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Jon Griffin: Birmingham's local TV station dream is over

Six years or more after the vision of a local TV station in Birmingham was first publicly discussed, the dream is over, at least for BLTV/City TV.

Birmingham City TV

Dancing on the grave of any commercial organisation is rarely an attractive pastime – given that any corporate failure will have a huge impact on the lives of individual human beings.

But there are so many questions to be asked and lessons to be learnt from the inevitable collapse of BLTV here in Birmingham that a few metaphorical twirls around the edges of this peculiar saga are more or less obligatory.

Six years or more after the vision of a local TV station in Birmingham was first publicly discussed, the dream is over, at least for BLTV/City TV.

The consortium, led by former £120,000-a-year Birmingham City Council PR executive Debra Davis and associate Alan Grindley, went bust last week owing £195,000 to professional advisers and investors.

Ms Davis, who seems to be hiding behind her mobile phone answering machine these days, issued a mealy-mouthed statement, defiant to the last.

She claims creditors rejected a chance to rescue BLTV before calling in the administrators and sticks to the old chestnut that local TV would make a ‘game-changing’ difference to local communities. We wait and see... and wait... and wait.

Two of the rival groups who tried and failed to bring local television to Birmingham, YourTV and Made Television have already indicated they are poised to bid again for the licence.

But a major sticking point would seem to be that regulators Ofcom, who chose to award the licence to City TV in late 2012, are insisting that the station must be launched by the original November 3 deadline imposed on BLTV.

In the words of former BRMB executive, Mike Owen, director of YourTV: “I think a straightforward rescue bid would be almost impossible.

“You would have to get it out of administration and up and running by November, which would be impossible. It looks like we will have to go through some sort of application process again.”

So Birmingham is almost certainly back to square one, unless a Mr Moneybags rides to the rescue of the hapless Ms Davis and her chastened team of would-be Dimblebys and Paxmans, paying off the creditors in the process.

This is not a pretty picture, if you’ll pardon the phrase.

The collapse of BLTV/City TV etc may be a bit of an esoteric subject to the man on the Bordesley Green omnibus, but he might be slightly surprised to find that some of his money may yet be going into this Government-backed enterprise.

Local TV is not an entirely commercial concept. The BBC, in other words licence-payers’ hard-earned money, is providing capital investment of £15 million for national transmission infrastructure and a commitment of £5 million a year to buy programmes for three years.

So although we may never get to see the Debra Davis Show, the taxpayer can still look forward to part-subsidising Birmingham’s local TV station, whoever eventually wins the licence at the second time of asking.

It’s worth pointing out at this stage that one of the few local TV stations to launch, London Live, has applied to Ofcom to cut its commitment to local programming from three hours to one after only four months on air.

The Financial Times has reported that London Live had recorded audience figures in the low thousands for some of its flagship programmes.

Hardly inspiring, yet still former Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt continues to fly the flag for Local TV, pointing out that New York manages six local TV stations.

“If New York can manage six local TV stations the idea that London cannot sustain one is bonkers, despite the desire of competitors to rubbish it,” he says.

Well, I wouldn’t lay odds on London Live’s chances of survival on current performance, and remain yet to be convinced that there’s any appetite for hyperlocal television in the UK.

Nevertheless, Birmingham viewers fully deserved the chance to decide for themselves whether they liked Local TV or not.

They may now have to wait another year or so, after Ofcom oddly awarded the licence to entirely the wrong consortium.

The moral from this unhappy episode would seem to be that Governments, regulators and the media are uneasy bedfellows at best, potential recipes for messy divorce at worst.

The Leveson inquiry achieved little at a cost of many millions, concluding that some politicians and press had been too matey (our friend Jeremy Hunt was cleared of being too close to the Murdoch empire, along with David Cameron) and that some press behaviour had been ‘outrageous.’

It’s impossible to defend anyone who hacks into a murdered schoolgirl’s phone, but this was a matter that was always going to be best left to the courts.

The Leveson inquiry may have been a well-meaning attempt to bring the power of the state to bear on some of the more unruly elements of the media – but, ultimately, politics and the Fourth Estate will, and should, always be a volatile mix.

A free press and the mindset of the average politician are not natural soulmates.

Or, as the late, great Auberon Waugh once wrote: “Political motivation is psychotic in origin. People enter politics or the civil service out of a desire to exert power and influence events.

“This, I maintain, is an illness. It is only when one realises that great administrators and leaders of men have all been slightly mad that one has true understanding of history.”

Bron enjoyed his jokes, but there was usually a grain of truth behind them.

He would have chuckled with delight at the car crash that is local TV in Birmingham, and the part played by the regulators and the ‘leaders of men’ in that unashamed fiasco.

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