Seeing the bigger picture
Local television news plays a vital role in holding our emerging institutions to account, which is why Northern Ireland must have its own regional TV pilot, argues Tony Axon
Published 21/10/2009 | 08:00
There is an energetic and vital debate going on in the rest of the UK concerning the future delivery and requirements for local news coverage on TV and elsewhere.
The long-awaited Digital Britain report, released earlier this year, is aimed at preparing the UK for the digital age that will be ushered in via analogue switch-off.
Included in the report's proposals were measures to fund the digital take-up by consumers from the licence fee.
However, it also said that a 'small part' of the licence fee digital switchover surplus could fund three regional news pilots in Scotland, Wales and England. Alarmingly, Northern Ireland was excluded.
This has come about through ITV (not UTV) saying that is pulling out of regional news coverage because it can no longer afford to fund it, but that it would provide air time for other media organisations to supply news programming.
These other media organisations - independently funded news consortium or IFNC for short - can collaborate as various consortia and demonstrate what can be done via the proposed pilots.
UTV are not following the ITV policy and, in fact, provide one of the most-watched regional news services in the UK.
They also are not opposed to a pilot and are confident of what they provide succeeding in any competition.
In Scotland, STV actively volunteered to explore collaborating with other news providers, such as local newspapers, to find an alternative model to ensure local news coverage continued. And here in Northern Ireland, in Fermanagh, we also have an interesting, imitative underway with Fermanagh TV meeting the need for local information.
Given that local news is so important in our communities, it is vital that Northern Ireland has the opportunity also to debate local news coverage and to examine the options we might have going forward.
We must not be excluded because local news coverage is too important. It helps inform people of local issues that will affect their lives. It stimulates consumer involvement in society and it is a major contributor to a well-functioning local democracy. It also gives people a say in what is happening on their doorstep.
We do have options to debate and we need to know what people want to see and hear.
Digital Britain is committed to ensuring the survival of local coverage in a digital age and to plurality of source, but this debate needs to be about quality and content - not just source.
Many journalists and commentators take the view that our local coverage could be a lot stronger and also that during the Troubles the stories were obvious and that some complacency has got into the system; also, as local administration and councils are reformed, that there is a vital role for more accountability and investigation.
Another factor is, of course, the merging roles of our various media channels in this digital age.
Publishers need to be utilising as many channels as possible to disseminate and share their news information and to as many audiences as possible.
Rupert Murdoch correctly pointed out that the value of what newspapers and newsrooms own is the actual news and information, not the method of distribution. If media owners can successfully collaborate, then news-gathering can cease to be provided on a media-specific basis. This will be good for the survival of all and also for the maintenance of quality and professionalism.
There are also strong views that the underpinning and support for local news coverage should not be the sole focus and that the support delivered should embrace other forms of programming and also stimulate local supply to the network. That is certainly the view of Northern Ireland Screen and it is a powerful argument.
Support and calls for a local Northern Ireland pilot is growing. Nelson McCausland has called for a local Northern Ireland pilot and has written to Secretary of State Ben Bradshaw requesting such, and that the pilot should be broadened to include further current affairs material and not just regional news. This support is all very encouraging.
There is mounting evidence of strong interest and alternative visions for our local news coverage and how it can not only survive, but also thrive.
Last month the Belfast Telegraph announced its vision for a multi-platform, decentralised approach for Northern Ireland in association with Bob Geldof and production house Ten Alps as well as local company Below the Radar.
ITN has strong views. Trade unions and employees will have views also, as of course will the BBC. All of these voices need to be heard and the opportunity for a pilot and strong debate in Northern Ireland should not be denied.