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

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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