – the digital switchover element of the BBC licence fee. In Wales this would have cost about £6m per annum a small sum to pay for something ‘totally fundamental to our existence as a free society’. In any case that sum could have been reduced had ITV been willing to relinquish or even share the advertising revenue generated by the slots that the IFNCs would occupy, and by the development of new income streams.

It is very difficult to see the winner in Wales – UTV – as a ‘subsidy junky’. Importantly, it would have had a vested interest in the success of the contract, and would no doubt have wanted to develop new income streams. It is not evident that ITV plc has a vested interest in the success of a cost centre that it tells us is a financial burden.

Instead, the public money is to be used for the extension of superfast broadband to rural areas. No-one doubts that that is a good cause, but Hunt poses a false choice. Such a universal extension is going to need a lot of time, a lot of money, and some technical innovation. In terms of the information needs of our democracy, the strength of the ITV news service in Wales will remain much more important for as far ahead as we can see.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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