Friday, January 21, 2011

And Now The Good News

The conference in Salford, near Manchester, was about the future of regional broadcasting. An appropriately timed event, for on Wednesday our esteemed, if sometimes mispronounced, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced his proposals for local TV. A new network, with a dozen or more stations located in major cities opting out for two hours a day: not quite the vision in the Conservative election manifesto, of 80 multi-media city stations, but it’s better than no local coverage at all. Or is it?

“News 3” should have gone on air a few days ago: supplying not only ITV’s regional news here in the North East, but England’s first totally integrated local news operation. The journalists on our regional daily newspapers, The Journal and the Evening Chronicle, would have worked alongside experienced television colleagues on an integrated, layered, truly local news operation in print, radio, television and online.

Sadly we’ll never know if our Independently Financed News Consortium, of which I was proud to have been part, would have been successful. It was a groundbreaking concept but, because it was subsidised by the BBC licence fee, Mr Hunt cancelled it.

Now he’s proposing Channel Six, a network dedicated to the provision of local news and content – and subsidised by the BBC licence fee. Independent companies based in a dozen regional cities, using a central hub of network programming, with a couple of hours of local opt-outs? Sounds familiar? Of course: it’s exactly what your local ITV station was set up to be.

I remember Tyne Tees Television when it launched on Channel 8, fifty two years ago this month: the medley of local folk songs which started the broadcasting day, from Bobby Shafto to the Blaydon Races; “Wacky Jacky” Haig in the One O’Clock Show; those terrible local shopping commercials; and Tom Coyne on the well resourced local news.

The first seeds of destruction of ITV as a regional provider were sown in 1991 by the Conservative government. Now that demolition is complete, how ironic it is that a Conservative minister is trying to resurrect a similar model.
Will it work? Well there’s a big difference this time: there’s no money.

The teams of professional journalists will be supplemented, or supplanted, by enthusiastic amateurs – community producers, without training in scriptwriting skills, the basic principles of libel, or even the mystic art of how to entertain mass audiences. The cost of a libel writ, or defending a referral to Ofcom, is huge, yet the stations’ budgets will be minuscule: a fraction of what the broadcasters currently spend on their regional news.
And they expect us to watch, or log in, simply because it’s local? I think not.

Britain is proud of quality journalism, and this takes training, resources and commitment. Quality is derived from the skills of many lifetimes of professional experience and that doesn’t come cheap.
However local Channel 6 aims to be, it will fail unless it gets the proper funding our journalists and communities deserve.

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