Ofcom urged to get off the fence and save independent broadcast journalism

Media regulator Ofcom has been urged to “get off the fence” and come to a firm conclusion in its long-running review into the future funding of broadcast journalism.

Stephen Jukes, a former global head of news at Reuters, told the Voice of the Listener and Viewer conference in London he was “pessimistic” that a solution to the issues facing ITV and Channel 4’s public service output could be found quickly enough.

Jukes, the dean of the Bournemouth University media school, said it was also clear that tackling the “downward spiral” of TV news provision was low on the Government’s list of priorities.

“My fear is that nothing is going to happen soon – that the Government has no appetite to do anything,” he said. “I’m concerned that the [Ofcom] consultation will go on forever. I’m quite pessimistic about seeing a solution to this soon.”

He later added: “We are in a downward spiral exacerbated by the broader economic crisis. I have a lot of sympathy for Ofcom – I think it is between a rock and a hard place. But I would urge Ofcom to get off the fence.”

The second phase of Ofcom’s public service broadcasting review, published last week, proposed three options for the funding of journalism – including a model where both ITV and Channel Five would drop their requirements and the BBC and Channel 4 would be the key providers of news and current affairs.

Ofcom deputy chairman Philip Graf said the regulator would be making “specific recommendations” to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in the new year, and defended its decision to provisionally back ITV’s plans to merge some of its regional news operations. This week, ITV said it was looking to axe 1,000 jobs, including more than 400 in the regions.

“The reality is that ITV can decide to do what they like as far as the number of journalists they employ,” Graf said. “We could say to ITV: ‘You must carry on with your existing regions.’ That would cost them a substantial sum of money – so they might then decide to get rid of all the journalists [to save money].

“We do not regulate the output. What we’re seeking to do is ensure that there’s an alignment of [ITV’s] interests with what’s in the public interest.”

Channel 4 viewers’ editor Paula Carter encouraged Ofcom to act “sooner rather than later” to address the group’s funding crisis – which she said was already beginning to show on-screen and had affected its reputation among audiences.

C4 has announced plans to make 15 per cent of its workforce – about 150 jobs – redundant. But Carter told the VLV conference that this would only go a small way to fixing what Ofcom believes could be a £100m-a-year funding deficit.

“Our programme budget is what’s really under threat. That’s already showing on screen,” she said. “We can already see audiences falling as we’re having to put more and more repeats on. The people who suffer are the audiences.”

Graf admitted that one of the options being considered by Ofcom – where Channel 4 might take a share of the profits made by BBC Worldwide – presented “genuine difficulties”.

“It’s not obvious or easy how it will work,” he said. “There are some ways it could be done. It has some merit but there are some difficulties.”

Ofcom is currently seeking opinions on which funding model for public service broadcasting it should recommend to the Government. The culture secretary, Andy Burnham, has pledged to look into the future of broadcast journalism early next year.

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