In My Opinion: Courtnay McLeod: Back to the Future for Border TV?

LOCAL news is never trivial, because, in essence, that’s how most stories begin, even if they soon become huge. In an era of international updates, wires, apps and feeds, it is easy to ignore (even mock) this most grassroots of journalism. But the trivial, ‘bread and butter stories’ are the staple diet of most newsrooms.

Discussions on the value, even the definition, of local news are pretty relentless, and have gained momentum recently in relation to the Scottish Borders. This tranquil, rural area is a battleground for the debate on local TV coverage.

For example, should people in Galashiels get their ‘local’ TV news from Gateshead?

The answer to this is ‘Yes’. Of course, a news team in Newcastle, if well-resourced, can cover a territory that includes the Scottish Borders.

Sure, it’s a big patch, but it’s not impossible.

And by all accounts the team at Gateshead are a talented bunch – one correspondent, Kenny Toal, just picked up two Royal Television Society awards at the weekend.

The team have a tough job and pull out all the stops to make it work. They pre-record the top of the programme, record split outputs, monitor stories, balance coverage, ensure reporters have a mix of English and Scottish accents, and probably occasionally abandon instinctive news values to accommodate extra Scottish stories.

The bottom-line though is that a Gateshead-based news service operating out of the Tyne Tess ITV region is trying to reinforce a sense of ‘region’ to a region that doesn’t exist.

It can try ‘every trick in the book’, but it will never convince a Scottish audience that its coverage is local.

It doesn’t matter that, on-air, ‘Gateshead’ makes the best of a tricky situation, or that its website and social media reflect distinct areas. The audience still isn’t buying it.

So, the question isn’t really about whether ‘Gateshead’ can deliver ‘fair output’ – it’s about the audience. And, well, shouldn’t it always be?

The broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, have just issued a consultation document on local news coverage in the Scottish Borders.

For info, here’s where we are at, as I understand it: Border TV is a separate licence to Tyne Tees, with both owned by ITV.

A few years back, Ofcom allowed ITV to merge its Tyne Tees and Border regional news service, following a review of Public Service Broadcasting.

The resulting offering for the Scottish Borders comprised – among other things –  a main, weekday early evening, peak time bulletin of 30 minutes, shared with Tyne Tees, which includes a 15-minute segment focused on the Border region; plus a late evening, eight-minute bulletin just for the Border region.

The decision didn’t go down well, at the time. And now, not surprisingly, Carlisle’s News and Star newspaper has interpreted the Ofcom consultation optimistically, saying Border TV’s Lookaround is set for a return. The article might contain a large dose of wishful thinking, but it shows that, for many, something was lost when Border TV ‘merged’ with Tyne Tees, as far as its news reporting was concerned.

I’ll confess now to having a soft spot Border TV’s Lookaround. I worked on the programme for several years as a presenter, responsible for the six o’clock programme and a few documentaries.

I did my share of hard news, but in the main I covered very ‘local’ stories, including a cat stuck up a tree in Dumfries, a snake lost in Workington, and kids milking cows just outside Carlisle.

These weren’t career highlights, but with a bit of clever storytelling, and amazing local characters, the results were often informative and entertaining. When local news is at its best, what’s not to love?

So this isn’t about small stories versus big stories any more than it is about the Gateshead operation being able to cover its patch. This is about the fair representation of communities, and that needs to be psychological as well as actual.

With hindsight, Border TV’s own, local service – pre-‘merger’ –  was incredibly capable because it was intrinsically linked to its audience. The audience was the beginning and end of every story, every interview, every production meeting, and each bulletin. Sometimes it was hard to see where the station stopped and where the audience started and this explains why the station commanded such enviable viewing figures, sometimes reaching a 60 per cent share of what was being broadcast on all channels.

And given this was pre-social media, the strength of this audience connection was a pretty neat trick.

However, even with this attention to detail, the audience grumbled.

Truth is, they complained bitterly: the output was never quite right, the presenter’s accent was wrong, the coverage could have been ‘fairer’. And that’s why moving the Borders news to Gateshead was a mistake. If the audience struggled to buy into local output from Border TV, it would never accept a reduced, more distant, coverage from Gateshead. ITV made a mistake – a pretty elementary one, it ignored its audience.

The thing is, magic is only magic if you believe. If not, magic is just a trick, and to the audience that’s cheating.

Local news needs to be seen as local to be believed as local.

Courtnay McLeod is director of the Scottish Media Academy and regularly teaches broadcast journalism at various universities and colleges, with special interests in media convergence issues and broadcast writing styles.