Ray Snoddy’s article on Conservative Party media policy was not the first criticism I have faced from a BBC figure but it was the most surreal. Rather than debate big issues like top slicing or the role of the BBC Trust he devoted half his article criticising a policy which we aren’t even considering, namely the privatisation of Radio 1.
He did at least give an opinion on our proposals for local television, accusing us of failing to address “the serious question of how to fund a commercial regional television news service”. The problem for Mr Snoddy is that we have indeed addressed this. And we’ve concluded that a regional news service is anachronistic and not something we should prop up with public money.
According to Ofcom only 59% of people are interested in watching programmes about their region. This is unsurprising given that places as far apart as Bristol and Falmouth are in the same region. This compares to 70% who would like to watch content about their city or town. It is local not regional TV that consumers want – and we are the only party giving serious consideration to why it is that Britain is one of the only countries in the developed world not to have a local TV sector.
The key question is whether such a sector can be commercially viable and Ray Snoddy is right that experiments in local TV have failed in the past. But technology has now changed the game, massively reducing the cost of producing local news – costs that could be reduced even further if it was done in partnership with local newspapers that already employ people to in news gathering activities.
Looking at what is happening with City TV in Birmingham and Channel M in Manchester and you become convinced this is more than a pipe dream, but something that could radically reshape Britain’s TV ecology in an era when outside the London media bubble there is huge hunger for local news.
Nor has our approach to the BBC and the licence fee been the remotest bit ‘piecemeal.’ The BBC were wrong to insist on an inflationary rise in the licence fee this year – a year when there is virtually no inflation – and the government clearly thinks they have money to spare as they want to tap the licence fee to support regional news on ITV. More generally, we have been leading the argument for a more open and accountable BBC.
Recent scandals over expenses and salaries only serve to make our demands for genuinely independent regulation of the BBC, full disclosure of talent salaries and full National Audit Office access to their accounts even more pressing.
In addition to wanting the BBC to be independently regulated, David Cameron has also set out ideas for a new role for Ofcom. We want Ofcom to regulate. And we want Government to make policy. Although this would appear obvious it is actually a radical departure from the current situation. We want an open and transparent BBC, a regulator that concentrates on regulating, and a commercial sector free to adapt to the digital world.
I would remind Mr Snoddy that all the major changes in the media landscape have happened under Conservative governments. Whether it was the licensing of ITV, the setting up of Channel 4, the licensing of five and the satellite and cable operators, Conservatives have continually been responsible for innovation and the extension of choice and quality for viewers. That means embracing a digital future, not running scared from it. Conservative policy under David Cameron will continue to lead the charge.