BBC rivals hit back in row over local news funding

This taken from the FT:

By Ben Fenton, Chief Media Correspondent

Published: June 3 2009 03:00 | Last updated: June 3 2009 03:00

The BBC was accused yesterday of twisting statistics in an escalating row over who will pay for regional news on ITV channels.

Two of its rivals, UTV and STV, said the corporation was misrepresenting how much it would cost to make television, radio and internet news for local broadcast and cited the BBC’s figures to show that it spends twice as much itself on regional news.

The issue has moved to the centre of the debate over the government’s Digital Britain white paper, due in a fortnight , because a cash-strapped ITV has told Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, it can no longer afford to make regional news bulletins.

The government has said that giving people access to regional news from more than one source – the BBC – is its top priority for the white paper.

But paying for it has become a source of fierce disagreement. In a Financial Times report on Monday, BBC officials said that a full news provision for all ITV regions would cost £30m to £50m at most, citing independent research to contradict the estimate of Ofcom that the budget should be £80m to £100m.

After a Freedom of Information request, however, it emerged that the BBC said it spent £6.9m on regional television news in Northern Ireland, £6.3m for Scotland, £4.9m for Wales and £76.1m for the English regions – a total of £94.2m, which is close to the top end of Ofcom’s range.

Michael Wilson, managing director of television for UTV, said: “Our view is that it is disingenuous of the BBC to quote figures of £30m to £50m when they themselves are spending very close to £100m.”

A BBC official said it was not valid to compare the FoI figures with the quoted costs for providing news on ITV.

“We have 12 regions; they have five. Our figures include a share of corporate overheads which the ITV figures wouldn’t and, to be absolutely clear, nobody is talking about replicating the BBC’s service across the ITV regions.”

Regional broadcasters UTVSTVMinisters have indicated that regional news could be funded from the “switchover surplus”, money within the BBC licence fee that is currently reserved for helping elderly and vulnerable viewers switch to digital television.

But the BBC, which fiercely resists any interference in the licence fee, challenged Ofcom’s estimates in Monday’s FT. It says it is offering “partnerships”, in which facilities and equipment would be shared with ITV and other potential news providers, worth £20m a year. ITV says they would be worth £7m, and only by 2016.

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