In My Opinion: Julie Craik: Go faster, definitely; get local, definitely maybe

IT’S been an interesting few days for all of us media watchers, doers and lobbyists as Jeremy Hunt, the new Secretary at the DCMS (Department for Culture, Media and Sport), announced the coalition government’s plans for television news, broadband and local TV.

Although we are in an era of belt-tightening generally, commitment to superfast broadband has been underlined and local TV is firmly back on the agenda. Meanwhile, the previous government’s plans for Independently-Funded News Consortia have been all but scrapped. The advisability or otherwise of this aside, some personal relief as the phrase never did trip easily off the keyboard.

To underline the driving force behind this, Jeremy Hunt started his speech last week by saying: “I consider my responsibility for media policy to be one of the most sacred I have. This is because the way our media operates – indeed its very existence as a voice wholly independent of government – is totally fundamental to our existence as a free society.”

Speaking for the Fife and Tayside Local TV Working Group, it’s a helpful step in the direction of keeping the options open for the development of local TV.

FifeTayTV is indeed a combination of watchers, doers and lobbyists – a mix of production companies, local government, universities and colleges. It’s co-ordinated by FifeScreen & TayScreen, the screen office for the councils in the region.

With advice and support for the Institute of Local Television, we’ve been involved in the process to keep the discussion going and put views forward on what local TV could mean, not just for Fife and Tayside, but for all local areas that may yet be served by a local TV service.

It means potential opportunities for the production sector to develop local and go global. It can put a new face to business and regional development and it can be a helpful means to achieve better social engagement.

Superfast broadband is crucial on many levels and Hunt’s plans are also to be welcomed. But it’s not the only show in town if we are to reap these benefits.

Given the UK’s mix of urban and rural populations, a huge percentage of that population (as much as 50 per cent) still does not have access to broadband of any kind. It is reckoned that it will take at least 10 years to achieve any kind of universal broadband coverage, let alone superfast. The coalition government seems to be in agreement that there needs to be universal access to local media (let’s look again at Jeremy Hunt’s words on media: “totally fundamental to our existence as a free society”). Broadband will not be an option for a major part of the population in the near future but the TV transmitters are already there. To serve the agenda of universal access, it would make sense to enable the transmitters, directly and through relays, so that everyone could get access to a broadcast signal.

It’s an issue that’s still evolving but, essentially, if there’s no railway line, there will be no point in discussing where we want to go on the train.

In the meantime, keep an eye out for the next key dates:

On broadband, there will be three market testing projects tendered to bring superfast broadband to rural and hard-to-reach areas. Details will be announced at an event by Broadband Delivery UK on the 15th of next month.

On local TV, there’s to be a feasibility study on funding and revenue sources. It will be published in a few months and, should form the basis for an action plan to be published in the autumn.

Julie Craik is project manager for FifeScreen & TayScreen Scotland, the Screen Commission for Angus, Dundee City, Fife, Perth & Kinross Councils. Visit www.fifetay.tv