Local TV won't catch on

Local enthusiasm about new TV franchises is not shared.

Having previously been highly sceptical of Jeremy Hunt’s plans to set up a new shoestring local TV network across the UK I have to admit to this week being carried along by the enthusiasm of the many bidders for the local TV licences.

Some 57 bids are in place for the right to broadcast on Freeview, Sky and Virgin cable to homes in 20 towns and cities across the UK (you can see the full list here).

Talking to many of the bidders up and down the country it feels a little like the enthusiasm there must have been around print in the early days of newspapers.

In most of the relevant towns and cities across the UK, enthusiastic locals with the necessary skills have teamed up with local business people and key organisations to put together bids to create their own TV stations. They are brimming with pride for their areas and excited about the idea that TV – previously just a national and region-wide activity – could be coming to their doorstep.

Publishing entrepreneur Bill Smith in Brighton is behind the Latest TV bid, spun off from his property and listing mag The Latest. He says all political parties in the city have signed up to his bid and he has support from the football club and various local TV production companies.

He sees it as a chance for Brighton to create its own TV industry and, in a dig at existing regional TV news provision, says people in Brighton aren’t interested in Maidstone and Tonbridge Wells, or even Hastings, about 30 miles along the coast, they want to see TV news about their city.

The prize for the winning bidders is a place on Channel 8 of the Freevew dial (in England and Wales) and free access to a new broadcasting infrastructure which should ensure every home in their area receives the signal.

The whole project is being supported by £25m of capital funding (mainly to cover the cost of the transmitters) and then £5m a year for three years.

This equates to £150,000 guaranteed income for each broadcaster in the first year at least, which will come via the BBC being forced to buy content.

But it is a prize that the big four regional newspaper publishers evidently view as a poisoned chalice.
Northcliffe, Trinity Mirror, Newsquest and Johnston Press – despite being the dominant media
presence in many of the above areas – do not appear to want to touch local TV with the proverbial bargepole.

Trinity Mirror has said it will work with whoever wins the franchises in its areas. But the lack of any involvement in bids suggests publishers do not think local TV stacks up.
The £150,000 of public subsidy will be a drop in the ocean compared to the start-up and ongoing running costs of the channels.

When all of those four publishers are retrenching, they cannot see a case for investing in something which has yet to be shown to be viable anywhere in the UK.

It is probably no coincidence that the only publishers to put together their own local TV bids are privately owned: the Evening Standard in London and Archant in Norwich. While the plcs remain chiefly concerned with short-term cost cutting and profit return, the likes of the Lebedevs and the family shareholders who control Archant can perhaps afford to take a longer-term view.

Photograph: Getty Images.

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.