Government formally confirms Scottish news pilot provider will be known by March

THE UK government has confirmed in writing what one of its ministers said a few days ago: that it wants the identity of a pilot TV news provider in Scotland to be revealed by March.

The confirmation appears in its response to a consultation process on providing ‘sustainable, independent and impartial news in the nations, locally and in the regions’, in the belief that it will soon become financially unviable for current local news providers on Channel three to keep operating. – in most of Scotland’s case, STV.

Scotland, Wales and an as yet unnamed English region have been chosen to host pilot TV news programmes on Channel three from next year. And since each is to receive public funding to make it happen, an open invitation is being made to possible operators, including newspaper groups.

These so-called independently-funded news consortia are to be bankrolled using spare cash from that set aside from the TV Licence Fee to help people sign up to digital TV, ahead of the analogue signal being switched off – a process that has already begun in certain parts of the UK.

And on STV a few days ago, Culture Secretary, Ben Bradshaw, said he expected the Scottish provider to be known by March.

And says the government, the invitation for bids to run the Scottish pilot is to be made by the end of this month.

But the government has declined to commit itself on how the pilots would be funded were they to become permanent from three years’ time.

Says the government: “Currently, that small (3.5 per cent) element [of the TV licence fee to smooth digital switchover] is used to help the elderly and vulnerable groups with digital television switchover and that particular need will have been met by the end of 2012.

“As this element already exists for purposes other than BBC funding, the government believes that maintaining this element within the licence fee from 2012 would provide a sustainable source of contestable funding to support public service content, in particular news.

“The government’s preference remains the contained contestable element but a final decision will be made before the licence fee settlement process in 2012.”

The consultation received some 90 direct responses. Meanwhile, market research involving 1900 adults throughout the UK was also carried out.

Among other results, the survey found 84 per cent of the public consider it is important to have a choice of different sources of news in the regions/locally, and 75 per cent consider it is important to have such choice on TV.

The survey also found that 65 per cent of the public supported the idea to retain, in the next TV Licence Fee settlement, a contained element currently not used for BBC content and services, in order to support plurality of news sources. Only 24 per cent said all the TV Licence Fee should go to the BBC.

As far as the 90 direct responses were concerned, 43 per cent supported using some of the TV licence fee to fund IFNCs, while 46 per cent were against. The remainder didn’t express an opinion.

Meanwhile, 43 per cent of respondents to the consultation thought that any funding within a contained contestable element of the licence fee not required for impartial news should potentially be available to fund other forms of essential public service content. Around 37 per cent disagreed (it should just be spent on news) and some 20 per cent didn’t know or didn’t express an opinion.

Over half of the responses (around 56 per cent) thought that other funding sources should be looked at.

Continued the government: “[We are] committed to deliver IFNC pilots in Scotland, Wales and one English region. The purpose of these pilots is to test how a new and innovative form of local and regional news can be delivered using public funding to incentivise commercial delivery models and providing greater syndication between news providers to enhance plurality.

“The news will be delivered on multiple platforms including television. The IFNC news output will replace the existing regional news programming in the relevant Channel 3 area.

“The planned process and timetable for implementing the pilots between now and a national roll-out in 2013 is summarised as follows:

* The Department for Culture, Media and Sport to appoint an independent selection panel later this month who will oversee the tendering and evaluation process.

* A pre-qualification questionnaire to follow later this month inviting bids from Scotland and Wales.

* A decision on the English region to host the pilot to be made by Christmas.

* The panel to select bidders to go forward to the second stage after Christmas with the submission of final tenders by the end of February [next year].

* The selection panel to then evaluate the bids and make a recommendation to the Secretary of State on three winning bids in Scotland, Wales and the English region in March [next year].

* Contracts and launch of the pilots then follow.”

Regarding the long-term funding of IFNCs, adds the government: “[Our] preference for the long-term remains to maintain, in the next Television Licence Fee settlement, the contained element of the television licence fee that is currently not used for BBC content and services, in order to support plurality of news sources in the Nations, locally and in the regions, as laid out in the Digital Britain White Paper [of June this year]. This is supported by both audiences and industry.”

Recognising that top-slicing the TV licence fee to pay for the operations of the IFNCs is probably the easiest funding mechanism, but that the fee is also crucial to the continuation of BBC services, the government is holding off from making any hard and fast commitments.

“The government will therefore make a final decision on the source of the public funding of IFNCs nearer the time of roll-out, in the light of the lessons learnt from the pilot experience,” it says. “The government will want to understand how enhanced localness can be delivered; the extent of syndication achieved; audience reach and impact; and how public funding and commercial revenue can deliver a high quality independent and impartial news output.

“If better options than the Government’s preferred one emerge in the meantime, the Government will consider them.”