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  1. Politics
3 April 2000

Why ITV was right to move News at Ten

Brenda Maddoxargues that ministers should stop interfering with commercial television

By Brenda Maddox

Certain questions – the role of the monarchy, the relation of the Celts to the rest – are endemic in national life. Others survive as endearing reminders of the World We Have Lost. The time has come for that hoary old question “Whither News at Ten?” to be pasted in the album along with “Is there honey still for tea?”

Yet, unbelievably, in the age of the hand-held internet screen, MPs are demanding that ITV put News at Ten back where it was before last March. Bad enough was a recent press conference with Gerald Kaufman delivering his Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s sermon on the dire consequences of last year’s shift of the sacred bulletin to 11pm. Worse was Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, admitting to the Broadcasting Press Guild that “for once, I welcome the contribution of the select committee”.

Smith wants to design a new form of regulation to deal with the converging technologies of broadcasting and telecommunications. The new regulatory aim, he says, will be a lighter touch. If he really believes this, then, rather than expressing nostalgia for News at Ten, he should be preparing the public to accept certain facts: that television news is no money-spinner and that the ITV companies, which are already required to pay hefty sums for their licences and to obey rules on taste, decency and regional content, ought to be left to make their own decisions on reaching audience and advertisers.

It is not as if viewers had no other source of television news. The BBC and Channel 4 are both providers of excellent national and international news. What is more, news junkies who subscribe to cable and satellite have three round-the-clock services – CNN International, Sky News and the BBC’s digital News 24 – vying to feed their habit. Why should viewers not switch over when they want to watch news?

News at Ten dates back to 1967 and the dawn of ITN (Independent Television News), when Alastair Burnet persuaded Margaret Thatcher that the ITV companies must be required to provide high-quality news at peak time, and must show it simultaneously across the country. This imposition made some sense when there was one television set to a household and the whole family sat round it like The Simpsons. But today, in a multi-channelled, multi-set world, with more and more people living alone, an adult who wishes to watch an entire film on ITV before 10.30pm should not be prevented by regulation from doing so. Until the Independent Television Commission, the ITV regulator, granted ITV’s long-standing plea to be allowed to shift the 10pm bulletin, any film not suitable for children could not begin before the 9pm watershed, and was then interrupted by the mandatory bongs of News at Ten.

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Kaufman as good as threatened the ITC with extinction in the regulation redesign if the commission does not “require ITV to put right what it has put wrong”. Strong language. But how is “wrong” to be judged if the young prefer to get their news-fix from the internet rather than ITV?

Chris Smith’s main worry (and perhaps Kaufman’s, too) is the fall in viewership of ITV regional programmes. Repositioning ITV’s Early News at 6.30 has dislodged a lot of regional programmes that had gone out at that time.

Politicians believe that the public mainly gets its political information from radio and television, not from national news-papers. Others believe that politicians like regional slots for giving them airtime they rarely command from national broadcast media. But do the viewers suffer?

New communications legislation requires bold thinking on the part of the Departments of Culture, Media and Sport, and Trade and Industry, jointly charged with the task. On Tuesday, the Culture Secretary vowed in the House to save the regional character of ITV. Yet the 13 ITV regions themselves, the celebrated “map”, may be as anachronistic as News at Ten. Remember the days when a Richard Burton on the board was necessary to get a franchise for Harlech Television? Today the ITC, with commercial realism, has dispensed with local flavour at the board level and allowed the ITV ownership to group into three big chunks: Granada, United and Carlton. Now United and Carlton are hoping that the Competition Commission will let them become one. If the logical next step – one big ITV company – were allowed, could a single national ITV schedule be far behind?

Once again, does it matter? Extensive services provided by non-commercial BBC are available – another justification for the compulsory licence fee. With BBC Scotland, BBC Wales, BBC North Ireland and the rest, as well as BBC local radio, the corporation amply caters for local needs. ITV need not do the same unless it chooses. Indeed, in a multiracial, increasingly mobile society, ITV could plausibly argue that the new “regions” are communities of interest, not of geography, and that it can serve these with specialised programmes.

In May, the ITC will give its own verdict on whether the ITV companies have met the quality criteria laid down when it permitted them to shift News at Ten. You can be sure that the commission will muster lots of research numbers to support its judgement on whether or not the quality of the ITV news has deteriorated and if, and why, the promised audience figures have not materialised. Yet the real truth may be too unpalatable for the ITC to admit. It could be that the appetite for television news has waned along with interest in politics. If so, it is not the duty of a regulator to whet it.

The hardest policy problem for the government lies not in the regulation of commercial, but rather of public-service, television. The task is to design a new way of making the BBC accountable, which means replacing the BBC’s governors with something better than rubber stamps for the chairman and director-general.