A lot of the gloom-laden chat about the “crisis in journalism” (which is, naturally, a massive problem for democracy) tends to focus on newspapers. And rather less on television, which outside London is in no better shape than papers. Possibly worse.
Coming into office, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government dumped a series of pilot schemes under which coalitions of news organisations in locality could combine to compete for (probably modest) subsidies for local broadcasting, suspending rules prohibiting newspapers cooperating with local TV. By way of replacement the government has commissioned work (interim report so far) on what conditions are needed to revive local TV and talked about licensing some 15-20 experiments under new rules, as yet unwritten. One thing is clear: subsidies are very unlikely.
We gathered 70 or so experts at City University yesterday to discuss these embryonic plans. General conclusion: almost no one thinks that the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Jeremy Hunt is yet making sense (example here). Here’s a quick summary of the takeouts:
- The most striking division in the day-long conversation was between those who think that traditional broadcast television is worth sustaining and those who think that this weighty infrastructure is “steam-driven” and not worth worrying about when you can tell stories, with moving pictures and sound if you want, over the internet. “We don’t do masts. We don’t need to,” said someone from the online camp, with evident scorn.
- No one can come up with convincing evidence of local advertising money which will float new enterprises. There is probably a bit of spare money to buy advertising time in London which is currently unspent, but nowhere else. As Claire Enders, a member of the group that assembled the interim report to the government, put it: “There is no clear-cut case for viable local TV.” She was contradicting senior DCMS official Jon Zeff, who said that there is investment and advertising to meet demand for more local TV. But Enders spoke for the majority.
- The existing broadcasters have been slow to scale down from the vast “regions” into the smaller areas which are the natural size for internet-linked communities. An alliance of local newspapers drove the BBC out of any idea of “hyperlocal” broadcasting. The only counter-example on offer was from Scottish TV’s project to localise some news down to district council level. This even gets the seal of approval from Rick Waghorn, who had organised the previous day’s “Thousand Flowers” meeting of local bloggers in Norwich.
- But in general the proliferating dozens of local news sites online weren’t impressed (tweets give the flavour). Grand, top-down plans look to them less likely to work that just getting out and discovering what a community wants. Will Perrin, one of whose many activities is a community site in King’s Cross, aims at a community of 13,000 people and gets 400 visits a day to the website; he reckons that audience is proportionate to Newsnight’s for the country as a whole.
- Perrin found himself in an improbable alliance with Kelvin McKenzie: they both stressed that volunteer labour, energy and determination was more likely to deliver useful community news than worrying about large-scale business plans.
- Enders rounded that off: regulation-issue TV will always need subsidy. The stuff that is already happening may be variable but doesn’t need subsidy. The government has framed a policy which doesn’t seem to understand this basic truth.