Analysis: Regional news future unclear as debate continues

LONDON - Uncertainty hangs over the future of regional news with industry executives divided over how it should be delivered.

Roger Parry: former chairman of Johnston Press
Roger Parry: former chairman of Johnston Press

The possible change in government next year means Labour's own plans for the future provision of regional news - as first outlined in the Digital Britain report in June - might not come to fruition.

ITV will stop producing regional TV news from 2012 after the digital TV switchover is completed because it does not make enough money to cover the cost of production.

The Government wants the gap created by ITV's exit from regional news post-2012 to be filled by independent consortia, such as newspaper and radio companies. These could be financed by using the part of the licence fee currently allocated to aiding the elderly and disadvantaged to make the switch to digital TV.

Speaking at last week's Westminster Media Forum on the subject, Stuart Purvis, partner for content and standards at media regulator Ofcom, explained why ITV has been allowed to withdraw from regional news. He said: "The value of the benefits of ITV's licence [decreases] from 2012 because the spectrum is turned off. The value of ITV's access is nil, but the costs are level."

While the sessions concentrated on how public funds could be used to provide regional TV news, some questioned the "elephant in the room" regarding the Conservative Party's lack of support for this option.

Meanwhile, the Tories are pushing their own plans for the provision of regional news once ITV exits the genre.

ITV's regional news bulletins would be replaced by 81 city-based stations under a Conservative government. It is backing a scheme devised by Roger Parry, the former chairman of Johnston Press, who said it was possible to set up 81 new television stations covering 80% of the country after 2012.

Despite the uncertainty, industry executives insisted they can only plan using the current government's agenda.

John Hardie, chief executive of ITN, said it is up to "bidders for the regional news contract to make a proposal on the current funding model".

Hardie added: "It seems clear there needs to be intervention, either top-slicing or another form of funding. ITN started from the premise that public funding has been advocated. If it's different next year, we'll have to get our thinking caps on."

While there is opposition to the so-called top-slicing of the licence fee to fund the Government's plan for independent consortia, some form of public subsidy will be needed. Under current government proposals the consortia will not be able to sell advertising.

Martin Stott, head of regulatory affairs at Five, challenged these plans, which would allow ITV to retain the ad airtime around regional news programming.

Michael Jermy, director of news, current affairs and sport at ITV, said giving ad time to regional news providers would be comparable to "top-slicing" ITV.

The proposals advocated by Parry suggest public funding might not be necessary.

Parry said "existing publishers have to evolve" and he proposed local media companies could use trained volunteers, with skilled professional journalists acting as "arbiters of what goes out".

Future of regional news: the proposals

IFNCs

The Government has proposed that Independently financed news consortia (IFNCs) could deliver local news after digital switchover. The Government intends to award contracts for a pilot scheme to consortia in Scotland, Wales and one English region. Stuart Purvis, partner for content and standards at Ofcom, said the pilots would take place in 2011 with the roll-out of contracts lasting at least three years, starting in 2012.

ITN

ITN is resistant to the idea of having regional consortia in England and wants single contracts for the nations of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. ITN envisages one company, such as itself, leading a grand alliance between local media groups using a network of partnerships involving publishers and broadcasters from the commercial and community sectors. ITN envisages that regional publishers and ITN will operate a two-way exchange of news and picture-gathering.

Conservatives' plan

Parry undertook a consultation paper on behalf of the Conservative Party that suggested regional publishers could provide news on local TV channels similar to the US and Canada. These local media companies would be funded by advertising and integrated with existing print operations with the help of volunteers. Ofcom has identified 81 different locations where local TV licences could be created and these could be awarded to a spectrum band manager who would auction them to independent local consortia.

Broadcasting levy

Luke Crawley, assistant general secretary of broadcasting trade union BECTU, suggested television suppliers such as BSkyB and Virgin Media should pay a levy for carrying regional news. In addition, Crawley said there should be a levy on the providers of broadband of about 1%, which could raise £208m.

 

 

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