The news: Mini-channels could, but won't, create a Ken Livingstone for Oxford
Sunday 31 January 1999
I am an ungrateful wretch, because until a few years ago Oxford, where I live, was part of televisual Birmingham. The people who set up the ITV network in the 1950s were no fools. They knew the country had been divided into seven kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon times. So naturally we had regional commercial television stations aimed at Mercia, Northumbria, Wessex and Anglia.
Television stations aren't about Anglo-Saxons. They are about advertising markets. But for a long time, it wasn't thought quite polite to mention that. So those of us who live in Oxford, and those who live in Aylesbury, Reading, Cheltenham and Gloucester had to get used to watching advertisements for furniture warehouses and car auctions (just about the only businesses that could afford the cost of ads in such a vast region) in Birmingham, Derby and Measham, all places we had no intention of trying to reach, just because we were all part of Mercia.
So that's why I am an ungrateful wretch. It was already a giant step into the real world when Central South News appeared, reporting from places that we did at least know. Even so, the news is still not genuinely local. The television region does not really coincide with the shopping region, or the drive-to-work area, or with any real sense of local identity. And before anyone says, "Wait a minute, the Oxford region, or the Cheltenham/Gloucester region, or the Reading region are far too small for anyone to justify advertising to them," I would make two points.
One: most advertising managers think ITV lost billions over the past 40 years because the regions were so big that only very big advertisers - in practice, mainly national advertisers - could afford to use them to reach their regional customers.
Two: these are not insignificant markets. Oxford has 450,000 potential viewers. Swindon has about 250,000. Outside our region, Greater Manchester has well over 3 million people, the areas served by Leeds or Newcastle well over a million and a half each, but they still don't have truly local news.
Metropolitan areas of that size in the US would have many competing television stations. Even towns of 50,000 would have at least one. Most of them make a good profit for their shareholders, and though average income levels are higher in the US, they are not an order of magnitude higher.
So much for the advertising side of the argument. Even more important is what we lose as a political and civic society by not having genuinely local TV stations with genuinely local news.
The different rape and pillage shows around the country never cover local politics. Ours never covers the county council or the Oxford city council. It never discusses major planning issues (such as a proposed new airfield for the Vale of the White Horse, upgrading major roads like the A40, regional railway investments or plans for a new town).
Instead, our local news agenda is that of the old local weekly newspapers. Like them, it focuses almost exclusively on crime, with a few quarrelling neighbours, freed moggies and skateboarding ducks. That in itself is bad, because it gives people the impression that this is a country swamped by a crime wave, which it isn't.
Very occasionally it reports negative economic stories ("200 jobs to be lost in Swindon"). It has almost totally ignored the transformation of the region, which now has very low unemployment, a massive high technology boom, and a significant reliance on the knowledge industries. Television viewers are left in ignorance of changes, good and bad, vital to their lives.
Far more important is the democratic deficit. Everyone says power is too centralised in Britain. Tony Blair says so, Simon Jenkins says so. One reason is because local politics is invisible. And one very important reason why it is invisible is that local news has decided that local politics is unspeakably dull.
Twenty years ago I was the first presenter of London Weekend Television's The London Programme. Barry Cox, the first editor, had some difficulty in persuading the powers-that-were that anyone could possibly be interested in the politics of a region with a mere 12 million people.
One difficulty was that there was no cast of well-established characters. The Conservative leader was an elderly millionaire builder called Sir Horace Cutler. We had to create characters. And so we discovered Ken Livingstone. The point is you can create an interest in local politics only by reporting local politics, and of course by doing so in an imaginative and non-patronising way.
Could people become interested in the doings of local politicians in Oxford, Bristol or Manchester? Of course they could. To make television more local, and with it television news, might sound like counter-cultural sentimentality out of E F Schumacher. Quite the contrary: it makes hard- headed business sense. And politically it is the wave of the future.
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