the media and entertainment union
a sector of Prospect

16 June 2009

BECTU has spoken out against plans to fund ITV's regional news service from BBC licence income, due to be published by government today.

Instead, the union is urging the government to raise any money needed to save regional news on Channel 3 by imposing levies on broadcasters like Sky and Virgin who have no public service obligations.

The union has also criticised industry regulator, Ofcom, for allowing ITV's slow retreat from its own obligations, which began with a gradual reduction in quotas for local programming, and reached a crisis when the company announced it could no longer fund regional news.

BECTU, general secretary, Gerry Morrissey, said:

 "While we can see that ITV has a problem with falling advertising revenues, let's not forget that it has been a profitable company for many decades, and the commercial breaks around the regional news slots are probably worth more than £20million a year.

"If money has to be found to subsidise the news it's fairer to take it from other broadcasters who don't shoulder ITV's public service obligations than to strip it out of the BBC's income."

In a report, Digital Britain, due to be published later today, Communications Minister, Lord Stephen Carter, is expected to argue that money currently being collected by the BBC through its licence fee, to help vulnerable households switch from analogue to digital TV reception, should be used partly to fund regional news bulletins to replace ITV's current service.

'Switchover' cash

Worth up to £140m a year, the so-called "switchover" cash will not be needed after 2012, by when the conversion to digital TV reception will have been completed across the whole UK.

However, when the arrangement was first put in place in 2007, there was no clear view from government on whether it would continue to be collected after this date, or effectively handed back to BBC licence payers.

BECTU has long opposed "top-slicing" of the BBC's income in order to subsidise other broadcasters, and the BBC itself has said that it would be better to hand the switchover money back to licence payers, than set a dangerous precedent that might encourage politicians to micro-manage its income in future.

Alternative proposals put by BECTU and the NUJ for levy payments from non-public service broadcasters were further advanced in March this year by a report commissioned from the Institute for Public Policy Research

The report estimated that a 1% levy on the pay TV channels operated by Sky and Virgin alone would raise £70million a year, significantly more than the £30million sum that Ofcom believes could provide a basic regional news service.

The report, Minding the Funding Gap: the potential of industry levies for continued funding of public service broadcasting, will be discussed by the entertainment unions and senior industry figures on Monday 22 June at the School of Pharmacy in London WC1. The event is organised by the FEU (Federation of Entertainment Unions) and places are limited. Book your place.

In order to protect the quality of regional news output as well as to protect members’ jobs, BECTU has called for any replacement regional news service to come from just one provider, preferably ITN, whose national news service is already closely linked to ITV's regional operations.

Unions are concerned that Lord Carter might give support to an Ofcom proposal for Independently-Funded News Consortia to provide regional news on ITV1. There are real fears for the future of staff currently working for ITV.

These consortia would not be covered by the ownership restrictions in the Communications and Broadcasting Acts, and could be formed by local newspapers, educational institutions, businesses, or even councils.