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Introducing a new localism to media, per a UK government action plan released Wednesday morning, may be a worthwhile aim – but culture secretary Jeremy Hunt has picked the wrong medium to start with, a decision that could be ultimately self-defeating.
The review he commissioned told him only broadband TV could support truly local TV services; a Freeview alternative, as Hunt has picked, could supply a measly 10 cities – undermining the policy’s aim.
Yet, whilst the internet does not yet reach everybody, a web service would reach a far greater audience and would provide a better platform for future growth.
Although we know it’s connected to the Big Society doctrine, Hunt had not, until today, articulated why local information provision is important…
If it is to reconnect citizens with the business of their local governments and communities, such a plan could have better invested in amplifying the many disparate communication efforts, already undertaken by local councils, through digital media, alongside small advertisers, community groups etc.
Nicholas Shott’s review for Hunt made clear there is little chance of such an enterprise making money. Yet Hunt has conceived a model which, first and foremost, invites commercial tenders, funded by national advertising. Far better might have been an effort that puts the citizen first – a grassroots one, run on a cost-neutral basis, whose product would likely have been more direct-access information and interpretation than TV talking heads. Why not involve community groups from that same Big Society which the UK government is trying to create, rather than just commercial broadcasters?
The pieces are already there – look at the countless council websites, the excellent work on democratic access by MySociety with projects like TheyWorkForYou and FixMyStreet, the video streams broadcast by local governments, the new wave of local blogs – oh, and the hundreds of newspapers which already exist in communities across the land.
The way people get their local information has changed considerably in recent years – and not just for young urbanite geeks. But Hunt has proposed an old-fashioned model – a new Freeview TV channel with local opt-outs – that sounds rather like ITV’s traditional remit, while ITV (LSE: ITV) News itself limps poorly on in the regions, waiting to be put out of its misery. Why not just fix ITV?
While existing local media like newspapers, under economic and structural pressure, struggle to perform the same function of Hunt’s new aim (“provide citizens with a voice, local businesses with a platform for promotion and advertising and the local democratic process with greater accountability”), Hunt has decided to turn his head toward another medium, but still an old one, to do the job from scratch.
By offering local content only to a handful of the UK’s largest cities, Hunt may, by implication, create a two-tier system, in which some electors are well-informed and others are less so. Hunt even acknowledges that devolved nations have an entirely different inclination (“A local TV solution in the nations might be nation-wide”).
Better than all this may have been to lay the groundwork for a truly nationwide, next-generation, text- and video-based local information network – after all, the internet has a knack of being an everything medium, itself supporting many different kinds of media.
If Hunts stays true to the aims of the policy, such a service does not necessarily need to be primarily a lumbering audio-visual one, like in days gone by.
But Hunt, whilst accepting that a mass IPTV audience is some way off (it will figure merely “in due course”), has skipped over serious consideration of online because he has conceived the service first and foremost as a television enterprise.
By kicking the IPTV ball in to the long grass in favour of Freeview now, Hunt risks letting in old-guard broadcasting types who are merely keen to get their hands on valuable DTT spectrum at a knock-down price.