[note - within minutes of publishing this some people have pointed out that the original title could be mis-construed given recent spoonerisms on the radio. This is abosolutely not my intention a- 'the local hunt' is a fox hunting phrase from my childhood brought up in Northamptonshire's Pytchley country. Please behave for heavens sake. Radio4 do you see what you've done...]
Like any good recently elected politician Jeremy Hunt is fixated on delivering his manifesto commitment:
‘Our plans to decentralise power will only work properly if there is a strong, independent and vibrant local media to hold local authorities to account. We will sweep away the rules that stop local newspapers owning other local media platforms and create a new network of local television stations.’ (Conservative Manifesto page 76)
Although the government inevitably budged on one or two manifesto commitments elsewhere we seem to be at the point where this one is going ahead. So for the web community it’s time to roll up sleeves and work out how to help the government and the country make the best of the proposals.
On Friday 4 January the Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport came to Birmingham to meet people from the local web, press, radio and tv industries (agenda and attendees). The Secretary of State was sincere, impassioned and on top of his brief, for telly. He also limited the fatuous comparisons with Birmingham Alabama.
Against his expectation, the meeting told Jeremy Hunt that his proposals weren’t ambitious enough. He needs to aim higher for local media and in particular to embrace the web – in its approach to production and content.
Debra Davis of CityTV regaled us with tales of local TV in Canada. On web production the Julia Higginbotham of innovative Aquila TV drew out the point that trad. telly made in trad. ways will always be expensive – but it’s what the TV industry in the UK regulatory environment defaults to. The government can send simple regulatory signals that it wants to see radical innovation in content production to open up new methods. By using modern methods more than the specified two hours can be produced locally and the mix broadened beyond video. Jeremy Hunt seemed to take this.
On web content Dave Harte, Nick Booth and I stressed that the superb Birmingham social web was far richer deeper and more diverse than any TV station. This should be encouraged in its own right as an immediate answer to the problems the manifesto commitment seeks to solve – local accountability. Local web content is also as banker against problems with complex and necessarily risky traditional local TV – much of it is already there now and more can be devleoped. Again some simple, low cost regulatory signals could bring this about by making media companies seek out and nurture local web content.
Stacey Barnfield from the Mail and Phil Riley of BRMB both made the point that local TV will have to fight for an advertising cake dominated by radio and the press. It might grow the cake a bit but the government’s plans will be disruptive for the local media ecology. For me there’s a reductionist logic here – it’s hard to point anywhere to a TV station that is run more cheaply than a local radio station and making TV ads is more expensive than radio or print or web. And it’s not as if the market is awash with local ad money.
Jeremy Hunt was good in the meeting – sharp, articulate, very focussed on the manifesto commitment. But I was struck though that he hasn’t been briefed properly on the hyperlocal web. He was asking some pretty basic questions and was only looking through the lens of businesses providing local news information and connections rather than the big society writ large that best describes most hyperlocal sites.
There’s nothing wrong with this as a newish minister – you can’t know everything and need to be briefed up. He has the Olympics, the deficit and other stuff to worry about and the government has set a break-neck pace since the election. It took a while to get Sion Simon and his colleagues up to speed, but it was worth it. It would be a great shame if the government was to miss an opportunity to help a vibrant new web sector that would prop up its manifesto commitment through an over focus on one technology.
Jeremy if you are reading this then are are some answers to some of the questions you asked – if you will allow us in for a briefing we can show you more:
Hyperlocal sites in general have exceptionally low costs – they are a volunteer effort using simple blogging platforms that are either free or may cost £10-£20 a month to run found by volunteers. Some sites make a little through advertising that may cover their web costs or buy a new laptop. A few make a bit more that supports local enterprises, a very small number are self sustaining small businesses. Think community radio but with much lower costs, no licensing nonsense and much simpler technology.
Local listings – remember this is the web so if someone somewhere else is providing listings then a local sites doesn’t need to. In Birmingham and Isle of Wight though there are two superb hyperlocal listing sites. LondonSE1 also has good listings.
High quality news – when a local site gets stuck into an issue it easily outdoes the mainstream media. Strong examples are the coverage of the Vestas dipute by Ventnorblog, Kraft-Cadbury by Bourneville Village (Dave Harte who was in the meeting), Stoke council’s expensive phone number by PitsnPots to name but a few.
Jeremy Hunt gave no explanation of why the government dropped the Roger Parry language about multimedia content stations and was focussing on telly. This had puzzled the burgeoning hyperlocal web community and I was astonished to see Kelvin McKenzie come out in favour of local web content instead of local TV (like seeing a T-Rex go vegetarian). But with some simple signals to the TV people to embrace local grass roots web content, this could be reversed, Britain’s hyperlocal web scene accelerated still further and we would see early delivery of the aims of the Mainfesto commitment and a boost to the big society on the ground.
There was one final comment from one of our hosts at BCU – what happens when you connect your TV to the internet? Jeremy Hunt fell back on stock answers about the delayed BBC/C4 etc Youview offering. I thought that a very parochial view – when the TV connects natively to the web , everything changes, you don’t just flip into someone else’s EPG. It’s only about recommendations from friends, celebs you trust and corporate media brands won’t get much of a look in.