STV and UTV aim to keep local newsITV companies in Scotland and Northern Ireland seeking to beef up their own news services with public money

Monday 19 October 2009 07.18 BST

ITV plc may have decided to stop producing regional news but outside England and Wales it's a different story.

In Scotland, the ITV franchise owner STV wants to use public money to offer a beefed-up news service with a greater degree of localised content.

And in Northern Ireland, UTV also wants to keep providing local news but is facing a challenge from a coalition formed by the production company Ten Alps and the Belfast Telegraph.

For now, there is no imminent threat to UTV as the government does not plan to run a pilot for its proposed independently financed news consortia (IFNC) scheme in Northern Ireland, concentrating instead on Scotland, Wales and one English region.

Michael Wilson, the managing director of television at UTV, said that in Northern Ireland the status quo "ain't broken - you don't need to look to fix it".

"There's no level of dissatisfaction in our audience, which is reflected in the audience figures in Ofcom's PSB report," he added, pointing an audience share of up to 38% for UTV's 6pm bulletin.

In its response to the department for culture, media and sport's consultation, UTV said it was "confident that news supply is commercially sustainable until the proposed full roll-out of IFNCs across the UK", but noted that it could not forecast business conditions in 2014, when its licence is up for renewal.

Northern Ireland's minister of culture, arts and leisure, Nelson McCausland, supports a pilot taking place in the province and has suggested it could bring in £3m a year.

In his department's response to the DCMS consultation on the issue last month, it requested a pilot with "a broader focus Ö to include/test the market for current affairs programming also".

Wilson said even if UTV has to fight to keep its role as Northern Ireland's commercial TV news provider, he believed it can see off any rivals. "Even if we were a contestably funded region, I'm confident our track record speaks for itself."

He did think, however, there should be some form public investment in regional non-news programming supplied by the independent producers.

But the Ten Alps-Belfast Telegraph consortium believes it could deliver a better news service than UTV and reinvigorate local newspapers at the same time.

The two men behind the bid, Trevor Birney and Paul Connolly, believe a new consortium would counteract the dominance of the BBC in Northern Ireland and roll back what they see as a trend towards Belfast-centric news coverage of the province.

Birney, the managing director of Ten Alps-owned Below the Radar, said Northern Ireland deserves better scrutiny as it emerges from the Troubles and is less closely covered by the UK-wide media.

"It's almost more important now that we have come out of 40 years of conflict," he added. "We have got to have a challenging type of journalism right across Northern Ireland, where councils and courts and public authorities that have not functioned particularly well over 40 years of conflict are now trying to function at the level seen in Britain. That has to be matched by the fourth estate at every level."

"We want to get online to get news to a wider audience, a younger audience that's on the move," said Connolly, the deputy editor of the Belfast Telegraph, who would deploy the 80 journalists in its group on the TV news service.

"There's been a sharp deterioration in the level of debate," he added, claiming that UTV had made cuts in its editorial staff. "We want to ensure the quality of debate in Northern Ireland is kept high."

However, Wilson disputed this, saying the number of staff working in news had increased in the past 12 months and that UTV had increased its news and current affairs output.

"We are the only ITV or BBC region to produce a half-hour late evening news programme, which now regularly wins that slot, and we believe that the level of debate, as do many of our politicians, has actually increased," he added.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, STV has proposed a service that expands its current four sub-regions to six: Aberdeen, Dundee, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness and Borders.

STV would like to offer a single news programme from 6pm to 7pm, using ITN for UK-wide and international news, rather than the current system of half an hour of Scottish news followed by the ITV1 network news bulletin.

To reach the whole of Scotland, including the Border region that is part of an ITV plc-owned franchise, would also require a change in current transmission arrangements.

But STV isn't the only party interested in the IFNC idea: an alliance of the newspaper publishers DC Thomson, Johnston Press and the Newsquest-owned Herald and Times group is also keen to bid for the Scottish news contract and is looking for a video partner. Ten Alps is also interested in playing a part in Scottish local news.

STV's head of news, Gordon Macmillan, said STV was talking to other groups about potential partnerships.