The Westminster Media Forum event on local media this morning felt like a trip back to the 1980s. The conversation was dominated by the finer points of regulatory practice, TV spectrum, multiplexes, shinning up masts, community radio etc. It wasn’t until about 90 minutes in that any mentioned the internet. It was as if Tim Berner-Lee and Vint Cerf had never existed. Over coffee with the handful of other webbies there we half expected the Visigoths to burst in as part of a dark ages re-enactment.
But, amazingly it’s all rational – the really big money in the UK local media scene is in legacy business using technology that the public is palpably moving away from. The powerful combination of colossal government media subsidies, a regulator who is not empowered to look at the internet, weird competition regulation, strong lobbying by industry groups and historic long term barriers to entry means that you can still extract cash from print and TV screen. And the best of luck – I had my say with the IFNC and the Shott Review but didn’t succeed. Hyperlocals will struggle to prevail when competing with heavily subsidised businesses that have a strong lobby in Westminster.
The UK local media models as several speakers made clear, remain viable as the regulator gently eases up on localness. Which is another way of saying that the density of journalists on the ground covering an area seems to be falling. Whilst this may sustain commercial models it doesn’t serve the citizen well in a pluralistic democratic society.
We saw the BBC last week being ticked off by the Trust for providing weak online local content. The Trust told management to improve and were presented with a plan that assuaged their concerns. The bizarre opacity of the BBC means that this plan isn’t published and can’t be FOI’d. This general ignorance provoked much fear in the audience. As I wrote last week it would be great to see the BBC working with other local news actors. It was apparently without irony that the BBC sponsored today’s event.
Of course one of the things that this morning’s conference drew out was that all forms of media are uneven in the UK – Midfordshire might have a superb BBC operation, Little Albion an excellent hyperlocal, Upper Snoring a wonderful newspaper, Middleham a promising local TV Station upcoming and Soggy Bottom a community radio station. But almost nowhere fires on all media cylinders. Hyperlocals, the local BBC, local papers, community radio, local TV all have areas where there is either no or very weak coverage. And in areas were two may co-exist there is huge potential for more, non-exploitative mutual support and sharing of news production. The BBC to my mind has a moral obligation to explore local co-operative models given its unique taxpayer funding – why should it seek to crowd out commercial players without adding meaningful value? The newspapers, despite their editors’ commendably sharp elbows will do a deal with anyone.
There is a huge public policy challenge here to help maintain uneconomic public service news coverage for the good of democracy. OFCOM (which I played a role in setting up way back in 2000 with the Communications White Paper) prides itself as being an uber-rational regulator, ‘germanic’ is a phrase often used to describe them. But it isn’t providing a clear, rational strategic over view of how to deliver local public service news. One should start from the desired public policy outcome and work back from that in a media neutral way.
It isn’t OFCOMS’s fault though – it hasn’t been asked to do so by the coalition government, nor the previous government which set most of the rules it operates under. Nor does it hold most of the levers which exist in weird subsidies and competition law.
The government’s approach to local media is salami –sliced across a range of different government departments and it doesn’t take an overview. Always a recipe for a fragmented outcome that won’t deal with a complex problem. Fragmentation also makes it easier for an assiduous set of lobbyists to pick Department’s off individually. The breadth of lobbying by the Newspaper Society is remarkable – fair does to them though, it’s their job as a trade association and also credit to them for being so transparent with their website.
My plea for anyone looking at future policy on local media, as all the parties gear up next year to write their 2015 manifestos is to stand back and take a media-neutral perspective on how to help people secure local democracy using the medium that is most effective in their community. And to throw into the bag the whole set of measures deployed today but that tend to favour trad. forms of media production and distribution.
As Roy Greenslade said to the conference today ‘We see local media issue through an early C20th lens’ and that has to change if the citizen isn’t to lose out.
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