Potentially fatal blow struck against Scottish news pilot plan

PLANS to set up an alternative provider of news on Channel 3 in Scotland – to replace that being provided by the current incumbent, STV – have been effectively killed off by the new Westminster government.

In a speech today, Culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, delivered a fatal blow against a proposed independently-funded news consortia (IFNC) for Scotland, with the publishers of The Scotsman, The Herald and The Sunday Post newspapers lined up as the likely operators.

The newspaper publishers – along with TV production company, Mentorn Scotland – had been chosen ahead of a rival bid – comprising STV, Bauer Media and ITN – to run the pilot, which would have been funded out of the public purse – to the tune of a reported £47 million of government money over two years. They called themselves the Scottish News Consortium.

But the plan, proposed by Labour, attracted Tory opposition ahead of the General Election. The pilots were a response to companies such as STV finding it increasingly difficult – financially – to honour their news providing obligations, as part of their licence agreement.

In a speech that argued for more local television provision, Hunt said: “So how do we intend to progress this ambition [to have more local television]? Firstly, by recognising that plans for Independently Funded News Consortia were misguided.

“They had the positive benefit of stimulating new and imaginative thinking amongst local media companies for which I am grateful – and I want to carry on talking to those who submitted bids about your ideas.

“But, fundamentally, they were about subsidising the existing regional news system in a way that would have blocked the emergence of new and vibrant local media models fit for the digital age.

“They risked turning a whole generation of media companies into subsidy junkies, focusing all their efforts not on attracting viewers but on persuading ministers and regulators to give them more cash.”

The savings made from abandoning the IFNC proposal – and Wales and Tyne-Tees/Border were also identified as pilots, as well as Scotland – is to be used to help fullfil plans to roll out super-fast broadband around the UK.

Had the pilot gone ahead, STV would have broadcast Scottish News Consortium-produced news on the likes of its early evening bulletin, Scotland Today.

In a statement, the Scottish News Consortium chair, Mark Wood, said the consortium was disappointed by the decision to abolish the IFNCs. He said: “The SNC developed a visionary concept for multi-platform TV and web news in Scotland which would have transformed the way Scottish news is covered. The SNC alliance partners will continue to work together. This is a pioneering cross-media partnership and we will evaluate all future opportunities to implement the ideas we have developed.”

Says STV: “We anticipated the position confirmed by the government today regarding the IFNC process. Today’s announcement does not address the acknowledged deficit in our Public Service Broadcasting licences with regard to news provision and we will therefore engage with both Ofcom and DCMS on this important matter as we consider our options going forward. Connecting with our audience at a local level is central to STV’s future strategy and we would hope to participate in the proposed independent assessment of local television. We look forward to hearing more of the details and to engaging with the Government on this in due course.”

Hunt also used the speech to not only accept a recommendation by broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, that rules applying to cross-media ownership (eg a newspaper owning its local radio station or TV station) be relaxed, but to ask for an investigation into whether they should be abandoned altogether.

He said: “I can announce that I will be accepting Ofcom’s recommendations on reforming local cross-media ownership rules – meaning that those rules will be significantly relaxed to allow local newspapers to own local commercial radio stations and set up local TV stations as well as benefit from greater economies of scale.

“But in addition I have asked Ofcom to go further and look whether we should remove all cross-media ownership rules at a local level.”