The model behind the curtain

Jeremy Hunt has now announced plans to give out licences for local television stations. Ofcom has identified 65 towns and cities where local terrestrial TV is technically possible and these places will be invited to bid for licences.

One of the inspirations for Hunt’s ideas about local television is Witney TV, the online news station based in my home town. As I wrote back in October, Witney TV was set up by volunteers who worked for free and established a policy of avoiding any bad or controversial news.

A local “news” source that doesn’t require state funding and doesn’t report anything controversial? It’s not surprising that Jeremy Hunt found the idea attractive and tried – but failed – to secure a meeting with the station’s founders.

The tiny station received coverage in the Guardian and the Independent after a Jeremy Clarkson scoop. But none of the attention so far has made it clear quite why Witney TV was created or what its business model is.

Back in October, I tried to find out. I thought that Witney TV would make an interesting subject for a piece in the local NUJ newsletter, so I emailed them asking for a ten-minute chat. My email didn’t get an answer; I wasn’t sure if it had been missed in a crowded inbox or if they’d chosen to ignore it.

However, a few days later I went to Witney Town Hall for a town council meeting about the controversial Cogges Link Road. Many members of the public, including me, were turned away from the crowded meeting. (The reason given was “fire regulations”.) Among the people leaving was Barry Clack, co-founder of Witney TV.

I mentioned on Twitter that I’d seen him being “kicked out” of the town hall and was surprised when he got in touch to correct me. He emailed me to explain that he hadn’t been “kicked out” at all:

We weren't kicked out or turned away. We had chosen to leave to allow 2 members of the public to have their democratic right to speak – its [sic] a shame other members of the media decided not to do the same.

(Instead of starting a new email, he’d simply pressed “reply” to my ignored request of a few days previously, somewhat giving the game away on the “did they read it?” question.)

Let’s recap. A videographer in charge of a local news service believes that “the media” should leave a public meeting on an issue of local importance so that more members of the public can squeeze in. Are news reporters supposed to restrict their reporting to events where there’s lots of room? By that logic, court reporters should stop working when there’s overspill from the public gallery, to make more room for members of the public.

The point is: journalists are members of the public. And part of the point of the job is reporting events for other members of the public who can’t be there.

Anyway, I now had Barry’s attention and he couldn’t pretend not to have seen my interview request. So I made it again. He flatly refused:

Witneytv would not have contributed to an interview for the NUJ.

Why not? Flannel time:

No email to witneytv is ignored. We reply to all but clearly none of us expected WitneyTV and its media exposure to be as big as it is. We all work as well as produce the show and are unable to respond to every request.

Really? I replied.

My original message to you was sent three days ago. Did you really have any intention of replying? Can you honestly tell me that you would have contacted me today if it wasn't for me saying something incorrect about you personally on Twitter last night?

I realise it's a volunteer effort and I realise how huge it's become. I've made both those things clear in my article. But if you've got time to pick at my choice of words on my personal Twitter feed, you've got time to say a simple 'no, sorry' when I send you an email directly.

This was met with silence. I took the hint and wrote the piece without chasing Barry again. But a month or two ago, there were strange developments at Witney TV. Viewers visiting the site for their fix of upbeat news found a rant written by Barry detailing a falling-out between him and the other volunteers. This was hastily taken down and replaced with a holding message saying “Witney TV will be back very soon”. The site now seems to have had a redesign and is up and running again.

During the downtime, I tried again to find out what was going on. I contacted Witney TV asking if I could interview someone about the relaunch. My email was answered by someone called Adrian from a PR firm called Harold Strong.

We handle the press and PR for WitneyTV. Can you advise what questions you'd like answered and I'll do my best to get this back to you for Wednesday. Where is the interview likely to appear and to how many readership [sic]?

Clearly I was mistaken in thinking that a news station which regularly does interviews would understand what an interview is. I emailed them with my list of questions anyway. That was in early July; I still haven't received an answer.

You might wonder why I'm making such a big deal of all this. Well, it’s important because we know that Jeremy Hunt showed great interest in Witney TV as a possible model for local television. And if you’re going to use something as a model, you need to know how it works.

A recent consultation on the government’s Local Media Action Plan sheds some light on what the public want from local media. According to the summary report, there was “a general consensus that the mainstay of the local TV services should be news”. Some were also of the opinion that “national quality” newsgathering and impartiality standards should apply to local services.

Witney TV’s exclusive focus on “positive” news prevents it from covering many of the stories that other local news channels see as bread and butter: crime, controversial council decisions, traffic problems, local job losses, fires and so on. As for standards, we have no idea what Witney TV’s internally applied standards are. They may never have been codified at all; the station may be working on the premise that “common sense” is enough.

As for money, we know that the founders of Witney TV paid out of their own pockets to get the station started, and we know that they’ve said they would refuse licence fee money. The site carries advertising and there have been rumours of a lottery grant, but we have no idea whether the station’s income covers its costs. That means we can’t know whether or not the model is financially sustainable.

There’s no transparency because there’s no accountability. Witney TV doesn’t have to explain itself to its viewers because it’s run by an independent company. That’s fine, in itself. The real problem will arise if companies run in this way are given licences to provide local news coverage. I hope that the new licensing system will oblige participating companies to recognise that they have a duty to local people. If Witney TV’s combination of secrecy and fluff is replicated, it could damage the credibility of all local news provision.