Digital Britain: TV licence to fund independent local news

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Part of the BBC licence fee could be diverted away from the corporation for the first time in its history to pay for local and regional news, the government said today in its Digital Britain report.

Communications minister Stephen Carter has proposed in his report that the 3.5 per cent of the BBC licence fee currently set aside for digital switchover support, about £130m, should be used to fund a network of independent local news consortia from 2013.

The government will launch a public consultation on the move and is proposing three pilot schemes in Wales, Scotland and in an English region which has yet to be decided.

It will ask the BBC Trust to use some of the unspent money in the digital switchover fund to pay for these pilots.

The consortia will be made up of existing TV news providers, newspaper groups and other news organisations.

Carter said that the consortium idea would “progressively relieve” ITV of the cost of providing regional broadcast news.

The Digital Britain report states that news consortia could provide “an independent stream of multimedia and broadcast news using channel three [ITV] licensees’ broadcast regional news slots as one means of distribution”.

It states: “Consortia are likely to be able to produce news more cost-effectively than existing channel three licensees using assets designed for a different era.

“The result could be a greater investment in journalism, newsgathering and multimedia distribution and syndication than today, enhancing the quality of news in the nations, regionally and locally.”

ITV first announced plans to scale back its regional news coverage last September, saying it could no longer afford to keep up the service.

It was given the all-clear by Ofcom to merge its 17 news regions into nine larger patches last September – but was required to keep a regional “opt-out” in each of the merged bulletins.

The broadcaster made 430 redundancies, about half of which are understood to be journalists.

The BBC offered to help ITV by sharing some of its regional news footage and facilities. The two broadcasters signed a provisional memorandum of understanding in March but the exact terms of the deal are yet to be agreed.

In the place of ITV regional news, Ofcom proposed the setting up of a number of competitively funded independent news consortia.

Outgoing ITV executive chairman Michael Grade is in favour of the idea and has offered to open up parts of the ITV1 evening schedule to make room for the consortia’s regional bulletins.

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