Future of TV regional news is debated

OFCOM's failed to attend the ninth Borders Digital Forum in Hawick after being invited to join the debate on the future of regional news on ITN.

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 17th February 2010, 10:14 am
Updated Wednesday, 17th February 2010, 10:15 am

The meeting had also been organised to discuss the digital switchover for radio.

Ofcom had been invited to speak following the announcement that the Borders would be among the regions piloting a replacement to existing ITV regional news services.

There has been criticism of ITV's news coverage of the Scottish Borders since Border Television was merged with Tyne Tees. Ministers have now invited bids from independently funded news consortia looking to provide news and other digital services in the Tyne Tees/ Borders news area.

Sign up to our daily Berwickshire News Today newsletter

Author and broadcaster Alistair Moffat said: "ITV's bid to make regional news funded by the government after having destroyed regional news funded by them, it is frankly laughable. Why should we trust them as far as we can throw them?"

The Berwickshire News' owners Johnston Press has joined forces with ITN, Newsquest, Metro Radio, University of Sunderland and ITV Tyne Tees and Borders news staff, and is one of three bids vieing for the Borders contract which are through to the next round of the selection process.

Mr Moore led the campaign in the region against the second class 'Freeview Lite' television service that was available to many households in the Borders after the digital switchover process began.

He said: "I welcome that the Government has recognised the inadequacy of the existing Tyne Tees news service in the Borders.

"The need for a new, financially sustainable arrangement has been evident for some time, but it is far from clear that the proposals will provide the long-term solution. A significant issue relates to funding, which remains in dispute. We have no serious indication from ministers how these new arrangements will be supported financially in the long term, which means that they run the risk of wasting a substantial amount of money without delivering the quality of service the Borders deserves.

Susan Windram, editor of the Southern Reporter, also addressed the meeting. She said: "What the government is proposing is largely in reaction to a BBC that has a huge amount of cash and is poaching on everyone's territory. And there is a danger that all this will do is create an independent BBC – more subsidised public service broadcasting, and the public may not be any better off.

"There are still a lot of issues and unanswered questions that need to be resolved, not least the tight timetable and possible change of government. And there is a very real danger that, depending on who wins the contract, it could have serious implications for local newspapers – local papers could be seriously undermined and that would have a catastrophic effect on local news and local democracy."

On the matter of digital switchover of radio in the region, the meeting heard from Lisa Kerr of Digital Radio UK and Ian Small, head of public affairs for BBC Scotland.

Digital Radio UK is the company tasked with establishing digital as the leading radio format in the UK and ensuring its wide availability and continuing take up among the UK's 46 million radio listeners.

The Digital Economy Bill is currently being debated in parliament and is the first step in bringing any plans to fruition.

Ms Kerr outlined the proposals for rolling out digital radio in the region, reassuring the audience that no FM transmitters would be switched off.

She said: "Until listeners can receive digital radio, they won't stop being able to get analogue radio; and until at least half of all listening is to digital, the actual date won't even be set. No-one will be left behind. No-one will lose out.

"We've not got a hard and fast date. Instead, we have the first strong foundations of a carefully thought-out, staged plan which will, in time, deliver a digital future for radio."

However, Alistair Moffat was sceptical. He said: "When it became clear that the Borders would be the first region in Britain to have digital television four years ago, all manner of people came from London and elsewhere to tell the natives about the bright new future of multi-channel choice and the benefits of the new technology. What actually happened was quite different. We lost all of our regional programmes on ITV and our news now comes from that well-known place in the Borders, Gateshead.

"When similar sorts of people turned up in Hawick last week to tell us about the wonderful new world of digital radio, it all sounded strangely familiar. Will we be fooled again? The question surely is not if there will be a loss of service, but how much. Borderers were well warned by Jeremiahs such as myself four years ago but nothing was done. Will we sit back and watch the destruction of more of our broadcasting again? I hope not."