Less than two months to decide the future of news in Wales

Hopes for a continuing – and improved – news service on ITV Wales depend on the speed with which a choice can be made between the three consortia bidding for the contract.

The chairman of the panel set up by the Government to choose between them admitted in Cardiff today (3 Feb) that they would have to make a decision by the end of March if there was to be any chance of finalising a contract before a General Election in May.

The Conservatives have made it clear they are opposed to the plan for pilots in Wales, Scotland and the North-East of England to replace the current ITV news service. If they win the election, all bets are off.

A one-hour session at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay this afternoon was the full extent of public participation in the selection process. Apart from a group of students from Cardiff University – and one from Glamorgan – the public appeared to be represented by interested parties from the Cardiff media world.

Gordon Main of Pembrokeshire TV – an experiment in local web-based journalism (who’ll be speaking here at the Atrium next month) – complained that the whole process of bidding and selection had been carried out without a real public debate.

All three bidders – in their pitches – promised a new start for journalism in Wales if they were successful, which was no surprise as the panel have made it clear they don’t want ‘business as usual’.

All three talked about ‘citizen journalism’ and offered people the chance to tell their own stories in one way or another. When pushed, they appeared to concede that it had more to do with a two-way relationship between the production company and the public than with turning citizens into journalists. People will be encouraged to contribute their stories, videos and pictures and, in return, the news provider will make its publicly-funded output freely available to local websites, bloggers and other non-commercial outlets. They were pressed hard on the need to fund real journalism rather than feed off enthusiastic amateurs.

The web, of course, featured large in all three plans. While the main evening TV news would be the ‘showcase’ (in the words of one of the bidders), the website would be central in all three plans (the UTV-led consortium’s site is already live at www.waleslive.tv).

So what’s the real choice? The biggest beast is Taliesin, which has ITN, the current ITV Wales news staff and what Clive Jones called ‘the Grand Alliance’ of media companies from across Wales (in TV, radio and many local newspapers) along with no fewer than four universities (www.taliesinnews.co.uk). He promised ‘the first comprehensive alternative to the BBC across every platform’ with ‘100 platforms’ to tell stories. The word heavyweight doesn’t do it justice – this is a truly big beast and that may be its weakness. It sounds as though it would be bigger than the BBC, raising the fear that it will limit the range of journalism on offer rather than promoting diversity. (At an earlier session, hosted by Ofcom, one of Taliesin’s potential partners had spoken of the benefit of more ‘consistency’ in the news – which would save people the trouble of having to choose between different versions of a story!) When questioned, both Clive Jones and Spencer Feeney, editor of the Swansea Evening Post (a member of his consortium) denied that all its outlets would be pushing the same story. Jones was the only one to promise investigative journalism.

The idea that a company from Ulster should be qualified to run the news service in Wales may not immediately ring true. But UTV‘s news service is acknowledged to be good and beats the BBC hands-down. They own Welsh radio stations Swansea Sound and The Wave and they’ve teamed up with North Wales Newspapers in what comes to look like a strong bid. They stole a march on the competition with their own publicity van broadcasting the message in words and pictures outside the Millennium Centre.

Llanelli-based Tinopolis presented a very confident pitch, based on the wide experience of a Welsh-based company which has become (through acquisitions) ‘the biggest independent supplier of public service programming’ in Britain (www.tinopolis.com). Of the three, this was the bid which seemed to have its finger most on the pulse of the changing world of communications and the blogosphere; if that’s what the panel are looking for, this could be the one to watch. Rather than a heavyweight consortium, they’re selling this as a network of bloggers, local websites and professional journalists passing information in both directions. Their weakness must be their lack of experience in news.

There was a nice moment when a student tweeter asked each of the bidders to sum up the unique character of his pitch (ideally in 140 characters). Two pleaded commercial confidentiality. Ron Jones of Tinopolis highlighted his idea of an ‘open-source’ network, giving a helping hand to other new media to get off the ground.

James Stewart.

About James Stewart

Senior Lecturer in Radio Journalism. http://staff.glam.ac.uk/users/1713-jstewart
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