The BBC: Invading hordes or local heroes?

Maggie Brown

The Newspaper Society has issued a call to arms against its local TV services, but with more jobs and more news on offer, shouldn’t journalists be supporting the Beeb’s plans?

WHEN the BBC began its local television experiment in the West Midlands in December I went to Birmingham to see what was happening on the ground.

This has been a hotly disputed development, with the Newspaper Society continuing to lobby furiously, believing that public money should not be used to compete directly against it, and stifle its members’ own moves from paper onto the web.

It is apprehensive that the £3m nine-month experiment could become a permanent feature, with some 60 local services starting up all over the country, largely based on the BBC’s network of local radio.

This line has been broadly adopted by the commercial media sector, while The Observer’s Peter Preston drew attention to the growing conflict between the BBC and the press in a column last month.

Yet local television isn’t just a BBC imperial ambition. At the same time, Ofcom, the media regulator, is consulting about whether there should be licensed local television, using spare terrestrial frequencies when digital switch-over takes place from 2008 onwards, partly to fill the gap left by ITV’s reduction in regional programming.

Look at the BBC’s experiment from a journalistic and citizen’s point of view, and it is clear that there are potentially some very good things about local television, just as there are some very good things about the BBC’s websites. Ofcom’s review of public service broadcasting has found there is a hunger for local news. Journalists are surely in favour of more jobs and more news?

I have more than a passing interest in the experiment because, in the 1970s, I trained on the Birmingham Post, Mail and Sunday Mercury. As anyone who has ever worked as a journalist there knows, it is a fantastically newsy area, but with wildly contrasting sub-regions and districts that the national press barely reflects.

For example, inner city Lozells is suffering from tensions between Asian and Afro-Caribbean groups, yet the West Midlands is also the centre of the farming industry.

It is also the case that, across the UK, the regional broadcast news services do not always have deep roots, the television transmitter areas are 50 years old, and services do not always correspond with today’s patterns of motorways, commuting or shopping.

What I found on my visit was that the BBC had recruited, on 11-month contracts, some 40 people, mainly in their 20s, but not from the region. The pay, at £27,000 or thereabouts is fair, and conditions are good. If that level of staffing were to be replicated across 60 services, it means 480 new jobs.

The required skill, video journalism, in which you find and shoot your own news stories or features, lasting about one minute 20 seconds is a highly valuable thing to possess. In fact, all trainee journalists ought to do their own bit of lobbying to have this included in courses.

The editors running it, Chas Watkin, editor of BBC Midlands Today, and David Holdsworth, head of regional news, are ex-regional newspaper journalists by training, who have developed solid careers at the BBC.

The five experiments are embedded in the BBC’s existing local radio stations, Radio WM, Stoke, Shropshire (Shrewsbury), Coventry, Hereford & Worcester, with a sixth service for Wolverhampton.

The local television journalists report in the first instance to the radio station’s news editor.

The stories I watched ranged from what is happening to iconic building Fort Dunlop, now undergoing redevelopment, to how overworked local bus drivers are forced to use a roadside as an outdoor lavatory. It is the stuff of everyday concerns, if hardly earth shattering.

Each team compiles a 10-minute programme, the six are then put together in an hour-long programme, which is replayed on a loop. The service is available on digital satellite, broadband, with cable starting soon.

It is modest, but capable of development. Pat Loughrey, BBC director of nations and regions, has rightly urged his regional journalists to up their game and break more news stories.

Another thing I found is that while the Newspaper Society lobbies nationally, on the ground, newspaper editors are behaving differently, though most do not want to comment openly.

The editor of The Shropshire Star, Sarah-Jane Smith, welcomes her Shrewsbury-based service, and says she is “not intimidated”.

Smith adds: “Now it is up and running it is better to get involved than to fight it. We want to learn about it. We have no major competition, we do have a bit of a monopoly as newspapers, with no competitor. If we can work together, it could work for both of us.”

An example of this is BBC local television offering to use the paper’s “letter of the week” as a story, and showing front pages, to build bridges.

It is a fact too that some of newspaper companies own radio stations in their area, so more BBC input could actually assist in ensuring more stories are covered.

I suggest that it is clearly in the interests of journalists, as opposed to newspaper owners, to have more, not less, of these relatively well-paid jobs, especially at a point when Trinity Mirror, losing advertising revenue, is cutting jobs, Associated Newspapers is auctioning off its Northcliffe division, and Johnston Press is one of a number of owners under attack for low pay.

It is also the case that the BBC is not competing for advertising revenue. Its involvement could be a spur to improved communication, community involvement, a desire to know more about the immediate area – and perhaps a greater interest in the local paper’s news too.

The Newspaper Society, in truth, ought to be more anxious about ITV local, the web-based service being trialled by ITV in Brighton and Hove. This is seeking to bust open the classified advertising market, though it is clearly finding that a challenge.

The traditional newspaper industry is one that breaks many hearts. It is a tough calling that, currently, only gets tougher.

The BBC local television experiment offers the prospect of more funding for newsgathering, more jobs, and a chance to skill up for a real multimedia future.

It ought to be welcomed, not fought.

The one big problem, I would say, is that the BBC should be recruiting local newspaper journalists and training them in video journalism, rather than shipping in former newsroom freelances.

Such competition should do wonders for both morale and pay.

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