For a media that loves nothing more than talking about itself, the Sun switching to the Tories was the most newsworthy event of the Labour party conference. Given that, it is extraordinary how little attention was given to News International’s commercial interests that lay behind their decision.
The Conservatives have said they would abolish the requirement on broadcasters to be impartial – paving the way for a UK version of Murdoch-owned Fox News.
The Tories have also threatened variously to dismember or abolish completely the broadcasting and telecommunications regulator, Ofcom.
Ofcom does the job of the five different regulators we inherited from the previous Conservative government, more cheaply and successfully. It ensures fair competition so that no one media organisation can become all powerful and protects the public interest. One of its more high profile current inquiries follows a complaint about the dominance by Sky of pay-to-view sport and films. The Murdoch dynasty does not like Ofcom. And the Tories clearly feel that deregulation of broadcasting can be the easy panacea to all the issues we face in broadcasting, just as James Murdoch extols an identical approach in the pursuit of his own company’s interests.
News International has also, as James Murdoch made clear in his speech to the Edinburgh TV conference in August, set its sights on our ‘state broadcaster’, the BBC. Here too, the Tories have dutifully obliged, making clear they would take an axe to the corporation, including cutting the licence fee mid way through this licence fee period. That would be unprecedented and constitute a serious assault on the BBC’s independence.
None of this has provoked so much as a whisper from the BBC’s top brass. Yet they have got very exercised by the government’s reasonable and much more modest proposal to save regional news on ITV by ring-fencing a small fraction of the licence fee that is not currently available to the BBC anyway.
Everyone agrees that the days of regional news on ITV are numbered unless something is done. The fall in advertising revenue because of the digital revolution means ITV simply won’t be able to afford to continue to provide it long-term. Its quality in many English regions and in Scotland and Wales has already suffered, with newsrooms amalgamating and staff losing their jobs. But plural, quality local and regional news is vital for the health of our democracy. The public, in a recent Mori poll, said they valued good local news above all other public service content, they didn’t want the BBC to have a monopoly and they were perfectly content with a fraction of the licence fee being used to secure that.
Let’s be clear what the government is not proposing. We are not planning to ‘top slice the BBC and hand over the money to commercial broadcasting’ as some have suggested. Not a single penny will be taken from the BBC to fund regional news on other networks.
When the licence fee settlement was agreed in 2007 the government decided to add an additional 3.5% to pay for digital switchover. This is not, and never has been, part of the licence fee that goes to the BBC.
We are proposing to continue to ring-fence a similar fraction after 2012 to secure the future of high quality news on ITV in the regions and nations. We will invite existing and new broadcasting and other news organisations to bid for the franchises. They would receive the funding, not ITV itself, as part of their contracts to fill the news slots on ITV.
We think this is a fair, transparent and sustainable long-term way of ensuring plurality in local and regional news on TV. But we are open to alternative suggestions.
Both the Tories and Lib Dems say they want to save regional news on ITV but neither has come up with a way of doing so.
Between now and 2012 we will use some of the current significant under-spend in the digital switchover budget to run pilots of these new regional news providers in Scotland, Wales and one English region.
The BBC, like the NHS, is an expression of Labour ideals. It provides the public with programmes they value that the free market never would. Just look at the quality of broadcasting in America or Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy. Unlike the Tories, Labour will never sacrifice public service broadcasting and the BBC on the altar of free-market dogma. But like all successful organisations the BBC needs to adapt to survive. A Tory government would be calamitous for the BBC. We want it to have a strong, secure future. That is more likely if it works constructively with us to help ensure there’s a future for regional news.