Letter to Govt. pt2: The opportunities and implications of BBC partnerships with local media

As part of a group response to  the government‘s inquiry into the future of local and regional media, Adrian Monck looks at the implications of BBC partnerships with regional media. Blog comments will be submitted to the inquiry as well. If you wish to add a blog post to the submission please add a link to one of the OJB posts – a linkback will be added at the end.

 

A long time ago, I wrote the plan to run ITV News in London (replacing LNN), modelled on the operating structure for Five News. It involved reformatting shows and cutting staffing to the bare minimum required to get on air.

Nothing wrong with that. It was a more efficient use of resources.

But it wasn’t really designed to involve the process you and I would know asjournalism. It was intended to produce a happy simulation of a television news broadcast to a standard adequate enough to satisfy regulators.

Five News shared resources – as did the new ITV London when it started – with the rest of ITN. The biggest and most expensive of these resources were the satellite trucks and needless to say, the deployment of said trucks went to the people paying the most money – ITV’s national news and Channel 4 News.

The editorial decision-making process played second-fiddle to the negotiation and horse-trading around satellite dishes, technicians’ overtime and working hours without which stories and guests (even cheaper!) couldn’t make it on air.

Now I love television news, but it’s an impressionistic not an informative medium. Its poetry is images not ad-libbed studio conversations. ITV’s regional news programmes, produced from studio hubs often far removed from the politically and geographically diverse areas they serve, and manufactured to a process I had a hand in shaping have – by force of that process – become hybrid forms of factual entertainment.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. But ITV regional news in its current emaciated form is not really worth saving as an instrument of public service news information. So why have the BBC and ITV signed a memorandum of understanding to share resources?

Well, the BBC is desperate to use partnership as a line of defence against the predations of Channel 4 and others who might question the casuistry that sees its populist and entertaining mainstream TV programmes labelled as ‘public service’. Partnership proposals beat budget cuts. The BBC shows willing. Refusal to partner looks churlish.

But in the case of ITV’s regional news, partnership simply sustains something that neither the market, nor the term ‘public service’ really support.

One BBC regional news head lamented to me recently that no one covered court cases in his area – not the local papers, not ITV, not the agencies – no one. He also pointed out that he could have used his multimedia newsroom to produce hyperlocal sites, and even newspaper copy – but he wasn’t allowed to, because the local newspaper lobby had weighed in to point out that he would drive them out of business.

It’s easy to feel sympathy for both sides. The commercial local news media and the BBC regional journalists who just want to do a better job.

But they’re not really the issue.

The issue is bigger and it affects all of us, not simply journalists. It’s about the collapse of plurality of media provision and how we adjust to that. Because plurality has collapsed.

And the BBC can’t take its place, and the partnerships the BBC offers are simply life support machines for local news companies caught in a downward spiral of cost-cutting, audience decline, and share price collapse.

Allowing the BBC in to hyperlocal would have killed those companies quicker. Partnership will ease their dying. Yet the question of how (or if ) we use public money to inform citizens about the governance and the good times in their localities in a way that isn’t simply puff and spin goes unasked. And the political and popular will to address it is almost entirely absent.

So expect partnerships – or rather forced marriages – with all the happiness associated with relationships born of expediency…

[This post can also be seen on Adrian’s blog]

2 thoughts on “Letter to Govt. pt2: The opportunities and implications of BBC partnerships with local media

  1. paulbradshaw

    “Allowing the BBC in to hyperlocal would have killed those companies quicker. Partnership will ease their dying.” – I love that quote. The question for me is not so much whether the BBC should support local media, but if it’s possible to do that in a way that encourages good journalism. All the discussion I’ve heard focuses on saving ‘newspapers’ but as you say, they’re caught in a downward spiral and simply providing equipment, space or training is not going to stop that.

    So how can these partnerships be set up in a way that doesn’t just help local newspapers churn press releases faster? For a start I’d like to see independent local media including blogs included in any support, and the framework set up in a way that facilitates links between various parts of any local media ecosystem – the BBC with their ‘neutral’ position and commissioning experience are well placed to help nurture a networked approach that allows local media to ‘Do what they do best and link to the rest’.

    But it needs to be a 2-way process: are the BBC the best to show the local press the way forward? I don’t think so. There are social media experts and startups in most areas who could show both the local press and the BBC how a future media landscape might look.

    In fact, scratch that: a 3-way process is more appropriate: in one corner, the BBC with space, kit and general experience; in another, local newspapers with local knowledge, audience and ad sales; and in a 3rd, the emerging cottage industry of bloggers, social media experts and news startups. They all have something to say, and something to add to what will likely emerge out of all this.

    Reply
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