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Regional Broadcasting (East Midlands)

– in Westminster Hall at 3:30 pm on 30th March 2004.

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Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield 3:30 pm, 30th March 2004

I am extremely grateful to be given the opportunity to raise the concerns of my constituents, and others in the east midlands, about ITV's decision to close its Nottingham studio complex and move its operations to Birmingham in the west midlands. With respect to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Arts, who is a west midlands and Birmingham Member, I believe that if the move is enacted, it will lead to the loss of at least 400 jobs and will be severely detrimental to those who reside in the east midlands. That would worsen rather than improve regional news-gathering and delivery services in the east midlands. People in the region would have to make do with second-hand and second-class news provision.

At the outset, I remind the Minister that ITV's decision flies in the face of its own charter for the nations and regions, which states:

"Regional news is one of the defining features and most popular aspects of ITV's output. ITV is committed to extensive regional and sub-regional news coverage in excess of that offered by the BBC.

I am not privy to any information that the BBC is about to announce the closure of its studios in Nottingham. It has active radio and television studios and a production centre in Nottingham, as well as production centres in the west midlands. Therefore, ITV's statement is false and its decision flies in the face of the facts.

ITV's actions represent little more than a slap in the face for its customers in the east midlands as well as for the aspirations of the region, which are distinct from those in the west midlands, to where ITV intends to transfer its production coverage.

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed Labour/Co-operative, Loughborough

With all due respect to what goes on in Birmingham, it is clear that news from the west midlands bears no relevance to those of us living in Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire. Whatever the protestations from ITV, the service will be reduced and we will be fed a diet of information from a region in which we have little or no interest.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

I am grateful for that intervention, which is absolutely true. I represent an east midlands seat that almost borders the area covered by northern regional television, which comes from Leeds. It is easier for colleagues and me to attract news services from Leeds than from Birmingham—it is almost impossible to get news coverage from Birmingham, even for specialist events. I remind the Minister of a tragic event in my constituency a few years ago: the announcement of the closure of almost every pit in Nottinghamshire. Even that could not persuade Birmingham to send news coverage crews; stringer and independent services were employed, which did not cover the event as seriously as they should.

I also remind the Minister that a little over two decades ago, a major campaign was launched by east midlands Members of all parties for a regional television centre in the east midlands. That was an active and successful debate, because the Government of the day accepted that the east midlands needed an opportunity to show its character through a centre for news and current affairs delivery for local people. In the same spirit as that of 20-odd years ago, I intend to give way to any colleagues from the east midlands who want to participate in the debate. It is imperative that we engage in this debate if we are to have any chance of saving an essential service.

Photo of Dr Jim Marshall Dr Jim Marshall Labour, Leicester South

My hon. Friend will be aware that a number of us have written to Ministers and to the body overseeing commercial TV, and he will know the response that we received. One of the main points in the response is that the regional TV company is spending a lot of money in the east midlands on further news-gathering facilities and on the ability to feed information to Birmingham. How does he answer that response?

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because I received the same letter—indeed, it was sent to all east midlands Members. I was, at the very least, disappointed. In fact, I thought the letter a disgrace. I thought that I was receiving a letter from the chief executive of ITV—it read exactly like that. It is not the job of Ofcom to do the dirty deals and business of ITV. Rather, it was established to protect ordinary people's rights, needs and aspirations in respect of creative media communications coverage.

I was also disappointed that, five or six days after I tabled the early-day motion to which all colleagues in this Chamber have added their signature, I received a telephone call from a senior Ofcom official who made various excuses as to why ITV should be allowed to do what is proposed and said that it was quite a good thing and TV coverage would generally progress. I had to remind her that it was not her job to serve ITV. Ofcom's job is different: it is about public protection.

Many hon. Members here today and some who are in Committees elsewhere are furious about the situation. For those who represent seats in the east midlands, it is causing major anger and disquiet. We cannot understand why these events are occurring. We all believe that the proposals are extremely detrimental and will lead to nothing other than the east midlands once again becoming, as it was 20-plus years ago, the Cinderella region and—I say this with all due respect to the Minister and the seat that she represents—being reliant on the bigger, brasher brother in Birmingham for any coverage that it receives on major issues that are important to the people of our region.

Let us consider some of the facts that I have managed to glean on the issue. Since the formation of the single ITV company, hundreds of jobs have been lost in TV broadcasting in the regions, and studios have been closed irrespective of their profitability. The first closure programme involved the Northam studios in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Mr. Denham, who takes a close interest in these matters. Those studios, which were the birthplace of programmes such as "The Ruth Rendell Mysteries, "Worzel Gummidge and "That's Life, closed with the loss of 175 jobs. Other studios have closed in other parts of the country. Now it is the turn of Nottingham, the home of shows such as "Family Fortunes, "Popstars and "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. Just as importantly, it is the base of "Central News East, the hub of news delivery for the east midlands, which has regularly won awards for its coverage, including the world gold medal this year for its programming.

The Government are deeply committed to regionality. As recently as June 2002, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport said in respect of broadcasting:

"Regional character matters. We will look to Ofcom to defend it with vigour.

Sadly, as has been pointed out, we are getting no vigour at all when it comes to the protection of people's rights and the opportunity to receive fair and decent local coverage. Instead, we are getting representation by Ofcom in favour of amalgamation and the isolation of regions such as ours.

If we do not get our act together, worse is yet to come. A significant period elapsed before the proposed closure was challenged. If we rely simply on Ofcom, it will be too late. The boards and shutters will be put up on the studios. The teams will be disbanded and lost. Journalism will have to rely on Birmingham as the main area of supply. All the good work and all the money that has been spent on recruitment, technology, mechanisms and methods for these people to work will be gone and will be difficult to replace.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

Will my hon. Friend confirm that part of this sense of loss, to which Ofcom seems quite indifferent, stems from the fact that Carlton gave a commitment to the east midlands that it would match and better the BBC's investment, commitment and performance? The irony is that in Nottingham we currently have an expanded base of BBC news coverage at the same time as the commercial sector proposes to remove its base from Nottingham completely. Is not that why we need the Government to intervene in the face of both the crude commercialism that will shift the regional commitment away from Nottingham and Ofcom's failure to protect those regional commitments?

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

My hon. Friend is right. As I said, it is Ofcom's job to represent people and to safeguard and protect their rights and opportunities in this respect. He is right about the investment. There is a commitment in the ITV charter to expand news services more than the BBC. That has not been done. It has not even been proposed. This is solely about profit. I have just reminded the Minister and hon. Members about the very profitable programmes that have been made in Nottingham such as "Family Fortunes, "Popstars and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. Nottingham is profitable. It may not profitable enough for the people at ITV who want to disband it and cash in on it, but that is not a good enough reason to do so.

To move the production from Nottingham to Birmingham would be a disaster and would lead to the wholesale break-up of news teams and the dislocation of operations. Worse still, it would undermine the relationship between broadcasting and its audience, a vital ingredient in any local communication provision. That is a factor that even Charles Allen, the chief executive of ITV, admitted in October 2002 when he stated:

"People like local TV. People like local news and we would be daft not to encourage it.

He is not doing that at present. He is encouraging local news, but that local news is not in the east midlands, it is in the west midlands. In the east midlands, it is yet another part of the jigsaw which is about controlling all news networking throughout Britain and reducing the costs.

I should not need to remind the Minister that at the heart of the debate lies the fact that the east midlands has a firmly established identity of its own. It is socio-economically and culturally different from its neighbours, most notably the west midlands and Birmingham in particular. Its industries, which are predominantly food production, coal mining, clothing, textiles and other types of apparel production, contrast with the engineering, car manufacturing and high-tech industries of the west midlands. The difference is probably best expressed by the two regional development areas that represent the two regions. They have a different make-up, they have different characters on their boards and they are geared to the needs of the various local interests.

As I said earlier, I intend to give time to other hon. Members to speak, so I will summarise briefly. According to a recent report by Cambridge Econometrics, two thirds of people claim that their local television company is their main source of local news, so Government action to protect it is imperative, especially if the reorganisation of local radio is anything to go by. Local news nowadays is little other than a series of regurgitated sound clips produced and broadcast mostly from centres that in some cases are hundreds of miles from the neighbourhoods they serve—or do not serve.

The same will undoubtedly be the case if TV programmes are produced and staffed by people who neither live in nor have any affinity with the areas that they are reporting, a likely scenario if the closure of ITV centre Nottingham goes ahead.

For those reasons and others, I ask the Minister to intervene in the matter. It is crucial to the east midlands that, like her constituency in the west midlands, we have the opportunity to develop our region in a way that suits the hearts, minds, needs and aspirations of the people we serve. It is not good enough, just for the sake of profit, for these centres to be closed down and left to the people who made such a mess of the City, the stock exchange and the pension provisions of most of our constituents.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State (Arts), Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts) 3:47 pm, 30th March 2004

I feel a bit like the enemy in this debate, but I do not intend to be. I want to put on record how much I understand the strength of feeling of my hon. Friend Mr. Meale and the hon. Members who intervened about the importance of regional broadcasting. Members of Parliament understand that more than anyone else; our constituents are far more likely to know what individual MPs are up to in the House through regional television coverage than through national television. Much of our accountability is discharged through regional news coverage, in newspapers and broadcasting. I am at one with my hon. Friend in that respect.

I accept that Birmingham has a tendency to dominate the midlands region; the history and the news of the east midlands is different and there is a danger that it will get squeezed out. I go further: I hear complaints from people in Solihull that Solihull gets squeezed out, although it adjoins Birmingham, let alone from those who are about 50 miles down the road to the east.

My starting point is the same as that of my hon. Friend: the east midlands has a specific voice and a specific set of interests and concerns, and we need to pay regard to them. However, I cannot say much more to give comfort to him. It is for Ofcom, not the Government, to intervene in the matter. I cannot intervene or promise that the Government will do so, as that will not be done. I shall therefore explain how the mechanism for accountability and checking works.

The starting point is to balance two things, the first of which is the right of any company to organise itself as it sees fit. Companies must have that right, whether or not they are broadcasters. It is a competitive world and they must be able to change to survive, not just because people's viewing and listening habits have changed, but because of technology, too. That is just the way life is. It would be wrong to put a stranglehold on broadcasting companies and say that they cannot change to meet those needs. Secondly, broadcasting companies play an important role in safeguarding our democracy which is different from any other private sector organisation in any other sector of the economy. The regulatory framework must combine both those aspects.

I want to talk about how that happens and try to reassure hon. Members about what may happen in the future.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

The letter from Ofcom states that the

"amount of sub-regional news for the East Midlands is mandated by Central's licence—4 hours a week averaged over a calendar year.

Coverage for the east midlands region, which stretches right the way down to south Leicestershire and the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Marshall, up to north Nottinghamshire and across to Derbyshire and Lincolnshire, and incorporates Nottingham, the eighth largest city in Britain, is being reduced to four hours a week. That is the reality.

The issue is not just about Ofcom saying that it will do one or two things about the news. We have one of the biggest production sites, 17 acres, in the whole of Britain. It is an important centre—we have proved that with the programmes that we have brought out—but the site is being closed and sold off for a fast buck. That is not good enough for the people of the east midlands.

Photo of Alan Simpson Alan Simpson Labour, Nottingham South

I want the Minister to return to the point that she made about Ofcom's responsibilities. We are not talking about Ofcom standing in the way of the commercial viability of companies. In fact, many of us would argue that some of the financial mess that has been made is due to the short-termism of the company's outlook. Is it the Minister's view that Ofcom has a duty to protect the regional identity of independent commercial television services because of the way in which the Government expect those services to be delivered? A central point of dispute seems to be whether Ofcom feels that it has a duty in that respect at all.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State (Arts), Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts)

I will answer my hon. Friends' comments together. Yes, I do think that that duty exists, and I shall explain how it works. There are targets, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield just referred to, for four hours of local news. That figure has not been reduced. It is part of the contract that Central has with Ofcom for delivering localness. Indeed, localness is written into the Communications Act 2003 in a way that it was not included in legislation before. The Government have acted to protect localness by including in primary legislation the requirement that Ofcom must have regard to it. That is absolutely at one with what my hon. Friend is saying.

On localness, people must know where they stand. When the commercial contract is signed, companies are given targets for the delivery of local programming and production which they must meet. Local programming is what we are debating: programmes about local issues, made outside the M25. No matter how Carlton reorganises itself, those targets remain the same. They do not change because of the merger or job losses. People cannot say, "We're closing the east midlands centre, so we're reducing the number of hours of local news that we'll broadcast. The four hours is part of the target of eight and a half hours of regional programming—or rather it is not a target, but a deal; it does not change. Four hours of that total is local news. The allocation was increased the last time that the targets were looked at.

Ofcom has a statutory duty to ensure that the targets are met and that any reorganisation of the delivery of services in the region does not negate them. In the commercial world, as long as those targets are met, companies have discharged their responsibility to achieve localness. As far as I am aware, nobody called for an Adjournment debate on those targets before the job losses were announced, so I can only assume that the debate is now about whether the targets will be met.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State (Arts), Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts)

In a moment. I just want to make one more point so that there is some flow in what I am saying.

The crux of the matter is sub-regional news, not regional news. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield is saying that regional news from Birmingham is not serving the east midlands well. To me, the crucial point is that as well as targets for regional news coverage, there are targets for sub-regional news coverage. As midlands MPs, we all know there are three sub-regional news coverage areas: Birmingham, Abingdon and Oxford, and the east midlands. I believe Ofcom's view to be that the targets for the east midlands sub-regional news cannot be met if all the news gathering is moved to Birmingham. Therefore, if a situation should ever arise—this is not what is proposed—that affects news gathering as well as news presentation, there would be a genuine argument that sub-regional targets were not being met, and Ofcom could be invited by local MPs to comment on that point.

My hon. Friends may not believe it, but the proposal—I have no reason to disbelieve it and am not intervening—is that the presentation of news, not news gathering, should move to Birmingham. As long as the journalists who gather the news are in the east midlands and there is a sub-regional target for east midlands news, as opposed to west midlands news, there is a powerful argument that the target has been reached. If my hon. Friends do not believe that, we have a difference of opinion. We shall have to wait and see. However, if the journalists move, Ofcom can intervene to say that the targets are not being met.

Photo of Andy Reed Andy Reed Labour/Co-operative, Loughborough

I understand the commercial arguments that the Minister is putting forward and the difficulty in intervening in such matters. However, quality is the one thing that seems to be missing from what has been said. Is she really convinced by what Ofcom, ITV and Carlton have been trying to tell us; that is, that the quality of local coverage can be guaranteed by the proposals that have been put forward? Personally, I do not believe them, so there is an issue at dispute. I am sure that my hon. Friend Mr. Meale will be able to say in more detail why that will not happen. Is the Minister convinced that Ofcom is playing a proactive part? I know that it has a light touch, but to have no touch at all seems completely the wrong way to deal with the matter.

Photo of Alan Meale Alan Meale Labour, Mansfield

The evidence of previous closures shows a reduction in news delivery in the areas from which people moved. That is the reality, but I shall not challenge what the Minister said.

The whole point of this debate is that the east midlands is not a sub-region but a region all on its own. Its news is not to be subsumed by Birmingham or moved just because of improvements in technological delivery. The debate is about our having our own TV and news presentation centre in the east midlands. Without one, the east midlands is a sub-region.

The Minister comes from Birmingham. I know that there are difficulties with various TV stations, but Birmingham has its own centre. We want exactly the same for the east midlands, which, as I said, stretches from south Leicestershire to north Nottinghamshire, Lincolnshire and Derbyshire. It is a massive area, and we demand parity in respect of a new centre.

Photo of Ms Estelle Morris Ms Estelle Morris Minister of State (Arts), Department for Culture, Media & Sport, Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Arts)

Of course I do not believe that the east midlands is a sub-region, nor am I critical of it in any way. I used the term to discuss targets. Whether we like it or not, whether we live in the east or the west midlands, there is a midlands region, of which both areas are members. I certainly would not be happy if the news coverage all beamed out from Birmingham. My personal view is that if the news gathering from the east midlands were dropped, it would be detrimental to that area. I believe without a shadow of doubt that it would be a diminution of the present localism if all regional news from the whole of the midlands were collected and presented from Birmingham. All I can say to my hon. Friends is that that is not part of the proposal.

I cannot at this time stand up in a debate in the House of Commons and say, "I have been told by Central that its intention is to keep news collection in the east midlands and merely present the news from Birmingham, but, because I do not believe that, I shall ask Ofcom to intervene. It would not be fair to do so, because I believe what I am told by Central.

In the minute that I have left, all I can do is say again that the key thing in striking the difficult balance between having commercialism in broadcasting and protecting democracy is to hold the stations fast to their targets. My message to Ofcom is that that is what the House expects it to do. I suspect that the proposals before us will achieve that, but it will be for Ofcom to decide and to be the guardian of what all of us with seats in the midlands consider to be incredibly important targets.