15th July 2021
The main reason why the main Regional News- broadcasters- both ITV.Plc and the BBC assert that they cannot provide more localised, relevant Regional Television for areas like northern Lancashire, South Cumbria and the Isle of Man is that they cannot afford it. But is that acceptable in view of the fact that our national and Regional News- broadcasters really need to inform folk of what is happening locally, so that viewers can make informed choices to stay safe, find local work, travel (and avoid traffic jams) or to visit the best beautiful rural scenery less than an hour’s travel- time away? This Website asserts that it isn’t and that good quality, timely and relevant Local and Regional News- provision is as much of a Public Service as libraries, waste-collection services, hospitals, and reliable public transport in rural areas for those who cannot drive.
Indeed, good local and Regional News- provision should be funded as if though it were a Public Service, not left 100% to market- forces. However, neither Regional and Local News can be funded by local or national Government because of the certainty that the Regional News- providers would be pressurised to conform to the political views and opinions of their paymasters. This does happen with the BBC, because politicians in Parliament can threaten to remove TV License funding if the BBC is perceived as “Biased against the Government”: Thus, it is important that Regional and Local Television is funded privately- advertising, product-placement, sponsorship, affordable subscriptions, and even local lotteries- if combined- are all legitimate sources of funding.
So how can Regional Television be funded? None of the main broadcasters providing it will do so off their own bat if left entirely to their own resources to provide good- quality local and timely news relevant to viewers in every significant part of the United Kingdom. Funding from the Public Purse with tax-payers paying for it is out of the question if we want impartial news- coverage where Regional News Programmers feel free to report whatever is relevant to their viewers without fear or favour regarding the Party of Government (whether National or Local Government, Conservative or Labour or (in Scotland) the Scottish National Party).
Now good quality Regional News Programming with half- hour programmes on weeknights and other regular shorter bulletins in mornings, at lunchtime and weekends costs at least £5 million annually. So, for every county in Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and with special news-services for the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, the Orkney and Shetland Isles and Scottish Western Isles will cost at least £500 million annually: Two questions about this sum of money- Firstly can this money be raised privately? And (if so) can ITV.Plc and/or the BBC be made to spend it on Regional Television?
It is a fact that OFCOM require ITV.Plc and (in Scotland) also STV.Plc to produce so many hours (typically two, and in the case of ITV Border, three hours) of Regional/ Local News- Programming for all parts of the UK ( more details here: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0021/106545/PSB-Nations-and-Regions-Compliance-Report-2017.pdf). And they provide it- or they are threatened with sanctions including fines or even the possible loss of their Public Service Broadcast (PSB) licences. The BBC Charter governs the amount of Regional News output for each BBC1 Region and stipulates that it must be timely, high-quality, and relevant news for all parts of the United Kingdom.
The situation with Scottish Television (STV) providing (in effect) four separate Regional Television News-services for the Glasgow and western Scotland, Edinburgh and eastern Scotland, Dundee and NE Scotland and Aberdeen/ Inverness and northern Scotland- whilst ITV1 Border covers southern Scotland shows that independent television with private funding- streams only can provide four or five Regional TV News services for a population of just 5.47 million people (population of Scotland in 2020- https://www.statista.com/statistics/367788/population-of-scotland/ ). So, it is certainly possible for every distinct geographical area with a population just over one million people to have their own dedicated Regional TV News service without recourse to tax-payer cash or even that famous Tax on Televisions called the TV License fee!
It is clear, however that neither BBC1 nor ITV.Plc would provide dedicated, high-quality Regional and Local News- services without OFCOM and the Sword of Damocles hanging over them, threatening to fine them if they did not provide good high- quality Regional News services. That said, unless either is able to raise £500 million a year to fund Local and Regional TV for each county then, even with their backs against the wall like this they would not be able to provide it.
Then there is the fact that both the BBC and ITV.Plc provide Regional news services that are near- duplicate services across large part of the UK- including in Wales, the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland. This is definitely true in the North West of England where both ITV1 Granada Reports and BBC1 North West Tonight cover an almost- identical transmission area stretching from South Cumbria to Crewe and from Merseyside to the Pennines (and both include the Isle of Man). Both the main North West Regional News services cover the two major metropolises of Greater Manchester and Merseyside extremely extensively, yet both sparsely cover the northern fringes of North Lancashire and South Cumbria. I’m all for choice, but the choices should complement rather than duplicate Regional News coverage in an area.
For example, a viewer in Littleborough, close to the Lancashire/ Greater Manchester/ Yorkshire border should be able to get a Regional News- service covering Greater Manchester and Lancashire (i.e., North West England) , which should be complemented in that locality by a Northern Regional News- service that overlaps to Manchester, but which majors on West Yorkshire- so viewers get to find out what is happening locally- but in the other direction to them. Likewise, a viewer in Carnforth should be able to get a North West Regional News- service (which mainly covers the areas south of them) but also get a Regional News-service covering places locally and to the north of them (and ITV1 Border’s Lookaround would fill that role perfectly if they included northern Lancashire in their news- coverage as well as their excellent coverage of Cumbria).
However, in view of the fact that this is not done and that there is this duplication there is an argument in favour of scrapping the TV License fee altogether, privatising the BBC and then giving it the proceeds of the sale with a mandate to provide additional, more localised TV Regions that must cover different areas to the ITV Regions. A newly-privatised BBC would then be allowed to charge subscriptions (for advert free content), run lotteries, have product- placement and sponsorship from businesses and sell spin-offs in order to raise the funds to remain commercially viable and also provide mandated more localised Regional News services and high- quality journalism and documentaries. Whilst doing this with the BBC, ITV.Plc should be given greater leeway with revenue- raising from subscriptions, advertising, local lotteries, product placement, companies sponsoring local and national news and broadcasts and they, too should provide different Regional and Local TV News- services (and covering different geographical regions) than the BBC.
Certainly, the fact that the BBC is effectively funded via taxation means there should be a greater onus on it to provide those high- quality News services that a commercial organisation (like ITV.Plc) cannot afford to provide. However, despite this, for northern North West England it is ITV1 Border’s Lookaround that provides lots of coverage of Cumbria (though, sadly, viewers in North Lancashire are told to watch ITV1 Granada Reports instead)- whilst the BBC does not have a bespoke TV Region for Cumbria and southern Scotland: That could be an argument for scrapping the TV Licence fee!
However, I start with the premise that a purely commercial organisation left to its own devices would not provide timely, relevant, and high- quality local news. The TV License fee has a role, but the BBC should be able to offer subscription services and have product placements and lotteries, too to raise more money. Then the TV License fee can be reduced- to (say) £100 a year with additional legal safeguards built in to prevent political interference, which means a new TV Licence Safeguarding and Impartiality Bill passed through Parliament (i.e., that it cannot be increased or decreased without the approval of 80% of the House of Commons and that former Councillors, Mayors or MP’s standing for a Political Party cannot be appointed to news/ editorial positions within the BBC). It is vital to reduce financial influences that could pressurise the BBC from being biased politically but it is vital to ensure that it can raise additional funds commensurate with special requirements.
Programmes like films, comedies, soaps, and sports programming could be provided on a commercial basis, so if the License fee were just £100 per household that would still raise £1.5 billion annually even if just 60% of households paid it. This would provide the funds for high-quality documentaries, National News and Regional News (including BBC Local Radio). BBC1 costs just over £1.1 billion, BBC Local Radio costs £150 million and BBC online costs just over £200 million. Total cost about £1.5 billion. However, a considerable proportion of programming on BBC 1 (like East Enders) is not what the BBC primarily for- and it should make up the shortfall with private revenue streams like merchandising and product- placement. Assuming that 25% of the material on BBC 1 is not high- quality news, documentaries, etc. (but that it costs half as much) that’s still £137 million for BBC1- enough to run 27 additional Regional TV News- services (costing £5 million each) to provide more geographic- appropriate Regional coverage for areas like South Cumbria/ northern Lancashire and another news- service for the Isle of Man. It would also be possible to have separate Regional programming for North Wales, Northumberland/Scottish Borders, North Yorkshire, South Cheshire/North Staffordshire/North Shropshire with overlap to NE Wales and additional bespoke Regional News for the Highlands and Islands of northern Scotland- all of which are major areas suffering a lack of bespoke Regional News programming today.
Indeed, with a new funding model and new stipulated BBC1 Regions along with new stipulations for ITV1 Regions across England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland there could- in effect- be one local TV service for each county. If there is the will in Government, and with OFCOM and the co-operation of both ITV.Plc and the BBC it is financially possible. In 2021 Regional Television is not as constrained by transmission masts/ coverage as programming can be provided digitally and via Internet/ local broadband connections too (and broadband is getting faster and more reliable all the time).
I reiterate the importance of good- quality, timely and localised Regional and Local News as a vital Public-service. To that end, those broadcasting Regional News, those overseeing them (like OFCOM), and the Government (which makes policy) have a collective duty to see to it that it is provided and that it is relevant for wherever one lives in the United Kingdom. That includes North Lancashire and South Cumbria- and it certainly includes the Isle of Man which is actually a small country in its own right!
Good Regional News-coverage cannot be left purely to Market forces -although the fact that people can choose whichever TV Region is appropriate to them means that each Regional News provider will be under pressure to provide relevant geographic- appropriate all- round Local News coverage for all their viewers: However, with the right regulatory framework much more localised Regional News can be provided with a TV Licence fee (with broadcast organisations much better- protected from political coercion with stronger legal protections of this source of public funds) and a mix of Private revenue-streams.