The good news station

“I liked The Stig. He came round my house, he had drinks... and all the time he was writing a book.” For the first time since “Stig-Gate” unfolded, Jeremy Clarkson publicly shared his feelings of betrayal. But the interview wasn’t with a national paper or broadcaster. He was talking to Witney TV, an online news station that didn’t exist six months ago.

Witney TV is a volunteer-run website hosting video reports of events in Witney and surrounding areas. It was created by residents Barry Clack and Gavin Hyatt to fill what they feel is a gap in local coverage: BBC Oxford is spread too thin to cover the area in depth, while ITV’s Central News lost its Oxfordshire studio in recent cutbacks.

So how much news coverage does Witney need, exactly? More than you’d think. It might look like just another Oxfordshire market town, and it has a population of less than 23,000, but Witney punches above its weight when it comes to newsworthiness. In May, national media descended on the town and helicopters hovered above the polling station as David Cameron’s victory was declared. It was the election more than anything which prompted Barry Clack to set up Witney TV: “There was so much going on...But I felt that there was an opportunity missed, because somebody from Witney or West Oxfordshire couldn’t see their neighbour at the count.”

However, Witney TV doesn’t claim to deliver all the news. “We made a very tough decision right back at show number 1 that we didn’t want to feature a negative story on the show. We wanted someone to be able to sit down at their computer and watch light-hearted news that nobody would be offended over.” This means no crime, no car crashes, no hard-hitting investigations. A recent memorial football match posed problems for the Witney TV team; it was held to celebrate the life of a local sportsman who died aged eighteen, and this was considered possibly too serious a subject to cover. (They did eventually decide to cover the match on the grounds that it was a “happy, happy occasion” with a minute’s clapping instead of a minute’s silence.)

You might be wondering why this matters to the average NUJ member. Well, it matters because Witney TV is being held up as a possible model for the future of local TV news. Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has contacted Witney TV because he wants to find out more about how the station works, but no meeting has taken place yet because Clack and Hyatt are too busy.

It’s not yet clear what Hunt’s plan is for local media. In June, he gave a speech in which he said: “We need strong local media to nurture a sense of local identity and hold locally-elected politicians to account.” But it seems unlikely that he will be allocating any public money to support local media; we already know that Labour’s plan for Independently Funded News Consortia, funded by the television licence fee, has been scrapped.

In the same speech, Hunt talked about the desirability of a “modernised, updated regulatory environment” nurturing “hungry, ambitious and profitable local media companies”, which strongly suggests that his plan for the future of local media will have a lot to do with the private sector. Great news for big players like Sky (whose head of news, John Ryley, happens to be a Witney resident); not so great for smaller news organisations trying to make a living.

Hunt has commissioned banker Nicholas Schott to look at local media and make recommendations on how to support it. An action plan based on the findings of the Schott report is due some time this autumn. His interest in Witney TV suggest that there will also be a role for smaller organisations in what he calls the “local media landscape”, but whether or not they will be able to make a living is another matter. The £11,000 start-up costs for Witney TV were paid by four volunteers. Barry Clack’s comment about setting up the station - “Anybody can do it. There is no hard and fast rule” - sounds inspiring, but the reality is that Clack runs the station on top of his day job as a freelance photographer.

Will local news be another casualty of Big Society, handed over to the voluntary sector? And if the Witney TV model is reproduced in other parts of the country, what will happen to the “difficult” stories: the deaths, the crimes, the local authority corruption? We will know more when Hunt’s action plan comes out. Perhaps the Witney TV team will have time to meet him before then.

Note: A shorter version of this article appears in the October 2010 issue of the Oxford NUJ newsletter. In the course of writing this article, I attempted to contact Barry Clack for an interview, but got no response from him, so all quotes by him are taken from an interview by Simon Ford of the BBC College of Journalism.