How Local News Can Flourish

Plurality matters in the bigger picture
Plurality matters in the bigger picture

The Culture Secretary is backing plans for a new Channel 6 for TV. It’s primary purpose would be to provide regional and local news in key locations across the UK. But is there a danger that this will allow other broadcasters to abandon their own local content?

A couple of years ago, the National Union of Journalists mounted a vigorous campaign to try and keep the East Midlands edition of Central News in Nottingham. ITV had chosen to close the revered Lenton Lane studios, and in tandem with this, slowly eroded its commitment to the region.

For years, Central had the lion’s share of the market. It’s East Midlands news programme was nearly a decade ahead of the BBC, and in fact prompted the Corporation to launch its own service. It’s this kind of healthy competition that allowed a system of choice. plurality kept both sides on their toes.

These days, Central News is a shadow of its former self. The East Midlands gets a token 6 minutes of output in a programme largely dominated by West Midlands news. Depending on the news agenda, the East Midlands segment is often pre-recorded, and ITV has scaled back resources so much that regions are sometimes fighting over who gets the satellite truck.

But it needn’t be that way. Theres a very simple formula that would easily fund ITV’s regional news programmes, restore their localness and perhaps even turn in a  profit. At the moment, ITV can’t – or won’t – have a commercial break at 6.15pm. Part of the reason may be regulatory, but the main reason is that the network would rather keep its commercial breaks for primetime later in the evening, when it can charge more for the slots.

The problem, though, is when Channel 6 launches it’ll be competing for the same advertisers that might have bought airtime on ITV. And this won’t create plurality – it’ll create local-level commercial rivalry. The danger is clear : ITV could easily turn around and say the new channel has made its local news unsustainable.

And what then? Will the Culture Secretary step in and insist ITV meets its Public Service obligations? Unlikely.

This is not about preserving some kind of rose tinted cosy duopoly. It’s about sustaining a credible regional and local news service, reflecting the UK’s diverse communities – and holding local decision makers to account.

And that’s worth fighting for.

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