Are Ofcom's regional news funding proposals an opportunity for the local press?

 by Martin Belam, 22 January 2009

Thinking further about yesterday's document from Ofcom, it seems to me that the issues around regional public service news provision highlight all the things that are wrong with the current regulatory framework.


We are living in a converged media ecosphere. Radio stations, for example, are delivered over FM, DAB, Freeview, Sky and the Internet. Television stations put their news online, and when they do so, are indistinguishable from newspapers, who are now running their own online TV channels. The audience can easily get radio and television programmes from outside the UK via BitTorrent and streaming, in a way that has just not been possible before.

But our regulation is still a hybrid patchwork of distinct bodies, treating the media as separate parts.

In the regional news sphere the BBC Trust looks after the BBC. Ofcom looks after the rest of radio and television - and sometimes the BBC if it needs a knuckle-rap. The press are lightly self-regulated and increasingly governed by the whim of the judiciary. The Internet isn't regulated at all. In practical terms it means that Jon Snow's new blog is under the auspices of Ofcom, Robert Peston's is under the remit of the BBC Trust, and Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes are accountable only to their audience.

So we seem to have got ourselves into a bind over the production of regional news.

The BBC suggested it wanted to produce more regional news public service programming in the form of ultra-local online video. The BBC Trust said no:

"It is clear from the evidence that, although licence fee payers want better regional and local services from the BBC, this proposal is unlikely to achieve what they want. We also recognise the negative impact that the local video proposition could have on commercial media services which are valued by the public and are already under pressure. Our decision today to refuse permission for local video means that local newspapers and other commercial media can invest in their online services in the knowledge that the BBC does not intend to make this new intervention in the market."

So far, so straightforward.

However, yesterday Ofcom decided that one of the commercial entities best placed to make commercially viable local news video, doesn't need to do so much regional reporting in the future. ITV looks to be getting an opt-out clause with the opportunity for partnership with the BBC allowing it to cut back on public service obligations.

Now, of course the BBC can share all the footage in the world with ITV, but if the network no longer has the regional staff to make sense of the footage and actually report on it, then it won't really make regional news sustainable in the long term.

Ofcom also suggest that some form of state subsidy could step in to fill the gap:

"Given these considerable risks and uncertainties, we believe government needs in parallel to plan for an alternative model of news for the devolved nations and the English regions. This could be based on the establishment of independently funded consortia to provide an alternative source of news to the BBC in the devolved nations and English regions. This would require replacement funding, administered either centrally or on a devolved basis. Total funding required could be £30 to £50 million per annum."

Ofcom goes on to say that it expects local news "not only broadcast but across various digital media to enhance both content and distribution". The BBC's proposal, you may recall, was 'to have around 400 staff and a total budget of £68 million covering a four-year period from launch'. So Ofcom's proposal is nearly three times as much of an intervention into the market as the one that the BBC proposed.

We just seem to have got ourselves into a vicious circle.

Everybody agrees that the provision of good robust local news reporting from various sources is healthy for democracy.

It's just that, for varying reasons, nobody actually wants to do it.

The question longer term will be whether Ofcom's money would be enough to persuade businesses like Northcliffe and Archant to step up and start producing multi-media news packages that could be used on TV as well as online.

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