Local TV proposals criticised for ignoring southern Scotland

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by a Newsnet reporter 

The many shortcomings of Scottish broadcasting were again highlighted yesterday when Westminster Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Conservative MP for South West Surrey, announced plans to develop local television.  The Culture Secretary stated that 65 areas of the UK were in the running for new local television stations, nine of which are in Scotland.

However the plan was immediately criticised on a number of grounds, not least of which was that none of the Scottish areas which look set to get their own local television channels are in that part of the country where the need for Scottish broadcasting is most urgent and pressing.  Much of the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway currently receive their ITV programming from the North of England, yet these areas are not covered by Mr Hunt’s proposals for local broadcasting.

Complaints and criticisms about the lack of access people in the region have to Scottish broadcasting and Scottish television news have mounted since the old Border TV channel was merged with Tyne-Tees in 2009.  The Scottish part of the broadcaster’s audience now represents a small minority of its total audience, and the channel naturally concentrates on news and programming from and for Northern England.

During the campaigning for the election to the Scottish Parliament earlier this year, there were many complaints when ITV Tyne Tees & Borders decided not to broadcast a debate between party leaders hosted by STV.  5% of the Scottish electorate was denied access to the debate as a result.  The refusal of ITV Tyne Tees & Borders to adequately represent the needs of its Scottish viewers has led many to call into question the viability of a cross Border channel based in Northern England.  

Earlier this week UK broadcasting regulator Ofcom announced that it was studying proposals to “tidy up” the system of broadcasting licences for commercial stations.  As part of these proposals it was considering the options of extending STV’s licence to cover the south of Scotland, or reviving the old Borders TV channel.

The possibility of extending STV’s coverage into the Borders was welcomed by local MSP Christine Grahame, the SNP representative for Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale.  Speaking to local newspaper the Southern Reporter, Ms Grahame said that poor television coverage was a “long-running sore” among her constituents.

Ms Grahame added: “Viewers don’t get STV news and, instead, get news that is biased towards the north of England.  In all the surveys that I have done with residents, this is the one issue that keeps coming up.  People want to get STV.”

Ms Grahame wrote to Mr Hunt on the issue last month.  Yesterday she criticised the Culture Secretary’s proposals for local television saying: “There is no worse place for local television in Scotland, we don’t even get STV, yet it is not even on the list.”

However local Conservative MP David Mundell, Scotland’s only Conservative MP, disagreed that local people wanted to see STV, telling the Southern Reporter:  “I see no advantage for local viewers being part of STV.  It would not generate a more local news service – indeed the local area would probably end up getting even less local coverage that it does under the present Tyne-Tees arrangement.

“I would like to see a return to the sort of Border TV service we knew previously, which had some of the highest viewing figures of any local television in the UK and which is much missed by local people.

“Along with my Scotland Office colleague Borders MP Michael Moore, I intend to meet with Ofcom to discuss their report and to make clear to them the continuing support which local people have for Border TV.”

Television viewers in the Borders are being urged to tell Mr Hunt for themselves what they think of the service in the area now, and what channel they would prefer to see.  Convenor of Scottish Borders Council, Mr Alasdair Hutton, who is also chairman of the South of Scotland Alliance’s local television group, has asked members of the public in the region to respond to a government consultation on broadcasting.

Concerned members of the public wishing to express their view on the future of broadcasting in the south of Scotland should send an email to local.tv@culture.gsi.gov.uk or write to the Rt Hon Jeremy Hunt MP at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, 2-4 Cockspur Street, London, SW1Y 5DH.  Submissions must be received by September 23.