Future for local and regional media - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by BECTU

  1.  BECTU is the trade union for workers (other than performers and journalists) in the audiovisual and live entertainment sectors. We have many members working in local/regional broadcasting and related independent production. Among the issues raised by the Inquiry, we address those of particular relevance to BECTU members and we set out our views in summary form:


  2.  We strongly believe that the provision of local/regional news is a vital component of our broadcasting services. Furthermore, we believe that audiences consistently place a high priority on local/regional news.

  3.  This was confirmed in the research undertaken by Ofcom for its recent Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) Review:

    — 88%"thought it important that the main TV channels provide nations and regions news".

    — "There were high levels of agreement" that "it was important for ITV1 as well as the BBC to provide nations and regions news programmes".

    — "Respondents in each English region and devolved nation believe that nations and regions news provision cannot be left solely to the BBC".


  4.  As can be noted from the Ofcom research quoted above, audiences not only strongly support the provision of local/regional news but also wish this to be provided by a plurality of sources, especially including ITV.

  5.  We note that ITV plc—historically (including its predecessors) a very profitable company—won its licence for the current period by promising to provide a specified level of regional news services. Despite these commitments, we have seen:

    — Successive waves of serious budget cuts and job losses in ITV regional services.

    — Significant reductions in the number of ITV news regions/sub regions and local news opt outs.

    — A move to merged regions based on large geographical areas of no relevance to local communities.

    — Regulatory fines for failing to attain the required regional programme quotas.

  6.  This represents a fundamental erosion of ITV's historically distinctive characteristic—its strong regional structure.

  7.  Sadly, Ofcom has proved all too compliant in this scaling back of ITV's regional commitments. Despite the regulator's duty under the Communications Act 2003 to "maintain and strengthen" PSB—of which regional programmes are a vital component—Ofcom's light touch regulation of ITV's regional services has, in effect, amounted to deregulation.

  8.  There is an alternative strategy. We fully recognise the funding shortfall arising from the growth of digital channels and the resulting fragmentation of audiences and revenue. However, there are alternative funding streams which are both available and deliverable. We have set out our arguments on these in our submissions to the Ofcom PSB Review and to Digital Britain. In summary form they are:

    — levies on non-PSB broadcasters which provide minimal original PSB programming in proportion to revenue and on new media platforms such as mobile phones and the internet (which use but do not contribute to PSB programming).

    — use of spectrum resources ie gifted/discounted spectrum for regional/PSB programming together with the hypothecation of a proportion of any possible spectrum auction proceeds.

  9.  We believe that such alternative funding streams could provide essential resources for local/regional programming and that ITV could be held to strong local/regional programming targets in exchange for benefiting from such funding.


  10.  Faced by the current erosion of ITV regional news, several alternative options have been put forward.

  11.  ITV and BBC have jointly proposed the use of shared facilities for regional news, possibly including:

    — the sharing of buildings (ie ITV to move into BBC buildings) in 8 regions in England and Wales;

    — the closure of many smaller ITV news bureaux; and

    — further job losses in ITV regional news.

  12.  BECTU strongly opposes these proposals:

    — This could, in effect, amount to a takeover of ITV regional news by BBC.

    — BBC footage and facilities would be used by ITV as a substitute for ITV retaining adequate staffing levels for its regional news service.

    — It could require the rescheduling of rival news programmes which are currently broadcast at overlapping times. The scheduling of a programme has implications for the nature of the audience and thereby for programme content. And if there is resulting pressure to reshape programme content, this compromises the claims for continuing editorial independence.

    — Ultimately, BBC staff would be undertaking the work of ITV staff who had been made redundant.

  13.  In any event, the resulting savings (estimated at a maximum of £7-8 million per year by 2010) would not in themselves be sufficient to prevent the erosion of ITV regional news—as is openly recognised by ITV plc itself.


  14.  Ofcom has put forward the idea of publicly-funded independent consortia to provide regional news on ITV in the event that ITV itself withdraws from regional news provision. Organisations such as ITN have been mentioned as possible bidders to provide such a service.

  15.  BECTU's initial view is that this is an overcomplicated and inadequately funded response to the problem:

    — Bringing in independent consortia accepts, as a fait acompli, that ITV plc should withdraw from the provision of regional news.

    — The amounts of funding quoted (£30-£50 million) appear seriously inadequate and less than even ITV's current scaled-back regional spending.

    — Diverting funding from the BBC license fee would be totally unacceptable, since this would simply undermine one PSB regional news provider in order to subsidise another.

    — Even if some independent consortia were potentially able to provide an adequate service in some individual regions, this could not be assumed to apply across the board.

  16.  Furthermore, the BBC/ITV proposal for shared regional news facilities indicates that sharing arrangements would also apply to any third party provider. Since such independent consortia would have none of ITV's existing regional facilities, they could potentially require the use of the entirety of the BBC's facilities—with significant implications for any BBC staff affected and for editorial independence.

  17.  We believe that our proposal (referred to above) for the use of alternative funding streams—allied to strong regulatory requirements on ITV to provide regional news in exchange for the receipt of such funding—would provide a preferable future strategy building on the strengths of ITV's historically successful regional structure.


  18.  BECTU strongly supports the maintenance and development of BBC local and regional programming. We accept that the BBC has a responsibility to position more of its in-house and independently sourced production in the nations and regions in order to better reflect the contribution which audiences across the UK make to the BBC through the licence fee. We therefore support in principle the BBC's relocation of some programme-making resources from London to the regions.

  19.  However, we do have concerns that following the closure of Television Centre in 2012 and the possible sale of Elstree, the BBC may not own a single major television studio London and the South East and may not be able to produce, for example, drama/light entertainment/Children in Need without hiring commercial facilities.

  20.  We continue to have reservations about any single definition of regional as "outside the M25". This can, notoriously, lead to productions originating from production offices just outside the M25 (eg Amersham) but which, in effect, use London facilities. We therefore believe that a meaningful definition should be adopted. We note Ofcom's proposal that at least two out of the following three criteria should apply: regional location of the main production office; a prescribed minimum level of regional spend; employment of a prescribed minimum number of regionally-based workers.

  21.  We support in principle the provision by the BBC of local news services both on video and online. We regret that the BBC's local initiatives have, at a previous stage, been opposed by other local press and media interests. We further regret that the BBC Trust responded to such pressures by cancelling the development of "bbclocalvideo". Far from representing a threat to local print news providers, we believe such initiatives could open up opportunities for local partnerships and syndication in the right circumstances.


  22.  We have long noted, with regret, the evolution of commercial radio away from independent local providers and into a sector characterised by concentration of ownership and standard programme formats.

  23.  We continue to wish to see regulatory support for the maximum possible range of local content and identity in commercial radio. We have therefore expressed reservations about the loosening of controls on formats and the weakening of localness guidelines.

  24.  We oppose the development of American-style centralised news hubs and shared programming—which can develop to the point where there is little or no meaningful local news coverage or information provision.


  25.  We believe that specific media ownership regulations continue to be necessary in addition to basic competition rules. We believe that such regulations are necessary because market forces alone will not provide the pluralistic media which a democracy requires.

  26.  We therefore believe that any relaxation of media ownership regulation should be judged on the basis of broad democratic and social criteria rather than just on narrowly economic criteria.


  27.  We recognise that there is a wholly separate dimension of debate concerning media services in the nations. We have not, in this submission, attempted to address such issues (eg on the proposal for a new Scottish channel, on the future funding of S4C)—on the basis that these continue to be discussed intensively in other forums.


  28.  We appreciate the Select Committee's interest in this issue. We hope you will take note of our views and we look forward to the outcome of the Inquiry.

May 2009

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