Jeremy Hunt takes a cavalier approach to news

Geraint Talfan Davies examines the UK Culture Secretary’s plans for local television and his willingness to let ITV off the hook.

Jeremy Hunt has a capacity to be truly breathtaking is his disregard for any view that does not concur with his own. At the Oxford Media Convention this week he unveiled his action plan for local television, and in a cavalier aside said that when a new service is launched, to be a vehicle for local services in 10-15 cities, he would be “very relaxed as to what happens in regional news”.

“Public service broadcasters will have a much freer hand over what they thought was appropriate for the future for their regional services. I would leave it to the Public Service Broadcasters (ITV and BBC) what to do,” he is reported as saying to the conference.

This is an astonishing statement on several counts. First, it assumes there is some equivalence between the gain of local television and the loss of regional services. But this is far from being the case. Regional television news programmes on BBC and ITV, a staple of viewing for half a century, deliver huge audiences – far greater than anything that local programmes within a poorly funded Channel 6 can be expected to deliver.

Second, Hunt did not distinguish between BBC and ITV, the only two broadcasters who currently deliver regional services. ITV’s ambivalence about the costs and benefits of providing news services is well known, but there has not yet been any doubt cast over the BBC provision. One can only hope that this was a slip of the tongue.

Third, he did not distinguish between news provision in the regions of England and that in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where the need for ‘regional’ news to reflect the devolved institutions and to connect them with their electorates is a democratic imperative. Of the three Celtic nations, Wales is the one where local television is least likely to fly, since we do not have a conurbation of the size of Glasgow or any of the English metropolitan areas.

Lastly, the current ITV licences run to 2014, and at the moment the provision of regional news is a condition of those licences. Hunt’s statement creates the maximum uncertainty for all those staff in regional newsrooms across the UK, including those that deliver the ITV Wales news service. It is in that sense that Hunt’s statement is irresponsible.

In dismissing the regional obligations of ITV, Hunt also misinterprets the history of ITV’s founding. At the conference he said “The origin of the problem (sic) goes back to the wrong decisions of the Conservative Government in 1955 to license ITV on a regional basis and not a local basis.” But in 1955 local television was never an option. The government at the time was intent on setting up a UK network, and only came round to a regional system to avoid creating a monopoly of programme production. The growth of regional services was grafted on only in the wake of this happy accident.

If Hunt is wrong on history he may also be wrong on the future. His own advisory committee, led by the banker, Nicholas Shott, was pretty lukewarm about the prospects of local television being a viable concept. It saw only a limited number of cities in which the concept might succeed, and then only if some mechanism could be created to give them financial support.

At another conference at Salford earlier this week Claire Enders, of Enders Analysis – a key member of the Shott advisory group – was quite clear that even the 10 or 12 cities would need subsidy. Yet subsidy is just what Hunt himself did not allow when junking the proposals for independently financed news consortia (IFNCs) to provide regional services on ITV, an idea inherited from the previous government. The only subsidy on the table at present is £5m a year taken from the licence fee in the same night raid that took £70m for S4C. But at present both those commitments hold for only two years.

It is true that in England regional news services are not so stoutly defended as they are in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But even proponents of local television in England are less than happy with Hunt’s plan. He envisages a new network, Channel 6  – which may well be confined to England and Scotland – that will be broadcast on digital terrestrial television, i.e available on Freeview, but not on satellite. But many proponents, including the Shott team, see local television as more appropriate for IPTV (internet protocol television), i.e online.

The difference is crucial in terms of the localness of the service, its cost and its audience appeal. Even in whetting his audience’s appetite for his idea at the Oxford meeting, Hunt used examples that demonstrated localness at the neighbourhood level, yet this is a level that even city-based television will find it difficult to achieve. More importantly, audience expectations of a mainstream television service – button 6 on your EPG – will be vastly different from the expectations of people engaging with a hyper-local online service.

Many of those experimenting with community online services see Hunt’s concept as well-intentioned but misconceived, at best a distraction and at worst a real obstacle. Far better they argue to concentrate on building networks of activists at the hyper-local level  – a real manifestation of David Cameron’s much vaunted ‘Big Society’, rather than under-funded television that is hardly going to compete with some of the best made television anywhere, just a digit or two away.

Whatever happens to local television, in Wales we have to concentrate on safeguarding ITV’s all-Wales news provision, not only as a crucial source of information for a large audience, but also as the essential and only realistic competition for BBC Wales. Under new leadership ITV has been coming round to the value of its regional news and presence, and in Wales has recently invested in more staff. This was the moment for encouraging that trend, rather than prematurely letting ITV off the hook.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of the IWA.

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