'Councils should not launch TV services with public money'

Representatives from the regional press and ITV have jointly condemned Kent County Council’s setting up of an online local TV channel with taxpayers’ money.

The Kent Messenger Group, which owns a number of weekly newspapers and radio stations in the county, won a ruling from the Information Commissioner in October that the council must release more details about the web TV project, which launched last September.

Speaking from the audience at a Westminster Media Forum debate in London today, Kent Messenger Group chairman Geraldine Allinson asked whether it was right that publicly funded bodies such as councils should be competing with established local media groups, especially in the current economic climate.

“The figures given out by Kent TV aren’t comparable or measurable or audited by any of the means that we use to audit any of our own media,’Allinson told delegates.

“Incidentally, Kent TV employs no journalists at all to chase breaking news. They use a news feed free from another local media company. Some would argue that is a very unlevel playing field.”

Kent TV is run on behalf of the council by Ten Alps, the independent production company owned by singer and political activist Bob Geldof.

ITV Local director of programming and content Lindsay Charlton said if other councils around the UK followed the lead of Kent County Council and spent money on local TV there would be a ‘public outcry”.

“When council taxpayers wake up to the fact that half a million pounds is being spent on a television service on their behalf, they may have something to say about it,” he said.

“If you replicated that across the country I think there would be a public outcry.

‘My own view is they shouldn’t be building television networks with public money.”

Newbury Weekly News editorial director Brien Beharrell said her local council’s glossy printed communications often prompted letters from angry readers.

On the issue of council-funded television, she added: “I can’t see many of our rate-payers would think that is a good use of public money. Do I think it’s a good idea? No I don’t.”

Kent County Council has always argued that Kent TV will become self-financing, but has set aside £1.2m to cover running costs and in addition spent £200,000 on set-up costs, according to FoI requests submitted by the KM Group.

In an interview broadcast on Kent TV last month, Geldof defended the project and said some of the “spurious beating up” of the project by rival media groups was “obviously commercially driven”.

He said: “It’s old media versus new media – it’s the old establishment versus new kids on the block. I think the local papers fear that they are going to lose revenues. But empirically, that’s just not so.

“Do it honourably and compete with us. We’ll win because we’re better, and regardless of who initiated this in Kent, they showed foresight.”

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