Jeremy Hunt has persisted with his local TV idea despite the copious slings and arrows flung at it. Why has he kept with it? Is it because he believes it will promote local democracy and the Big Society? If so, he is – unfortunately – horribly misguided.
Jeremy’s Big Idea
The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport this week launched his big idea for local TV. He proposed to launch a new national channel – effectively Channel 6 (or should we just call it ‘Six’) – within which there will be ‘opt-outs’ for local TV. In other words, local companies (or charities, or community groups) will be able to pitch for an hour or more on Channel 6, in which to broadcast locally relevant TV content.
Same house with a new roof
This is a slight adaptation of an idea Hunt has been talking about for months now. Previously it was simply for a network of about 80 local TV services. Now the Local Media Action Plan sees these services as part of a national network. This way – the government hopes – the national channel can make national advertising deals and co-ordinate these with the local provider, thereby making both more financially viable.
Why has Hunt persisted with it?
Hunt is clearly a smart man. He got a first in PPE from Magdelen College, Oxford. He founded a very successful company providing information on education courses. He is also politically astute and cool under fire. Last week, during a Q&A he was doing with Ray Snoddy at the LSE, a few dozen students stormed the event chanting ‘Minister of Culture, Tory Vulture!’. They yelled at the Minister through loud hailers for about 15 minutes before leaving. Throughout the protest Hunt sat very calmly, answering questions when there was an appropriate pause.
So it is worth trying to work out why he has persisted with this rather strange idea.
Is it because of industry demand?
One could understand why a minister for media might want to help out an industry in dire difficulty, and local news certainly is in dire difficulty. Trinity Mirror’s share price has declined by 85% since 2007. Johnston Press has fared even worse.
But those within the industry have not reacted warmly to the Local Media Action Plan. Sly Bailey, CEO of Trinity Mirror, called it ‘an idea that doesn’t add up and doesn’t make sense’.
Trinity Mirror has, she said on Wednesday, already assessed the local TV idea after buying Guardian Media Group’s local papers. Based on this assessment – and particularly the experience of Channel M – they could not see how it could be profitable.
ITV, which already provides regional news services across the country, has in the past been quite clear that regional news is not profitable and that it will not continue to provide it indefinitely. Something Hunt said he is quite relaxed about.
So the Minister isn’t doing this to satisfy industry demand.
Is it because of consumer demand?
Consumers say they like the idea of local news. Regular surveys show that people value local news as an ideal (e.g. see Ofcom’s 2009 ‘Local and reginonal media’ report pp.53-54). Hunt referenced one of these surveys in his announcement this week, saying that ‘8 out of 10 people in this country consider local news important’.
But such ‘demand’ should be taken with a big pinch of salt. People have significantly different ideas of what ‘local’ means. If I live in Swansea, Cardiff news is not local. The Local Media Action Plan will, at best, cover a few dozen urban areas, leaving many people uncovered or only able to access a service that is not, in their view, local.
Demand for low budget TV is also untested. When people think of local TV news they think of the production values of BBC and ITV. This is not what DCMS is proposing. In its plan people would be making an hour of TV for about £2,000. This would look very different from what the BBC and ITV currently provide. Think Alan Partridge broadcasting from his bedroom rather than Look East.
Where we can assess demand very clearly is for paid-for local newspapers, and demand for these is spiralling ever downwards.
So the Minister isn’t doing this to satisfy any obvious local demand.
Is it because he thinks it will promote local democracy?
Since it is not for industry and it is not for the consumer then perhaps we should assume the best intentions – that the main driver behind Hunt’s persistence is a genuine commitment to local democracy and the Big Society. In his speech launching the Local Media Action Plan, Hunt said that ‘Our vision of a connected, big society is one in which we really do value the local as much as the national or international.’
He lamented – as he has done on many previous occasions – that cities like Sheffield, Bristol and Birmingham do not have local TV stations when Dublin, Galway, Lyon, Marseille, Catalonia, and Calgary do.
And he said it was ‘painful’ that the UK had “one of the most centralised media ecologies of any developed country”, arguing that much greater localism was a good thing.
If this is his aim then it is a laudable one.
That’s a shame because it won’t
Unfortunately if this is Hunt’s aim it is misplaced. The plan will not restore or replenish local democracy, and could well have the opposite effect to the one Hunt intends.
This is mainly because his plan is focused on the media – TV – and not the underlying problem.
DCMS plans for local media seem to have become fixated with TV (and specifically with digital terrestrial TV). Yet the problem that needs addressing is not TV (nor is it print). The problem is not that ITV is unlikely to continue with regional TV news after 2014. Nor is the problem that local newspapers are in terminal decline, sad though this may be.
The problem we need to address is how we keep people informed about local news and events so they participate fully in democratic society. The problem is how we keep public and private bodies honest and accountable.
Focusing on TV (and on digital terrestrial TV – DTT) is highly unlikely to do this because:
- Few of those people actively engaged in trying to jumpstart local community engagement, provide local information or keep local bodies accountable are using TV to do it. TV is expensive to produce, cumbersome, and ill-suited to serving many of the information needs of the local community.
- TV is pretty poor at fulfilling the democratic functions that need addressing. Take, as an example, the poster boy for local TV – Witney TV (which has just announced it is going county wide and might bid for space on Channel 6). Witney TV is quite clear that it is about good news stories. It broadcasts the equivalent of the ‘and finally’ on the news. It does not, in other words, keep the public authorities honest and accountable – nor does it aim to.
- TV is not a route to creating a sustainable, long term solution to the decline of public interest local news. It is not inherently collaborative, it requires initial and ongoing investment, and it does not have a history of pro-am partnership, which is crucial to the future of local media services.
- Nor is TV flexible in what it defines as ‘local’. It relies heavily on technology like transmitters. As Rick Waghorn has eloquently written, if you want to provide local TV on DTT ‘then you better find an army of fellas to get up every roof-top on Birkenhead and re-align every aerial to ensure that you’re getting the right ‘local’ TV station off your ‘local’ transmitter’.
This is not to say that TV should be ignored, far from it. Rather that TV is only one of the ways in which to engage people in local issues, provide local information, and perform the role of the ‘Fourth Estate’.
What the Minister ought to do instead
If the government wants to address issues like the growing local democratic deficit, or how to keep public bodies honest and accountable, then rather than focus on imposing a top down ‘solution’ it should concentrate on nurturing bottom-up innovation, collaboration and entrepreneurship.
DCMS should think about how the government can provide a framework in which new forms of local information provision can flourish.
This could include some seed funding like the £25m taken from the BBC’s license fee, but doesn’t have to. In reality it is about nurturing new uses of media, and new types of engagement. It means encouraging non-profits, local community organisations and businesses to get more involved in information production and distribution. It means making communities aware of the (mostly free) tools that enable anyone to participate in the creation of media, and that provide a great stepping stone to community engagement.
The most depressing thing about the Local Media Action Plan is that it may, rather than encouraging new forms of local democratic media, dampen and suppress them.
But the plan has not gone through yet. There is still time to change course. But, given how many slings and arrows Hunt has already endured without shifting direction it is hard to see things changing his mind now.