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The state of current affairs in the UK

Channels in the UK are promising more attention to current affairs programs, but are we seeing the increase yet? In his own words Trevor Birney, MD of UK prodco and Ten Alps company Below the Radar, explains the state of current affairs programming, particularly in relation to the Suzanne Breen case in Ireland.
May 21, 2009

Channels in the UK are promising more attention to current affairs programs, but are we seeing the increase yet? In his own words Trevor Birney, MD of UK prodco and Ten Alps company Below the Radar, explains the state of current affairs programming, particularly in relation to the Suzanne Breen case in Ireland.

This week in Belfast, a local journalist will be back in court for the latest stage in her fight against a police order forcing her to hand over phone records, notes and documentation in relation to stories she’s written on the dissident republican paramilitary group, the Real IRA.

Have you heard anything about this latest assault on the freedom of the press? Watched a ‘Panorama’ or ‘Dispatches’ documentary examining the vital public interest issues arising out of the case being brought against the journalist, Suzanne Breen? Maybe you caught a news report on the evening news?

In the age of rolling 24-hour news and, we’re told, a renewed commitment to current affairs on the BBC and Channel 4, why does it appear we are less informed about the domestic issues affecting the regions and nations of the UK? Why does Suzanne Breen’s story not grab the interest of the network commissioners?

It’s a big story here in Northern Ireland. Two weeks prior to the police calling at Breen’s home, a senior politician criticized what he described as ‘dissident’ journalists working in Belfast. Some are linking the remark to the police decision to force Breen to hand over her notes or face jail; it’s being described as political policing. There’s a feeling here in Northern Ireland that if the journalist was a senior member of, say the BBC, there would be far greater interest inside the M25.

There’s been almost daily coverage of the story in the Irish press. But neither local nor network current affairs have looked at the case.

Much has been said about the future provision of news at nations and regions level through the UK. Ofcom Chief Executive, Ed Richards, says contestable funds are the way to save local news. But current affairs appears to have disappeared from the discussion. Worryingly, as the PSB broadcasters have blurred the lines between current affairs and factual programming, it appears our regulators have lost sight of the vital contribution of local current affairs programs.

Incredibly, there isn’t a single indie in Scotland making current affairs for network. It’s a similar picture in Northern Ireland (apart from Below The Radar) and Wales.

Lord Carter has a chance with Digital Britain to enshrine local current affairs via contestable funds for the regions and nations. If we lose local investigative broadcast journalism we will all lose out. Meanwhile, Suzanne Breen can only prepare for the worst.

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