Examination of Witnesses (Questions 2040
WEDNESDAY 27 FEBRUARY 2008
Mr Andrew Harrison, Mr Mark Story and Mr Daniel Bruce
Q2040 Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall:
Who is making the editorial decisions when it comes to deciding
to run one agenda or another?
Mr Bruce: It is ultimately the duty editor or
the editor who have the responsibility for those.
Q2041 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnsbury:
Mr Bruce: Yes. So they would have responsibility
for editorial output on all of those stations. This is only our
particular example, but our editors have been trained to recognise
the geographical differences and nuances between the areas that
they are serving. Of course you cannot guarantee that that will
happen in all cases.
Q2042 Baroness Eccles of Moulton:
I suppose in that case it was made easier by the fact that the
local authorities were taking rather different views and so the
editors had a good lead in to differentiating between Coventry
Mr Bruce: Yes, absolutely.
Q2043 Baroness Eccles of Moulton:
You would need something like that because otherwise you could
not listen to every conversation.
Mr Bruce: No. They were two very helpful calling
birds in that sense. I think it would be perhaps harder in the
earthquake scenario to differentiate, but again a lot of it does
come down to the abilities of the first port of call in the news
gathering journalist and their knowledge of their area.
Q2044 Bishop of Manchester:
The earthquake thing is quite interesting. You spoke very much
in terms of the locality of the epicentre. In the early hours
of this morning it was quite a frightening experience in Manchester
where we are on the geological fault line. How do you come to
a decision that a news item really is local, as you seemed to
be describing the earthquake at the beginning, when in fact the
impact is much wider than a local thing?
Mr Harrison: I was talking from the perspective
of representing all of the local commercial radio stations. That
is not to say the earthquake is not a national story. Quite clearly
it has been covered as a national story on the BBC this morning
on television and radio.
Q2045 Bishop of Manchester:
To what extent would your local radio stations be in touch with
one another so that, for example, the commercial radio stations
in Manchester were in touch with what was being said and compiled
on the east coast?
Mr Story: We have two radio stations in Manchester,
Q103 and Magic 1152. For both of those stations what happened,
frankly, in Lincolnshire is of no interest whatsoever and they
will concentrate on exactly what happened and that would be their
only interest. The real differentiator for us in terms of providing
local radio in Manchester is that we have a strong flavour of
Manchester and the wider area and that largely comes through in
our news. When it comes to providing bulletins for our listeners,
we have very strict guidelines, we do a huge amount of quality
control, I personally do it, where we will go through every bulletin
for a day on a ten or 15-day basis and analyse how much of this
is national news and how much is local news. We start by telling
people what has happened and where it has happened and then, as
we progress with the story, why it has happened and what the consequences
are as the story builds. That is the core to our effectiveness
as a commercial radio entity. That is what our listeners expect
from us. If we do not provide it then they will not listen to
us. We have a wonderful "call to action" every hour
where they will listen to our radio station on the hour because
they know that we will have the latest local news.
Q2046 Lord Maxton:
How many of the radio stations are actually talk radios as opposed
to music stations? When you say you have got bulletins, they are
hourly bulletins. As far as I know nobody in the commercial sector
provides the Today programme or the science in Good Morning Scotland
or whatever on BBC, do they? Is anybody doing that sort of thing?
Mr Story: We operate licences which are determined
by Ofcom and previously the Radio Authority. We are not licensed
to provide an all speech breakfast show except for one station.
We launched a station six weeks ago in Liverpool, which we think
is quite innovative and will lead to a rather different kind of
commercial radio, which is all speech.
Q2047 Lord Maxton:
I hope Derek Hatton is not on it.
Mr Story: There is no Derek Hutton on this one.
It is a Derek Hutton free zone!
Did you say you have to be licensed?
Mr Story: Yes. We are governed by a promise
of a format which is determined by Ofcom as to exactly what we
provide on those radio stations. The licences we own in our company
are what are called general entertainment licences and those would
include providing news provision throughout the day.
Q2049 Lord Maxton:
So why, if I want to listen to the earthquake news, do I not listen
to the local BBC radio station where I am going to get at length
Mr Story: When there is a storyand I
think the recent floods would be a good exampleour radio
stations generally will stop normal transmission and will concentrate
entirely on that. I think that is really where we feel that we
do our job particularly well.
If I had an entertainment licence would I need to go back to Ofcom
and ask to do a talk show or a breakfast show?
Mr Story: Yes. The amount of speech to music
is strictly regulated.
Q2051 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnsbury:
Considering how small your organisations are, Mr Bruce was saying
they are one-man bands, I was wondering how you gather your news.
Mr Bruce: There are a variety of models. I have
worked in smaller commercial radio stations as a journalist and
an editor where you are part of a two or two and a half person
news team, if you are lucky, often serving still quite large geographical
areas. Under that model it is incredibly difficult because when
I was editor of our station in Stratford there were two and a
half of us and we had a window of writing and in the field a news
gathering opportunity in the morning after the breakfast journalists
had gone home at half-past one and I had to read news bulletins
in the afternoon. If an earthquake happened in Stratford at four
o'clock in the afternoon I have not got a reporter to go out and
cover it. Those are the real challenges faced by smaller standalone
stations. The news hub model allows us to have journalists who
are not committed to reading news bulletins, so they can be wherever
we need them to be. Perhaps I may use Mark's example of the flooding
in the summer. When something so extreme as that hits a relatively
small local area you can obviously pull in resources from your
other stations and you would have half a dozen reporters on the
ground in order to produce an appropriate level of content for
a situation like that. The nuts and bolts of news gathering vary
in terms of structure. In terms of where it is coming from, which
I should imagine is also of interest, in a smaller newsroom you
are by definition going to be, because of time pressures and economic
constraints, largely dependent on material coming in on the national
news wires, but in terms of your local content, you will be, quite
honestly, a very press release-led radio station. You do not do
a lot of investigative journalism because there simply is not
time. How much of the content that you broadcast is original is
a relatively small percentage. Again, with the model that we have
deployed in other stations who have bigger newsrooms and reporters
who are able to be "off desk" they do have more time
to investigate stories properly and spend several weeks pursuing
one story to conclusion and doing a proper piece of grass-roots
journalism, but that is probably a rarity. There is value in that
and I think commercial radio operators such as ours realise that
because in this crowded marketplace we want to stand out.
Q2052 Baroness Scott of Needham Market:
The floods and the earthquake and Coventry Airport are, to an
extent, national and regional stories where you report the local
impact, but there are also lots of local stories, things like
whether the local hospital is performing properly and whether
it has a budget, which are of huge interest to local people. Certainly
when I became involved in local government in Suffolk 20 years
ago I would frequently go on to local commercial radio. It does
not feel to me as though that happens any more at all now, that
it is only the BBC that covers what the council is doing or the
hospital. I wondered whether that is a fair comment to make and
whether that would be the experience anywhere in the country.
Mr Story: That is completely untrue.
Q2053 Baroness Scott of Needham Market:
In Suffolk it is not.
Mr Story: We do not have anything in Suffolk.
Just taking up the point about the making of documentaries and
enquiries into items of great interest to the local community,
I listen to an awful lot of our output in my position. We make
more documentaries now than we have ever made. The documentaries
generally will provide us with news content as well which will
lead to people listening to it later on. They are using the facility
on our website where they can listen again to content. In terms
of bread and butter local issues, that is absolutely the core
of what we do and we do it because, frankly, there is a market
for it. We do it because that is what our listeners want. They
are very concerned about their local hospital. They are very concerned
about whether the school is going to be turned into one thing
or another. We follow those stories day in and day out and we
will assign, particularly in things that are long-running stories,
those stories to a particular person so that they can be really
on top of it rather than just getting a superficial view of that.
Certainly in all of the research we do with the public they say
they listen to our stations because they feel we are from here
and we have a better angle on that than the regional stations.
But it is a function of scale, is it not? If you are running a
small local station with only one reporter it is quite difficult
to do what Baroness Scott would like you to do.
Mr Story: We have some small stations. Moray
Firth in Inverness is a good example. They will use a large number
of freelance presenters and news gatherers to make sure that they
have all of the information. As the stations get smaller I think
local news is even more important.
Q2055 Bishop of Manchester:
I was very interested to hear what Mr Bruce and Mr Story were
saying earlier on about news gathering and news provision. RadioCentre
said in your submission to Ofcom, Mr Harrison, and perhaps I may
quote it to you, " ... there is nothing to say that this
demand for local news could not, in theory, be satisfied in areas
with only a single local radio broadcaster." Presumably you
had the BBC in mind to take over all news provision?
Mr Harrison: I cannot recall exactly what part
of our response on "Future of Radio" that quote was
Q2056 Bishop of Manchester:
Paragraph 7, part 24.
Mr Harrison: Thank you. I assume the context
was around the fact that there is already the BBC in the every
local market. The question then is whether you require two different
local commercial radio operators in the same market by law or
whether one additional provider alongside the BBC is sufficient.
It would not have meant one alone; it would have been one in addition
to the BBC.
Q2057 Bishop of Manchester:
Can you give a particular example of an area where you feel it
would be an improvement for the provision of commercial news for
that to be made into one rather than more than that?
Mr Harrison: Without knowing the specifics of
the stations and the ownership --- I think the comment on Suffolk
is interesting in this context. Our contention at the moment is
the different licences for radio services in Suffolk are granted
around different market towns and there is then a separate additional
layer of ownership regulation that would require different owners
of those different stations. That actually means in practice the
provision in Suffolk is very small stations probably run by ten
people with scope for one or, at most, two journalists. That means
in practice there is a limit as to how much we can cover, particularly
compared to a BBC operation which can access its national resources
whenever it needs to or mobilise neighbouring local services.
If those stations are required to be under separate ownership
you structurally cannot get any economy of scale to provide better
news provision. If the three stations in Suffolk were allowed
to be under the same ownership then our contention would be that
you would still have plenty of plurality in that specific neighbourhood
because you already have BBC Radio, you have all of the local
press, all of the online and all of the national services coming
into Suffolk, but specifically for commercial radio provision
in Suffolk, rather than having three small local stations each
barely profitable, each only able to employ one journalist, you
may have the opportunity to have a hub under common ownership
and the ability to scale a little bit and employ sufficient resource
to give better coverage to listeners. Coming back to Mr Story's
comment, this is axiomatic ultimately for the commercial sector.
Our business model is predicated upon local licences and being
able to sell advertising revenue locally because we have got local
listeners on the basis of those licences. If we do not cover the
local stories well there is plenty of provision either locally
from the BBC or nationally from the BBC for listeners to go elsewhere.
It is axiomatic, we have to provide the coverage to get the listeners
and without the listeners the business model falls over. The difficulty
we are trying to bridge in all of this is the combination of quite
prescriptive formats and quite onerous ownership obligations which
rather constraint us to deliver the service that we believe the
listeners in Suffolk or wherever would enjoy, and we think there
is a way through this without actually compromising plurality
in a multimedia world.
Q2058 Bishop of Manchester:
What I hear you saying at the moment is that as you see it there
is currently a weakness in the way in which commercial radio stations
are able to gather news and provide it when you compare yourselves
to the BBC, with the vast resources the BBC has both for informative
views and investigative journalism. How are you actually going
to get this improved in the terms that you have described? You
have just given a wish-list. What power do you have within your
own organisations to be able to improve news coverage in the way
you have described?
Mr Harrison: The power we have within the individual
companies is entirely to do with the individual company's abilities
to have a business model that enables them to operate profitably
while serving the needs of those local communities. At the moment
all the local radio stations are structured as they best feel
able within the constraints of the legislation to run their business.
If we could free up a little this onerous ownership burden each
of the individual groups would then naturally work and the market
would naturally work to provide better coverage. If you owned
two or three stations in an area your business model would require
you to serve those local listeners because if you did not your
business model would be even more vulnerable because your listeners
would go to the BBC or elsewhere. So I think the market would
then naturally work. At the moment, because of the combination
of format regulations through Ofcom and ownership regulations
through legislation, the room for manoeuvre is very constrained
and it is very constrained against both our direct competitive
set, which is the BBC, which has a virtual monopoly on national
spectrum and resources locally which we do not enjoy and against
all the other local news providers that do not have any of the
sector specific regulation. So all of the on-line sites, all of
the local press, all of the regional press, free or weekly, none
of this has any of this additional layer. They have competition
rules in the normal course of things but they do not have this
specific additional burden. In today's world it seems that is
an unnecessary burden on a small sector.
Q2059 Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnsbury:
Can I just confirm that you believe that consolidation of ownership
is a positive thing from the point of view of the quality and
diversity of the news that can be provided?
Mr Story: Absolutely.