Leading article: The limits of localism

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The Independent Online

There is much to applaud in the Government's desire to encourage local news programmes on television and even more to doubt in the practicality and the motivation. The Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has long been an advocate of using television to give a "proper voice to local people" and yesterday he laid out in greater detail his vision of a future in which, at the press of a red button on your TV, the viewer will be able to access local news provided by local sources. The expansion of superfast broadband would make it more feasible. And a lifting of the restrictions on multi-media ownership of local papers, TV and radio would encourage investment.

The drawbacks, however, have been laid out in a report commissioned by Mr Hunt's department from Nicholas Shott, a banker from Lazard. The report suggests that local TV's best chance is in large cities rather than rural areas. But even in conurbations, Shott argues, it will be difficult to achieve a satisfactory income from advertising. Private sponsorship, along the lines of Barclays' support of the London Mayor's bike hire scheme, might prove the only way forward.

This is a long shot, particularly given the growing demands on private sponsorship from cash-strapped arts and charities. And that is not the only problem with the Government's localist drive. Mr Hunt would have Britain develop the kind of local services seen in the US and on the Continent. But the local vibrancy that exists there has been crushed in Britain by the centralisation of power, the decline of regional industries and the growing North-South divide. A renaissance of local media will inevitably be dependent on a resurgence of regional growth, which the Government's own fiscal plans are likely to stifle.

Change will come with the provision of internet-supplied services, but that is some way off. In the meantime the industry is constrained by the still undeveloped nature of digital TV and the predominace of traditional suppliers. Mr Hunt suggested that these providers might be encouraged to take a more public-spirited approach through the threat of being pushed down digital TV electronic programme guides. But the Culture Secretrary resiled from this when it was suggested that this was a covert means of pushing the favoured BSkyB to the top of the menus.

And that remains the concern. Amidst all the talk of local democracy and the public interest, is the Government actually promoting a narrow private interest?

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