What the BBC Licence Fee was Meant For? My Time With That’s Solent TV

Daniel Cass, Charlotte Briere-Edney, Dale McEwan and some of the team when That’s Solent launched in November 2014.

Former That’s Solent TV journalist Dale McEwan reports on his experiences at local TV broadcaster That’s Solent, following recent revelations in the national media that the station’s parent company, That’s TV, has ‘gamed’ the BBC for hundreds of thousands of pounds of licence fee payers’ money each year.

Scottish commercial TV broadcaster STV2 went off air in June 2018 and its TV licences were sold to a company called That’s TV, which may be familiar to readers as the operator of local Freeview channel, That’s Solent.

I worked in Portsmouth for That’s Solent – That’s TV’s first station – for fifteen months from its launch in November 2014. My experience, along with that of other staff members, shows how the five new Scottish outlets resulting from the sale of STV’s licences will pave the way for further abuse of eager journalists starting their careers.

Local television was the brainchild of Jeremy Hunt, then Conservative culture secretary, back in 2011. Each local station was to air its news content on daily bulletins, the footage would then be sent to the BBC in exchange for licence fee payers’ money. In the first year, the BBC would pay £150,000 for 1,020 stories, regardless of whether it then aired them or not. The full details are available via the BBC website.

That’s TV has 14 local TV stations across England and Wales. Five are now set to open in Scotland.

In year one at That’s Solent – from 10 November 2014 to the end of November 2015 – we sent 1,207 stories to the BBC. They used 114, 9.4%, at a cost of £1,315.79 per story. Many stories were unusable because That’s TV owner, Dan Cass, relied on over-worked staff in poorly resourced newsrooms. We were under pressure to pull in a certain number of stories every day to hit BBC quotas for funding.

Cass was handed licences to open more stations despite this performance.

The quotas for stories to go to the BBC decrease in years two and three, meaning Cass could shed staff and cut costs. In year two, 744 stories must be sent to the BBC in exchange for £110,000 of funding, with 276 stories in year three for £40,000.

That means £300,000 of public cash over three years for each of Cass’ stations. That amounts to £4.2m for the stations in England and Wales, with an additional £1.5m for Scotland’s five stations.

And then there’s the ratings. Buzzfeed’s recent investigation reports audience numbers were as low as 30 viewers per day for That’s Oxfordshire, That’s Salisbury and That’s Surrey last year, although Cass told Buzzfeed That’s TV had 1.5m viewers for the whole network in the final quarter of 2017. A poll of just under 1000 readers published by the Oxford Mail in June found 81% of respondents never watch That’s Oxfordshire.

Asked about the value for money of That’s TV stations, a BBC spokesperson said: ‘We agreed to pay for material produced by local TV stations as part of our charter with the government. Stations must provide us with a set amount of material to receive the funding. This is material they produce to broadcast themselves, under the terms of their own licence with Ofcom.

‘Each station is made aware of our editorial standards. The decision on whether to use material is made by BBC production staff.

‘We always seek value for money and can take action if we feel contract commitments haven’t been met. The arrangement with the BBC lasts up to three years from the launch of each station and ends after that point. Some stations no longer receive BBC funding.’

I asked the BBC for details of any action it has taken against That’s TV but was told this information could not be released due to ‘commercial confidentiality’.

Cass runs his stations on a shoestring while taxpayers’ money pours in. That’s Solent uses broadcast studio space at Highbury College. I was one of four freelance journalists at the station and every employee was paid the minimum wage (£6.50 at the time). We received no holiday or sick pay. I had to fund my own petrol to chase daily stories across a sizeable patch covering Portsmouth, Southampton, the Isle of Wight areas. The only expense I received was for parking.

Dame Esther Rantzen signed up to be the face of That’s Solent but left the role six months after the station launched, blaming ‘commitments to other organisations and her charity work for the move’.

As the months went by, Cass started pulling out resources like Jenga blocks. A colleague who helped plan future stories was let go, re-hired then let go again. Cass said he could no longer afford to pay her the minimum wage, and she refused his offer to work for nothing. The gallery operator who directed news bulletins was let go for the same reason. We, the journalists, were told to fill the gaps.

I was expected to self-shoot, edit and script at least two stories a day, plan future stories, field calls and emails, look after unpaid interns and work experience students, assist with directing the daily one-hour talk show, help to direct the three-hour evening news show, book guests for all of the shows, send footage to the BBC and cut content for overnight broadcast. All on the minimum wage. It was impossible, yet I worked between 10 and 12 hour shifts trying my hardest. I usually worked through lunch breaks. We were told there was no money for a pay rise, yet new stations were being rolled out all the time.

One day, Cass made a negative comment about a journalist charging for 12-hour days, even though that was the amount of hours she worked. I was made to feel we should invoice for only a certain number of hours or it would cause problems, so I started charging for 10am to 6pm even though I worked longer.

Cass supplemented the newsroom with a constant supply of interns, often with us for months at a time. Elle Rudd interned for a year at That’s Manchester and recently tweeted that she once could not afford tampons. Buzzfeed’s investigation revealed how Cass exploited freelancers and unpaid students to secure the enforced BBC subsidy, with stations now running on just one or two journalists. A Press Gazette story reported that interns passed out through exhaustion.

One of That’s Manchester’s unpaid interns tweets about a time she could not afford tampons during her year at that station.

Cass’ right-hand woman was Charlotte Briere-Edney, who started as station editor. Overworked like the rest of us, Briere-Edney did not read our scripts, edit or watch our stories before they aired. She once told me she was disappointed in me for refusing to do a live interview, despite me being totally burnt out. I wanted to prove a point, that staff are not slaves who will prop up such an operation. Briere-Edney was promoted to head of news and strategy and, on her website, she says she helped Cass to launch eleven more That’s TV stations. Briere-Edney left That’s TV in 2017 and now works for a broadcaster in Scotland.

Over 2015, Ofcom agreed Cass could reduce the amount of local content we were required to show. Cass pulled the plug on everything that was not mandatory. News was broadcast Monday to Friday and repeated over the weekend. A Sunday sports show was cut though keeping it would have meant paying the presenter and director just one hour of the minimum wage. That’s Music, an evening show fronted by students, lasted mere weeks after the station launched.

The schedule for That’s Solent now shows back-to-back coverage of repeated news with archive films running in between from 8am to 5pm.

The schedule for That’s Solent shows back-to-back repeated news with archive films in between.

Ofcom said: ‘We expect all channels, including local TV channels, to meet their key programme commitments. All licensees are required to submit returns to show they have done this, and we can take enforcement action if broadcasters breach their licences.

‘We have recognised there are challenges facing the local TV sector. We have taken this into account when considering requests to change programming commitments, while ensuring the character of local TV is maintained.’

Ofcom provided me with details of thirteen investigations it has carried out against That’s TV from March 2016 onwards. One of the investigations concerned That’s Oxford and content broadcast from 1940s cartoon Raggedy Ann. The show depicted a ‘black person from the deep south of America, with exaggerated facial features and indolent with slow, slurred speech’. In March this year, Ofcom concluded this breached rules concerning racial prejudice and programmes for children.

During one weekend in Autumn 2015 That’s Solent’s systems were ripped out and replaced with new ones, as part of Cass’ plan to improve technical standards while introducing networked content. Output from That’s Solent could now be played at stations at opposite ends of the country, such as That’s York. Local programming for a local station was becoming a distant slogan. We were told to lie to our colleagues about this new system changeover because Cass feared the change would upset them.

We then discovered our jobs were being advertised online. Candidates came in for interviews and screen tests but Cass never told us what was going on. It felt that someone was always on standby to replace us if we became disillusioned with the media ‘dream’. The wage on these job adverts was misleadingly described as ‘competitive’.

I became desperate to leave and started applying for jobs, and had to make excuses to attend interviews. I once told Briere-Edney that I had tooth ache and needed an extraction. Upon my return to work she asked me, in front of my colleagues, if she could look inside my mouth. I refused. She blocked my other attempts to book days off for interviews and I had no option but to feign sickness.

The experience exhausted me physically, mentally and financially. I gave the job everything I had, and I am still proud of the skills I acquired through my own perseverance. However, being made to feel that all you are worth is the minimum wage does a great deal of damage to the mind.

The day finally came in January 2016 when I could not take anymore. I went for job interviews but my experience with That’s TV broke my self confidence and my passion for media. I decided to step away from journalism and I have felt like a failure ever since. I am a qualified journalist and reported in the Middle East before That’s TV. I thought helping to launch a TV station would be a great way to learn new skills. It is only over the past year that I have started to rebuild my career. My new employer told me that Cass did not reply to requests for a reference.

The job adverts for That’s TV Scotland (below) promise ‘opportunities for exceptional candidates to present on-screen’. Cass describes this as ‘a rare opportunity to gain significant “on air” experience in TV reporting and presenting’. It saddens and angers me to think journalists in Scotland will be taken advantage of in the same way I and many others were. I wrote to Cass asking what the wage will be for freelancers at That’s TV Scotland but received no reply.

Job adverts for That’s TV Scotland. STV sold its local TV licences to the broadcaster.

Ofcom has taken little action to reprimand Cass over the years, but I refuse to stand by and let this abuse repeat itself. Our journalism and media graduates are worth much more than that.

Cass and Briere-Edney did not respond when offered their right of reply. STV declined to provide a statement.

* Since the publication of this article, Ofcom has announced that it will stop issuing further licences for new local TV stations due to financial concerns. Inverness was set to receive a licence along with other cities in England but this will no longer happen. That’s TV Scotland will still open in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Ayr, Dundee and Aberdeen. BBC funding in exchange for content will now end in July 2020. This will limit potential income for That’s TV Scotland to lower than the £1.5m given in this article. A BBC spokesperson said: ‘Any station can join the content scheme until then but only during the first three years of its local digital service. We do not discuss the terms of individual contracts.’

This article was originally published on Bella Caledonia on 30th July 2018.

All images courtesy of Dale McEwan.