As colleges and universities from across the country withdraw their support for That’s TV, Highbury College in Portsmouth continues to host and partner students with That’s Solent, the first ever channel launched by the controversial broadcasting business. Journalist and former video reporter for That’s Solent TV, Dale McEwan, continues his investigation into the publicly funded local broadcaster.
That’s Solent is one of many local broadcasters set up by national company That’s TV, run by That’s MediaGroup Ltd founder and chief executive, Daniel Cass. It followed the introduction of an ambitious plan for ‘Local TV’ created by then–culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, and financially supported by the BBC. Since then, That’s TV has become the biggest beneficiary of the scheme: awarded 20 of local broadcast licences with potential total earnings of over £3 million of public money.
That’s Solent has been broadcasting from Highbury College since the station launched in November 2014. The station is promoted to potential students as an active partner to the college.
The college’s full-time course guide for 2019/20 says ‘work experience with That’s Solent TV… is embedded within the course’ for students on the BTEC in Creative Media. That’s Solent is also a partner on Highbury’s NCTJ Diploma in Journalism, delivered in partnership with The News, Portsmouth and Southampton Daily Echo, which is advertised as offering ‘TV…experience with local TV station, That’s Solent’.
I spoke to several former That’s Solent TV and That’s TV employees in the course of my investigation, and many asked not to be named. All are still working in the media and are deeply concerned that their career prospects will be affected by speaking out.
When That’s Solent TV launched, it aimed to offer Highbury students opportunities to learn useful skills from experienced media workers.
However, a former employee of That’s Solent TV said they complained to Highbury staff as early as 2015 about the ‘bad’ quality of the station’s broadcasts. There were also concerns among That’s TV employees that Highbury students were not turning up for work experience slots.
The former employee arranged a meeting with a manager from Highbury to discuss their concerns and said, ‘When I actually told her a lot of this stuff, she clearly knew none of it.’
At a subsequent meeting with the same manager, the former employee was told the College was going to end its relationship with That’s Solent TV and its boss.
‘She said “That’s it, I’ve decided, we’re going to stop it and we’re going to tell Daniel Cass that it’s going to be pulled…[and] the college is no longer going to host That’s Solent,”’ said the former employee.
However, there was a change in the person appointed by the college to liaise with That’s Solent and no changes were made. The former employee was disappointed about the college’s response, and said, ‘[Highbury staff] should have come to somebody like me… They should have asked some questions.’
Is That’s Solent improving opportunities for Portsmouth students?
Several former That’s Solent TV workers are asking why Highbury College has allowed the TV operator to use premises and equipment for almost four years. One freelancer who worked for That’s Solent believes That’s TV ‘duped’ Highbury students.
‘They were told that they could come in and get work experience but very often it was the work experience kids that were teaching the work experience kids. There was nobody there, being paid, with experience to actually teach these guys how to do it.’
Bill Butcher was a volunteer at That’s Solent for seven months. A former technical manager for MyTV Portsmouth, Bill brought over 30 years of video production experience to the station and hoped to pass on his knowledge. He echoes concerns that a lack of experienced staff at That’s Solent means skills cannot be passed on to students.
When former director of That’s Media Group Ltd (the parent company for That’s TV), Esther Rantzen, was interviewed for That’s Solent in 2015, Butcher said, ‘I was the only one in the studio. I was operating all three cameras.’
Rantzen resigned from her position with That’s Media Group Ltd in May 2015 – along with fellow director and former Meridian MD, Mary McAnally – due to ‘commitments to other organisations and her charity work’. She later told the Southampton Daily Echo, ‘I know there have been complaints but funding is always challenging. I hope the staff feel they are gaining good experience but I wouldn’t want to be associated with any company whose staff didn’t feel they were being treated fairly.’
In April 2018, Butcher spoke with a That’s Solent journalist who was out covering a story. Butcher said the journalist explained that he accounted for 50 per cent of the total staff at the TV station.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that the quality and volume of output on That’s Solent has steadily declined. The recent Buzzfeed investigation into That’s TV reported that the channel has got round Ofcom’s licence rules ‘by running two almost identical news bulletins back to back, and filling the rest of the schedule with old films.’
Colleges and universities across UK sever ties with That’s TV
Highbury College has worked with That’s TV longer than any other college or university. However, many such insitutions have severed ties with the company, including That’s Hampshire TV, which previously used studio space at Queen Mary’s College (QMC) in Basingstoke.
QMC asked That’s Hampshire to leave the college earlier this year after BuzzFeed reported That’s TV had ‘gamed’ the BBC for hundreds of thousands of pounds of licence fee money. The College’s principal, Ali Foss, told Star & Crescent: ‘We were alerted to concerns about That’s TV from posts on BuzzFeed in June  and served notice immediately. They left over the summer break.’
The That’s Hampshire website still shows QMC as its address, as does the broadcast regulator Ofcom. Former That’s TV employees are now asking why Ofcom does not know what is happening at That’s Hampshire. One journalist said ‘There doesn’t seem to be any regulatory, over-arching department that seems to come in and even come and visit some of these stations.
‘All the time I was at That’s Solent – that was on and off for a year – I never saw anybody from the BBC visit. I never saw anybody from Ofcom turn up, phone up or anything. So, in a way, this has been allowed to happen because there’s nobody accounting for this at all.’
Ofcom told Star & Crescent that That’s TV has not contacted the broadcast regulator to request a change of address for That’s Hampshire. Ofcom also said it is a licence condition for all local TV licensees to ensure that the main production base of the licensed service, and/or studio from which the licensed service is broadcast, is located within the licensed area. The regulator confirmed a station’s office can be based outside of the licensed area, but prior written consent must be given. Consent has not been given to That’s TV.
Ofcom said it is now investigating and will take action if it finds a breach of licence has taken place. However, questions also hang over the stated addresses of several other That’s TV stations.
That’s North Yorkshire TV does not currently have its own premises, after local college Scarborough TEC relocated to new premises in July 2018 and was no longer able to accommodate the station. However, both That’s TV’s and Ofcom’s websites state the station’s address is still at Scarborough TEC.
York St John University – which is home to That’s York TV – is now investigating claims that That’s North Yorkshire is working out of its campus – more than an hour away from the region it is supposed to cover in Scarborough.
The National Union of Journalists’ (NUJ) criticism of That’s TV earlier this year also sparked a review of the relationship between That’s TV and York St John University.
Vice Chancellor of York St John, Stuart Page, said ‘The arrangement [with That’s TV] was intended to support the establishment of a local television franchise and enhance our students’ experience with opportunities for work placements.
‘The university is committed to upholding ethical business practices throughout its procurement process and supply chain. Whilst we are not aware of any specific issues regarding conditions for staff at That’s York Television and cannot compare their experience to the poor practice highlighted elsewhere, the evidence submitted by the National Union of Journalists is a concern.
‘Given this concern, and having seen few of the benefits we hoped for from our original arrangement with the That’s Television franchise, both the lease contract and our future business relationship are currently under review.’
Star & Crescent can also reveal that a number of other colleges and universities have confirmed they no longer have a contract with That’s TV.
That’s Lancashire launched in 2015 and broadcast from The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), with the aim of playing an integral part in the university’s new continuing drama production degree. Dramas produced by students were set to appear on the TV channel, according to the university’s website. However, the station left the University this summer.
A spokesperson said: ‘We did not extend the lease with That’s Lancashire due to our competing space issues. The two rooms used [by That’s Lancashire] are now back as vital teaching spaces.’
It is unclear where That’s Lancashire is now operating from, as That’s TV’s and Ofcom’s websites still list UCLan as the address.
In Wales, That’s TV Swansea took over an existing Ofcom licence and continued to broadcast from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD). The station moved out in August this year and a university spokesperson said, ‘Following an evaluation carried out by the university, it was concluded that the facilities occupied in part by That’s TV would be better utilised…[by] students.’
Online addresses for the station are also incorrect.
That’s Oxfordshire – the second station to launch in the network – has also left its base at Abingdon & Witney College. A college spokesperson said the station’s ‘hire contract came to an end and we needed the space back for our students’.
A local broadcaster that serves the community?
A former employee of That’s Solent expressed concerns about the channel working with students, saying ‘That’s not how you want them to start off, thinking that this is what media’s like…[that] it’s all about making money. It’s about serving the community. It wouldn’t surprise me if a lot of them, after a year or two of this, just went “this isn’t for me”‘.
Earlier this year That’s TV gave a statement to Buzzfeed that said ‘That’s TV seeks to comply with all of its legal, regulatory and contractual obligations and has continuing dialogue with Ofcom in that respect. The company is open and transparent with the BBC and invests all BBC receipts in the provision of its local services. In the spirit of openness and transparency That’s TV sets out the basis for its rolling local news service when applying for licences and has implemented this faithfully.’
Star & Crescent have approached Dan Cass for comment but have received no response; S&C contacted Highbury College’s press office who have declined to give a statement on That’s Solent TV or That’s TV. Highbury’s principal, Stella Mbubaegbu CBE, was also approached for comment but has not responded.
Read more about this year’s investigations into That’s TV:
Buzzfeed News: Revealed: Britain’s biggest Local TV company has “gamed” the BBC for hundreds of thousands of pounds of licence fee payers’ money
Star & Crescent: Former Employees Call for BBC Investigation of That’s Solent TV
Bella Caledonia: Selling Scotland’s local television to That’s TV is a travesty
24th October 2018: This article was amended at the request of the writer to update the number of stations awarded to That’s TV to 20; to clarify that there was change in the staff member liaising between That’s Solent and Highbury, not a change in the manager; clarifying the name of That’s TV Swansea Bay (previously reported as That’s TV Swansea); and 2 grammar corrections.