Scottish TV news pilot uncertainty ‘about to end’, says Purvis

ONE of the architects of a plan that is expected to result in Scotland becoming home, from next year, to a publicly-funded news pilot on television’s Channel three has insisted that uncertainty over the rules of the bidding game will soon be ended.

Stewart Purvis, a partner at broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, and a former chief executive of ITN, was speaking in Glasgow at a local and regional media review being hosted by the watchdog.

Among the 100-plus delegates were senior representatives from BBC Scotland, newspaper publisher Newsquest and radio group, Bauer Media.

In an extensive interview with allmediascotland, Purvis sought to answer widespread uncertainty about what is being proposed for Scotland.

What is known is that the pilot would be set up to act as an alternative source of news to that provided by BBC Scotland and that – because of cyclical and structural changes in the television industry – it is becoming increasingly unviable, on financial grounds, for STV to provide it.

But that to hand STV a subsidy from the public purse would contravene European Union competition laws; newspapers, for instance, could claim their efforts – for instance, in developing their websites – would be pitted against state-subsidised competition.

Therefore, because public money is to be involved – drawn from the TV Licence Feee – there needs to be open competition to run the pilot, and that among those welcome to bid are consortia of not just broadcasters but other media organisations too, such as newspapers.

What is also clear is that the UK government – and the issue has become a government one, with Ofcom’s job recommending the so-called Independently Funded News Consortia having been done – has said its preferred bidder is likely to be known in March.

The problem for delegates is that no deadline date has been set for applications, nor are there details of how an application should be structured.

In addition, it’s not clear whether legislation is required to make the pilot happen and whether there would be sufficient time before the General Election next year if legislation was required.

“I think the uncertainty is about to come to an end,” said Purvis. “The [UK] government has been holding a consultation on this whole issue, it’s due to announce its conclusions very soon and at that point we’ll know if the whole idea is going ahead and how it is going to be done. I totally understand that people are asking lots of questions and hopefully they will soon get some answers.”

Uncertainty was also raised by delegates regarding funding and whether the Tories – were they to be elected into government next year – would have the same enthusiasm for the pilot and, also, who exactly is deciding on the identity of the winning bid.

One delegate wondered whether the scheme was a back-door way to save newspapers from financial difficulties. As well as Scotland, Wales and an as yet unnamed English region are also to each host a pilot.

Continued Purvis: “As far as I am aware, the government department responsible – the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – has thought through the answers to these questions, but it is their decision on how they want to handle this and what role, if any, they want Ofcom to play.”

Further uncertainty stems from the possibility of STV – which would like to run the pilot – not being chosen and having to close its news operation down. Would the new provider be obliged to honour the employment contracts of staff no longer required by STV?

And because one or more newspaper publishers might be involved in the consortium chosen to run the pilot, delegates also questioned whether partial editorial that newspapers are able to produce would fit easily into the impartiality required of broadcasters? Indeed, also, whether newspapers have the skills to produce broadcast-quality TV and – if more than one newspaper publisher was involved in a consortium – could they even get on with each other?

“I think we have seen from companies that do own both newspapers and some broadcast outlets, like the Guardian Media Group, which owns a television channel in Manchester, is that they do understand the difference between the rules guaranteeing impartiality on radio and television and the rules affecting newspapers, which are basically none. It’s not impossible for people to find their way through that.

“I totally understand all these issues are important, but also there is a need to get on with it. [Ofcom] has been perfectly clear in our recommendations to government that there has to be enough money to get this through until 2014, when the STV licence theoretically ends. There is no point in having a pilot that lasts a year, it has to be for real. The pilot element is learning the experiences which might apply elsewhere in the UK.

“I spent about 30 years in the TV news business trying to make sure that as few people as possible could work out how to do it. I have to say, when you look at it, it isn’t quite as complicated as we former news broadcasters made out. I’ve seen, for instance, a website in Berkshire called Newbury Today in which a few people produce video packages that are as good as ones you would see on STV or ITV.

“There is no doubt the process [of choosing the preferred bidder by March] could be achieved. The big issue is if the General Election is a month or so after that [and won by the Tories] and what the impact would be in the longer term. At the moment, the Conservatives say they don’t think this is a proper use of public money [if applied UK-wide]. The only thing I would say about that is that it is a rather different situation in England than it is in Scotland. I think the judgement the Conservatives would have to make [were they in government] is whether it is okay to spend money in the ‘nations’ – Scotland, Wales and potentially Northern Ireland – and it isn’t okay to spend it in the English regions, or whether the money shouldn’t be spent at all.

“Every day, the government is running procurement processes where people bid for contracts, and I’ve seen faster processes than this. The question is: Is it a fair timetable for, particularly, new bidders who need to work out their budgets and things like that and there is a balance to be struck between getting on with it – because there is a feeling it should be got on with, though it is not an universal feeling – and how long it takes to do it on a proper basis.”