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The market delivers bad news

If Grade's shareholders had their way, ITV would probably broadcast no regional news programmes at a

Before the shock of the financial crisis wears off, parliament should take a small share of the public cash being showered on the banks to fund a monument to September 2008. It should be prominent - overlooking the M1, perhaps - and it should declare, in giant letters, "The Market Must Never Be Master".

This ought to be unnecessary given the current horrors. But we are forgetful creatures and prone to be seduced by things that seem to promise easy money, and the reminder might well prove useful.

It could be useful, for a start, in the television industry. The crash is going to be bad for commercial television, already in a grim state, mainly because the proliferation of channels and other forms of entertainment has diluted advertising revenue. (The market has given us more choice, it seems, than the market can bear.)

In this country we never allowed the market to gain mastery of television. We have laws and regulators, although over many years this has upset the well- funded BBC-hating and regulation-hating lobbies, not to mention many of the broadcasters themselves.

Even in ITV's golden "licence to print money" days, the companies chafed at the public service demands made of them. Lew Grade, the ATV boss, remarked contemptuously of one worthy programme favoured by the regulator: "That must be culture. It certainly ain't entertainment." Nor could he ever understand why Saturday afternoon wrestling had to be taken off-air, even though he was well aware the action was faked.

More recently another Grade, the ITV boss Michael, warned us against those who want to tackle the industry's woes with "another licence requirement here, more targets there, quotas absolutely everywhere". Instead, he said: "I actually think we need to back off, to make sure everyone has a fair crack of the whip, but then let fair competition decide."

Spoken last year, those words now look unfashionable. Even in the City, many are suddenly keen on regulation - licences, targets, quotas and all. With the bailout rate for banks running at one per week, "backing off" to allow "fair competition" no longer seems as virtuous as it once did.

Grade's grumbling related chiefly to the parts of ITV's licence requiring it to broadcast regional news programmes. If his shareholders had a choice, that is to say if we let the market be master, ITV would probably broadcast no regional news programmes at all.

But there is a wider interest here, which is about where we are to get our local and regional news at a time when the market does not want to provide it. The regional press is in a crisis at least as grave as ITV's. That leaves the BBC but, without competition, the BBC's regional news coverage, already uneven in quality, would get worse.

We are heading into a world where we can be told what is happening in Afghanistan and Hollywood and (ad nauseam) in Westminster, but there are fewer and fewer ways of finding out what is happening around the corner.

Ofcom, the regulator, is ready to help Grade out. Accepting his account of the plight of his company, it has proposed allowing him to dump some daytime bulletins in the regions and to consolidate regions so there are fewer of them, and thus fewer newsrooms to be sustained and fewer programmes to be made. This is a grudging concession, and perhaps a necessary one. It is certainly sad, and Ofcom should offer no more slices off the salami.

Buried in the depths of the Ofcom documentation about this concession is an observation that should worry ITV. Opinion research showed, it said, that in England "there is less emotional attachment to ITV" than to other broadcasters, and also a sense that quality had declined. It is in England that news regions are likely to be merged, and that can only weaken the emotional attachment further.

Even Lew Grade would not have been happy about that, and to be fair Michael is probably uncomfortable about the long-term implications for his audience figures. But his shareholders, who care only for the stock price tomorrow, will not give a toss. Another reason, if it were needed, why the market must never be master.

Never heard of him

On the subject of public service broadcasting, you may have heard about the HBO television series John Adams, which has just won a record 13 Emmy awards, including best miniseries, best actor (Paul Giamatti), best actress (Laura Linney) and best supporting actor (Tom Wilkinson). You are far less likely to have seen it, because in this country it has been buried in a 5.30pm slot on Saturdays on More4. Well, if you were a Channel 4 scheduler, you wouldn't bump Wife Swap or A Place in the Sun for some costume drama about a dead American president, would you?

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 06 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Perils of power