Belfast Telegraph

Friday 29 August 2014

Why the argument over Digital Britain is one Nelson must win

It's the year 2012 and time for your local evening television news on Channel Three. "Oh sorry, I made a mistake," says the announcer. "There isn't any news tonight and there won't be in future.

"News-gathering is proving too costly for us. You, the viewer can either turn over to the BBC or watch a repeat of the X Factor instead."

Believe it or not, that's a scenario which might not be too far off the mark in a couple of years time in many corners of the UK, where the ITV network says it cannot fund a local news service anymore.

The question is: what will happen in Northern Ireland? Every evening for as long as we can remember, we have become accustomed to UTV and the BBC providing our electronic news services. But could that change in the near future?

The subject of providing us with regional news is exercising the Government in London and the Stormont Executive. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster has been hearing evidence from interested parties, including UTV, the Belfast Telegraph and Below the Radar, a local media company. No doubt other media interests here are watching from the sidelines with good reason as the battle hots up over who will satisfy the public's appetite for local news and current affairs in future.

In other parts of the UK, but not in Northern Ireland, the Government is directing millions of pounds towards special pilot projects. The argument goes that if the current ITV television stations are not interested or cannot afford to broadcast news, then other media groups should be offered the chance to take their place. Why has Northern Ireland been left out of these pilots? That's a question which the Executive minister, Nelson McCausland (pictured below) and local Westminster MPs are asking - with good reason.

Digital Britain, the special report commissioned by the government and written by Lord Carter, is aptly titled because it ignores Northern Ireland as if we didn't exist.

The decision of ITV to pull out of regional news has opened a nationwide media debate on where, how and in what form we should receive our local news in the years to come. In Scotland, Wales and one region of England, the pilot news projects will determine the future and ensure that strong regional news services are maintained.

A major shake-up in regional news broadcasting seems certain. Unfortunately, a similar exercise is not being allowed in Northern Ireland despite the fact that nowhere else in the UK is there such a demand for news and currents affairs journalism. Nowhere else is the demand for quality, balanced, objective, investigative reporting more important. Nowhere else does regional news play such a crucial role in the everyday life of a society still at odds with itself on so many political and social matters.

The contrast between BBC Northern Ireland and UTV could not be greater. The former, funded by the licence fees, has an enviable budget for news and current affairs that UTV cannot match. The BBC has a huge news-gathering resource in Belfast in terms of presenters, specialists, reporters and freelances in comparison to UTV.

Several well-known faces disappeared from UTV in the past year as the station tightened its belt in the face of the recession. UTV also ditched its investigate Insight programme. Nevertheless, it's a tribute to the small team at Havelock House that UTV Live with limited resources still manages better viewing figures than the BBC. When it comes to the resources available to provide television, Northern Ireland is not, and has never, been a level playing field. The BBC remains in a league of its own, unanswerable to the commercial pressures which UTV faces daily, not least in the current serious downturn in advertising revenues.

If I were a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee I would ask the BBC and UTV in Northern Ireland for a detailed breakdown of who does what in their newsrooms. How many staff and what resource does each organisation have to provide us with news? The answers to those questions will be illuminating to say the least.

The MPs on the committee must recognise from their own experience that the BBC cannot be left to monopolise news, but that is a real danger for the future. We must have a choice in an open and democratic society. The tougher times are for UTV the harder it may be for that organisation to meet the news-gathering promises in its franchise.

Clearly, UTV is determined to maintain its hold on news broadcasting here. It is reporting to be bidding for the £7m of Government funding available to pilot an alternative service in Wales of all places. The pity is that no such funding is promised here even though the way we obtain our news is changing rapidly.

This is not about denying UTV its long-held role as the alternative news source to the BBC. It is about opening opportunities in Northern Ireland and ensuring that the public's appetite for news is even better served in future. From mobile phone alerts to hand-held screens, from the traditional newspaper to TV, radio and the internet, the choice of news sources is mind-boggling. We are moving into uncharted territory as 2012 signals the dawning of the digital age. Northern Ireland should not be left behind and certainly not denied what is being offered to other regions in Britain. This is one argument that a Stormont Executive minister has picked with London which he deserves to win.

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