Good- quality timely Regional News for rural Northumberland and North Yorkshire is actually a vital Public Service.

Dear Readers

North Northumbrian viewers of Regional Television would be best- served by a Regional and Local News- service that covers Northumberland and the Scottish Borders, with some overlap coverage south to cover Tyneside, Wearside, and County Durham, some overlap west to cover Carlisle and North Cumbria and overlap northwards to cover the East and West Lothian areas of Scotland and as far north as Edinburgh.   

Alas, such a localised news- service does not exist: The main reason why the main Regional News- broadcasters- both ITV.Plc and the BBC assert that they cannot provide more localised, relevant Regional Television for areas like northern Northumberland is that they cannot afford it.  But is that acceptable in view of the fact that our national and Regional News- broadcasters really need to inform folk of what is happening locally, so that viewers can make informed choices to stay safe, find local work, travel (and avoid traffic jams) or to visit the best beautiful rural scenery less than an hour’s travel- time away? This Website asserts that it isn’t and that good quality, timely and relevant Local and Regional News- provision is as much of a Public Service as libraries, waste-collection services, and reliable public transport in rural areas.

To that end, good local and Regional News- provision should be funded as if though it were a Public Service, not left 100% to market- forces. However, neither Regional nor Local News can be funded by the Government because of the certainty that the Regional News- providers would be pressurised to conform to the Political views of their paymasters. This does happen with the BBC, because politicians in Parliament can threaten to remove TV License funding if the BBC is perceived as “Biased against the Government”: Thus, it is important that Regional and Local Television is funded privately- by advertising, product-placement, sponsorship, affordable subscriptions, and even local lotteries- if combined- are all legitimate sources of funding.

So how can Regional Television be funded? None of the main broadcasters providing it will do so if left entirely to their own judgement to provide good- quality local and timely news relevant to viewers in every significant part of the United Kingdom. Funding from the Public Purse with tax-payers paying for it is out of the question if we want impartial news- coverage where Regional News Programmers feel free to report whatever is relevant to their viewers without fear or favour regarding the Party of Government (whether National or Local Government, Conservative or Labour or (in Scotland) the Scottish National Party).

Now good quality Regional News Programming with half- hour programmes on weeknights and other regular shorter bulletins in mornings, at lunchtime and weekends costs at least £5 million annually. So, for every county in Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and with special news-services for the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man, the Orkney and Shetland Isles and Scottish Western Isles will cost at least £500 million annually: Two questions about this sum of money- Firstly can this money be raised privately? And (if so) can ITV.Plc and/or the BBC be made to spend it on Regional Television?

It is a fact that OFCOM require ITV.Plc and (in Scotland) also STV.Plc to produce so many hours (typically two, and in the case of ITV Border, three hours) of Regional/ Local News- Programming for all parts of the UK ( more details here: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0021/106545/PSB-Nations-and-Regions-Compliance-Report-2017.pdf). And they provide it- or they are threatened with sanctions including fines or even the possible loss of their Public Service Broadcast (PSB) licences. The BBC Charter governs the amount of Regional News output for each BBC1 Region and stipulates that it must be timely, high-quality, and relevant news for all parts of the United Kingdom.

The situation with Scottish Television (STV) providing (in effect) four separate Regional Television News-services for the Glasgow and western Scotland, Edinburgh and eastern Scotland, Dundee and NE Scotland and Aberdeen/ Inverness and northern Scotland- whilst ITV1 Border covers southern Scotland shows that independent television with private funding- streams only can provide four or five Regional TV News services for a population of just 5.47 million people (population of Scotland in 2020- https://www.statista.com/statistics/367788/population-of-scotland/ ). So, it is certainly possible for every distinct geographical area with a population just over one million people to have their own dedicated Regional TV News service without recourse to tax-payer cash or even that famous Tax on Televisions called the TV License fee! 

It is clear, however that neither BBC1 nor ITV.Plc would provide dedicated, high-quality Regional and Local News- services without OFCOM and the Sword of Damocles hanging over them, threatening to fine them if they did not provide good high- quality Regional News services. That said, unless either is able to raise £500 million a year to fund Local and Regional TV for each county then, even with their backs against the wall like this they would not be able to provide it.

Then there is the fact that both the BBC and ITV.Plc provide Regional news services that are near- duplicate services across large part of the UK- including in Wales, the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland. This is definitely true in the North East of England where both ITV1 News Tyne Tees and BBC1 Look North (NE/ Cumbria) cover a similar transmission area stretching from the Scottish Border to York, though BBC1 Look North (NE/ Cumbria) does cover northern Cumbria too (in practice, the amount of coverage of Cumbria means that similar amounts of coverage of different parts of North East England are the same for both Regional News services that serve North East England. Both cover the urban areas of Tyneside, Teesside, and Wearside extensively, yet both sparsely cover rural Northumberland and rural North Yorkshire. I’m all for choice, but the choices should complement rather than duplicate Regional News coverage in an area.

For example, a viewer in Otterburn, Northumberland, close to the Scottish Border should get a choice of a Regional News- service covering North East England because folk living there do commute to Newcastle or Sunderland for work, have family living there, etc. but that should be complemented by a Northumberland/ Scottish Borders News service- so that viewers get to find out what is happening locally- but also in the other direction to them.

In the south of the BBC1 Look North (NE/ Cumbria) and ITV1 Tyne Tees transmission areas is North Yorkshire- the largest county in England. The extreme south of North Yorkshire is served by the Leeds or Hull- based versions of BBC1 Look North and by ITV1 Calendar (Yorkshire) News programming. Neither of these Regional News- services, whether Yorkshire- based or North East- based, provide more than about 15% coverage of the county. For someone living near Masham, Scarborough or Hawes, which ever Regional news- service one uses perhaps 25% of the coverage gets within an hour’s drive of one’s community and even less is within 30 minutes’ drive- which is truly appalling. Thus, the county of North Yorkshire needs its own bespoke Regional Television News service with 90% coverage of the county and the remaining 10% being overlap of significant happenings a bit further afield- up to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north, westwards as far as a line running from Morecambe to Keswick and southwards as far as Sheffield.   

The fact that the BBC is effectively funded via taxation means there should be a much greater onus on it to provide those high- quality News services that a commercial organisation (like ITV.Plc) cannot afford to provide. However, despite this, for northern Northumberland it is ITV1 Border’s Lookaround that provides more coverage of northern Northumberland and the Scottish Borders (though, sadly, viewers in Northumberland are stuck with ITV1 News Tyne Tees instead). The BBC itself does not have a bespoke TV Region for Northumberland and the Scottish Borders at all and neither ITV.Plc nor the BBC have a bespoke Regional TV programming for North Yorkshire! That is an argument for scrapping the TV Licence fee altogether.

However, I start with the premise that a purely commercial organisation left to its own devices would not provide timely, relevant, and high- quality local news. The TV License fee has a role, but the BBC should be able to offer subscription services and have product placements and lotteries, too to raise more money. Then the TV License fee can then be reduced- to (say) £100 a year with additional legal safeguards built in to prevent political interference, which means a new TV Licence Safeguarding and Impartiality Bill passed through Parliament (i.e.,  that it cannot be increased or decreased without the approval of 80% of the House of Commons and that former Councillors, Mayors or MP’s standing for a Political Party cannot be appointed to news/ editorial positions within the BBC). It is vital to reduce financial influences that could pressurise the BBC from being biased politically but it is vital to ensure that it can raise additional funds commensurate with its special requirements.

Programmes like films, comedies, soaps, and sports programming could be provided on a commercial basis, so if the License fee were just £100 per household that would still raise £1.5 billion annually even if just 60% of households paid it. This would provide the funds for high-quality documentaries, National News and Regional News (including BBC Local Radio). BBC1 costs just over £1.1 billion, BBC Local Radio costs £150 million and BBC online costs just over £200 million. Total cost about £1.5 billion. However, a considerable proportion of programming on BBC 1 (like East Enders) is not what the BBC primarily for- and it should make up the shortfall with private revenue streams like merchandising and product- placement. Assuming that 25% of the material on BBC 1 is not high- quality news, documentaries, etc. (but that it costs half as much) that’s still £137 million for BBC1- enough to run 27 additional Regional TV News- services (costing £5 million each) to provide more geographic- appropriate Regional coverage for areas like rural Northumberland/Scottish Borders and another news- service specifically for North Yorkshire. It would then also be possible to have separate Regional programming for other distinct large areas that fall between the cracks in Regional TV coverage like North Wales, North Lancashire/ South Cumbria, a separate news- service for the small country that is the Isle of Man and additional bespoke Regional News for the Highlands and Islands of northern Scotland: All these are major areas suffering a lack of bespoke Regional News programming today.

Indeed, with a new funding model and new stipulated BBC1 Regions along with new stipulations for ITV1 Regions across England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland there could- in effect- be one local TV service for each county. If there is the will in Government, and with OFCOM and the co-operation of both ITV.Plc and the BBC it is financially possible. In 2021 Regional Television is not as constrained by transmission masts/ coverage as programming can be provided digitally and via Internet/ local broadband connections too (and broadband is getting faster and more reliable all the time).

I reiterate the importance of good- quality, timely and localised Regional and Local News as a vital Public-service. To that end, those broadcasting Regional News, those overseeing them (like OFCOM), and the Government (which makes policy) have a collective duty to see to it that it is provided and that it is relevant for wherever one lives in the United Kingdom. That includes Northumberland and North Yorkshire. 

Good Regional News-coverage cannot be left purely to Market forces -although the fact that people can choose whichever TV Region is appropriate to them means that each Regional News provider will be under pressure to provide relevant geographic- appropriate all- round Local News coverage for all their viewers:  However, with the right regulatory framework much more localised Regional News can be provided with a TV Licence fee (with broadcast organisations much better- protected from political coercion with stronger legal protections of this source of public funds) and a mix of Private revenue- streams.

In the meantime, viewers living in rural Northumberland or in rural North Yorkshire would do well to write to BBC1 Look North (NE/ Cumbria) (email look.north.comment@bbc.co.uk) and ITV1 Tyne Tees (email amyandian@itv.com)  in order to explain that Regional TV coverage is not especially geographic- appropriate for their community. If you live in rural Northumberland you could explain that there are alternatives like You tube- based Hexham TV (website here: https://hexhamtv.com/), and that ITV1 Border (Scotland) (which one can get via Sky TV or off the Internet if the sinal from this Regional programming cannot be accessed) would provide more coverage of northern Northumberland and the Scottish Borders. North Yorkshire viewers can draw attention to That’s TV North Yorkshire, which can be found on Freeview channel 7 at 6.pm on week-days.

Mere complaints do little to change Regional TV programming, but complaining whilst illustrating viable alternatives are available brings the full power of market- forces to the Regional News- programmers, i.e., that they must improve the service they offer for their viewers or lose custom.                           

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