Northern Ireland broadcasters should not put their trust in politicians

I see the Commons Northern Ireland Committee has fallen for vigorous lobbying by the small but perfectly formed local broadcasting industry. Good luck to them, so long as we don’t take some the committee’s suggestions too seriously, as posted by Pete. One is self evidently bonkers financially and constitutes unacceptable political intervention.

The Committee has called for the government to provide a fund for non-news programmes to be administered by the NI Assembly.

Another sounds reasonable to the uninitiated but is of doubtful value in reality.

We strongly recommend that the Government ask the BBC seriously and urgently to consider locating a programme commissioner permanently within Northern Ireland.

This begs the question of whether the powerful network centres will pay attention to a single commissioner for all programme genres sitting out in a region. History says not. Better to stick to the present strategy of local managements ( I really mean the BBC) gathering a portfolio of programme proposals to attract the network centre, based on building local critical mass. UTV have other fish to fry. But the basic truth is, the demands of large scale production in the digital age have far outgrown the capacity of a small region to deliver them. The radical approach to counteract the trend is is to locate a major production centre in Belfast. And this will not happen.
Regional broadcasters are understandably lobbying hard these days, when devolution in national politics is being mirrored in the politics of broadcasting. It’s a issue that produces great clouds of fog from both sides and some changes in governance to appease the politicians, but the hard fact is that the likely returns shouldn’t be exaggerated. Have no illusions, good ideas wanted by the networks will remain king, rather than local job creation. Again, portrayal and production are two different elements. Two big programmes tonight illustrate the difference. The drama blockbuster airing tonight “Mo “about Mo Mowlam as Secretary of State will portray Northern Ireland vividly at a key moment in recent history. I don’t know the production details but its genesis is in the ITV drama centre. There are jobs for local actors, extras and probably a few technicians. Perhaps a little investment by NI Screen has been put in. But by no means can it be called an NI production.

Take the less obvious example of the BBC1 series Seven Ages of Britain presented by David Dimbleby launching tonight. BBC NI has an all-Ireland brief but will Ireland be represented? (Please forebear to comment about the “Britain”). If so, this enhances portrayal but is unlikely to produce much work locally, if any. Yet British, Irish and international themes are always worth targeting by local managements for a local look-in or contribution.

Drama is the Big One where the fashion for movie-scale production far exceeds the capacity of BBC NI to continue to resource it. Locally hosted drama requires much outside resourcing and investment. While much of it has enjoyed high impact success, it has never satisfied union demands for more local high value jobs. Partly this is because the existing skills base is too small. But how can it grow unless the commissions come in? And so the argument is circular. Strains are evident in the departure of BBC NI’s head of drama. The accompanying annoucement from BBC local head Peter Johnson sounds quite a gamble: “

The reorganisation of the BBC Northern Ireland drama department is likely to see it focus more on indigenous drama and concentrate its activities in Belfast.”

Can this strategy succeed? Peter Johnson has yet to explain how.

To increase production, the fair question is asked: do programmes made in NI need to be about Ireland? The answer is a cautious no. BBCNI should blow the trumpet more loudly for its centre of current affairs excellence which produced the Panorama on Irisgate as a version of the local Spotlight. They tackle non- Irish subjects too. Some examples of non-Irish themes satisfy neither the demands of portrayal nor production, like the BBC4 discussion series Dinner with Portillo which lacks the slightest NI connection on screen. A little production supervision and the BBCNI brass plate at the end are added to give a dubious impression of an addition to an NI production record.

If behind the lobbying there are hopes of formal regional quotas in broadcasting, they are doomed. They have certainly failed in the past. Major TV production is a hugely expensive business in the digital age and the idea of the region hosting hugh volume large scale production is an illusion. On a smaller scale, broadcasters like UTV and Macmillan with their strong record on the front line stand every chance of winning contracts for ITV local news Scotland and Wales. Local unions and companies will never be satisfied, naturally enough. But the message has to be, if you play to your strengths and build up your local base, you stand a chance of success. “Success” can hardly be dominance. The suggested target of a 3% share of total network output for Northern Ireland to reflect the population ratio, seems random and overambitious to me. Whatever the realisitic ambition, to rely on the political route is to risk disillusion and failure.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London