8th May 2022
One of the problems afflicting the BBC, thus preventing provision of good quality and local Regional Television in North Lancashire and South Cumbria, is a lack of money for Regional Television. This manifests in large TV Regions that do not provide geographic-appropriate local and Regional news-coverage for rural populations living at the periphery of the transmission areas of the TV Regions set up to serve them. This is illustrated by how much of the “local” news reported is relevant for communities, and it is possible that viewers do not get some significant news local to their community because it happens beyond transmission areas. A recent example of this is how BBC1 North West Tonight covered the results of the local Council Elections that have just happened across North West England.
On Friday night (6th May), I watched BBC1 North West Tonight and it’s coverage of the local Council Election results across North West England- and I felt sorry for the poor folk of Millom who receive both BBC1 North West Tonight and ITV1 Granada Reports as their default Regional TV News- services. Neither programme even mentioned the new county authority in which Millom now finds itself- namely Cumberland- which swing decisively to Labour. And to be fair, this is not something that should- or indeed would- happen were Millom in a North West TV Region that was rather more geographic-appropriate to the area than what it gets at present.
Now, BBC1 North West Tonight does, however, cover Lancashire fairly well- and there was extensive coverage of local council Seats that changed (or, rather, did not change) in Lancashire. The new Westmorland and Furness Council being won by the Liberal Democrats was also featured in the programme, but no mention of Cumberland despite 10,000 viewers who live in what is south Copeland (in the new Cumberland council) who can really only get BBC1 North West Tonight or ITV1 Granada Reports on their televisions. Locations north of Preston certainly get better coverage of their communities from BBC1 North West Tonight than from ITV1 Granada Reports but the amount of all-round local news-coverage north of Preston (or indeed on the Isle of Man) is still quite poor. Neither of the mainstream North West Regional TV news-services recognise the strong links between Cumbria and northern Lancashire and they do not provide much news-output in recognition of this.
Of course, one of the reasons this is so is because both BBC1 North West Tonight and ITV1 Granada Reports are constrained by the fact that they both broadcast to a huge area which includes Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, Cheshire, north-west Derbyshire as well as Lancashire and south/ central Westmorland and Furness. Both mainstream North West Regional TV News- services also have to cater for Manx viewers- which they do very poorly.
The transmission areas of both BBC1 North West and ITV1 Granada have a total population of seven million inhabitants, less than one million of these inhabitants live in northern Lancashire and south Cumbria. Viewers of Regional TV in more northerly parts of North West England and on the Isle of Man will therefore always play second-fiddle to the five million-plus populations of Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region and Cheshire. Both the ITV1 Granada Region and the BBC1 North West Region together serve the populations on the Isle of Man- and over 90% of the population of North West England: Northern and West Cumbria are served by BBC1 Look North (NE/ Cumbria) and ITV1 News Border Lookaround – the latter of which covers Cumbria extremely well although much of South Cumbria cannot get it. The north-south extent of the transmission areas is over 100 miles- and it is over 100 miles from the west coast of the Isle of Man to the Greater Manchester/ east Lancashire Pennines. In short, the BBC1 and ITV1 Regions for North West England and the Isle of Man are just too big to provide everybody in the transmission areas- from the Cheshire/ Shropshire border right up to the central Lake District- with a good Regional News service with a decent amount of coverage coming within an hours’ drive.
This brings me to the issue of Regional Television- as serves what should now be regarded as most of Westmorland and Furness, south-west Cumberland and northern Lancashire- and how it is funded. Folk living in North West England hold great store in their regular nightly evening Regional News bulletins because they serve North West England and provide news-coverage relevant to viewers. That is certainly true for the 35% of geographical North West England that lies south of Preston, and it would be greatly valued for locations further north if Regional bulletins provided more local news coverage. That is only going to happen with opt-outs or, better still, the creation of a new North West TV Region serving Lancashire, Westmorland and Furness and south-west Cumberland. As a small nation in its own right the Isle of Man needs to have its own TV service. All of that involves money, which neither the BBC nor ITV.Plc are willing to spend- especially given the tough economic climate we are now in in the UK. For the BBC, the threatened reduction then loss of TV Licence funding means they are more likely minded to cut Regional TV back further rather than spend more! This is, of course, unacceptable.
Good localised Regional Television provides a vital service for viewers who are informed about happenings in their area- like local and nearby Council Seats changing hands in local elections or of nearby roads subject to congestion or hazardous driving conditions. If folk are informed regularly of happenings so that they can make decisions, like plan a different route or decide to visit some lovely, featured scenery less than an hours’ travel-time away, then Regional News bulletins provide a good service. It is therefore incumbent upon local communities, local, regional and national government to ensure that good local and Regional TV News is given a percentage of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) commensurate with the value that good Regional Television provides. Last year, 2021, Britain’s GDP was £2.2 trillion. If just 0.1% of GDP could be made available for Regional Television there would be £2.2 billion (£2,200 million) available annually to fund Regional Television. If this was what the BBC had for Regional TV each year, then assuming a Regional TV News-service costs £20 million annually to run, the BBC could support 110 Regional TV News-services, one for every county in the UK- plus bespoke TV stations for the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
In view of the importance of local and Regional News for populations- it provides a valuable and important service for millions of folk, then 0.1% of GDP being spent on Local and Regional TV News is not, I think, unreasonable to ask of the country. Like libraries, which also provide a vital function whereby people can go and find out things, Regional Television should be funded and given priority funding commensurate with its importance. If Regional Television is so poorly- funded that large parts of northern Britain do not get a good, timely, local, and relevant local and Regional news-service fit for the local area it is not funded well enough. It’s like folk in rural Cumbria having to travel over twenty miles to get to a library (or the libraries shut just after lunchtime) because there is not enough money to keep libraries open in all parts of the country, rural or urban. For the elderly, for those who cannot drive or have mobility issues a good Regional TV News- service is like a vital library- of local news and what is relevant to your area- delivered from a friendly charismatic Regional News- presenter coming into your home.
Now, the main question is how to ensure the BBC is funded to provide £2,2 trillion for 110 Regional News programmes across Britain. The TV License fee is not perfect but if it is being cut and- eventually abolished- by the Conservative Government then the BBC will need to find other ways of funding the services it provides. Either that, or the British Government might step in with Taxpayer funds,- which I must put out there for the record that is something that should NEVER EVER happen! Just in case a Labour or Liberal Democrat politician might read this, I must emphasise that State funding of any television news- services is something that must NEVER even be entertained as a possibility because it is very dangerous for democracy! State funding of broadcast news-services, like Taxpayer support for political parties, is never, ever to be encouraged because all news-services should be able to report the news without fear or favour. If the BBC ever received £2.2 billion in Taxpayer funds to provide Regional TV News services, then Regional TV Editors and journalists would be fearful of reporting anything criticising the Government or the governing political party for fear of the Government turning nasty and cutting the BBC’s funding! So, using Government funds or block- grants has to be a total non-starter because it would lead to the loss of independent, free journalism.
So we now look at the Private Sector. If the BBC loses it’s TV Licence fee funding it will have to earn its revenues through sales to consumers- for which, read, Advertising revenue (which means advertisements will interrupt and follow BBC News programmes like they do with ITV1), TV subscriptions and product placement. It is extremely unlikely that the BBC would be able to run half the range of programmes it does today if it were totally reliant on making money itself! However, the Private Sector- and local communities- can help support BBC Regional News- services and National News- services and documentaries if the right community- support policies were put in place by local and national government and if it was underpinned by an amended BBC Charter.
What sort of private income streams- other than advertising, product placement and subscriptions- could help to generate enough revenue to fund lots of local Regional TV News- services? Some of these might be necessary, but if the BBC is to lose TV License funding it will lose a source of revenue that was worth £3.75 billion during the 2020-2021 Tax year (see page 201 of the BBC Annual Report for 2020- 2021 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1000946/BBC_Annual_Report_and_Accounts_2020-21.pdf), it will be vital for it to secure other funding, and indeed extra funding if the BBC is to provide much better Regional TV News services. The following are not an exhaustive list and none of them involve transfers of money from the State:
- Local lotteries, if designed correctly and promoted- could raise serious sums of money.
- Local businesses and banks could be encouraged to sponsor local and regional BBC news- services.
- The BBC could be made a Not For Profit organisation and legislation could be passed requiring Directors not to cream off profits, but to re-invest the money into improving BBC services for the benefit of the whole of the UK.
- The BBC should be encouraged to rent out studios and rooms when not in use,- for conferences, filming groups, art groups, etc. Legislation should be passed to make this easier not just for the BBC but for other Public services like schools.
- The BBC should be encouraged to have shops and businesses on their premises that pay rent.
- Where the BBC struggles to raise funds to support good Regional TV local communities should be able to come together to set up their own Community Local TV News- service that is Not For Profit.
- The BBC should be encouraged to sell any surplus stock and put any proceeds and savings into Governments bonds or a high-interest savings account to generate further revenues for its operations.
- Expert fundraisers and finance industry chiefs should be drafted in to the BBC to help it raise serious sums of money on the market for Regional and Local News. This should be done at the behest of local councils and communities.
- BBC Regional TV News-services could be made eligible for National Lottery support if they cannot raise the funds to operate from elsewhere.
- The BBC Charter could be amended so that the BBC could be required, by law, to spend at least 50% of its income on Regional and National News along with high-quality Regional and National Documentaries within, say, two years. The BBC should, after all, concentrate on providing high-quality news and documentary programming that cannot really be produced elsewhere by purely commercial outlets: EastEnders does not really fit that criterion, though the BBC management would certainly want to continue producing EastEnders for EastEnders fans, though Soap Operas abound elsewhere without Public subsidy!
- Better marketing of nature programmes (like David Attenborough’s) and documentaries. These could be sold by DVD on Amazon or sold in book-shops or newsagents. Local documentaries could be turned into DVDs and sold across the Region likely to be interested in documentaries of a particular area. This would help recoup costs of local TV documentaries.
In order to bring about the above situation whereby local communities get together to ensure that good-quality Local Regional News services exist for, say, northern Lancashire and Cumbria there needs to be leadership: This should come from these local communities, from local Councils and community groups. It is feasible, with the will, to bring this about because viewers on Freeview will have discovered local TV news services such as That’s Cumbria TV or That’s TV Lancashire. These are local TV News-services that get no Public funds whatsoever and which are entirely dependent on the Market: Though not perfect they provide parts of northern England with ten minutes each weeknight of highly localised news and some of these have been running for several years!
It is possible, given time, for the BBC to become funded solely by private income streams and from local communities. If this happens, it will encourage journalists and broadcasters to report all news without fear or favour with regards to the Government. If the BBC is not in receipt of Public funds no Government is going to be able to threaten it with the loss of funds. However, if it has Not for Profit status and it is clear that local communities fund local news-services (and benefit from them) it will be hard, but not impossible, for (say) a Labour Government in future to threaten a massive windfall tax on the BBC for reporting something embarrassing for the Government: This possibility could be safeguarded against by passing legislation in Parliament that enshrines the BBC’s protection from punitive taxes in law- and which requires a vote of 70% of MPs to rescind the legislation. A BBC Protection Committee could also be set up in Parliament to further strengthen protection for the BBC against the whims of a future Government that might threaten the BBC’s viability and true independence!
A good deal of what the BBC provides today, in terms of programming could quite easily be produced by the Private Sector: Soaps, Comedies, Westerns, daytime Talk Shows, Chat Shows, Sport and Music programmes are all produced by broadcasting services that are wholly dependent on private revenues. There are music channels like MTV Hits, sports channels like Sky Sports and even Manchester United has its own TV Station. Soaps like Coronation Street and Emmerdale abound on ITV, which gets no public subsidy. Thus, the Government should implement a time-frame of (say) five years for the BBC to run down daytime chat shows, music shows and films- in order to make room for more news and documentaries would also help the BBC to free up valuable resources to spend more on the programmes that should make up- as per the BBC Charter- the BBC’s raison d’être: That is, “To act in the Public Interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain.” This is the BBC’s mission, as set out in the BBC Royal Charter.
It follows that the BBC must, in the main, provide high-quality relevant local and national news and documentaries relevant to all it’s viewers, in order to satisfy the requirements of the BBC Royal Charter: This is what it should be spending more of its resources on. Currently it is not doing that for the 10,000 people of Millom, where the BBC1 Regional News- service that it has, failed to inform viewers there of important political developments affecting their community over recent days.
It might also be suggested to BBC management that rather than cutting Regional TV News-services when faced with financial difficulties that they cut night-time films and turn off between midnight and 6.am on all BBC channels. Night owls can get their entertainment from Sky TV, Netflix or YouTube. This is 2022, not 1972 and folk have access to more than three TV Channels! Millions of pounds could be saved from this measure.
By making savings and with the Government (and local government) encouraging the development of alternative income streams for the BBC- and with a legal underpinning from a revised BBC Charter- more, rather than less money would be spent on BBC1 Regions and there would be money for more of them. It is unlikely that £2.2 billion would be found to pay for Regional TV News, but an increase on the current spend on Regional TV of £500 million by (say) £100 million will help pay for five or six additional TV Regions where these are required- for northern North West England, the Isle of Man, Northumberland/ Scottish Borders region, North Scotland, North East Scotland, Cheshire/ Shropshire/ North Wales area, and North Yorkshire. All of those are large areas that get little geographic-appropriate news-coverage from the BBC Regions that currently serve them.