MEDIA FORUM: Is the ITC in jeopardy following News at Ten row? - What is the Independent Television Commission’s role? Clearly there are still those who believe that it’s there to do what politicians tell it to do - as the reopened News at

It’s just about possible to respect a politician who’s obsessed about the scheduling of a television programme. Just about, but not quite. People with strong views about TV schedules are often sad individuals with solitary hobbies and passionate feelings for programmes like One Man And His Dog, Songs of Praise or The Antiques Roadshow.

It’s just about possible to respect a politician who’s obsessed

about the scheduling of a television programme. Just about, but not

quite. People with strong views about TV schedules are often sad

individuals with solitary hobbies and passionate feelings for programmes

like One Man And His Dog, Songs of Praise or The Antiques Roadshow.



And then there’s Gerald Kaufman MP. Kaufman, who is chairman of the

Department of Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, is very

irritated at the demise of News at Ten. He’s been irritated for a long

time now (it came off the air almost a year ago) and often the pressure

becomes unbearable.



Like last week, when he was, yet again, moved to insist that it be

reinstated.



Kaufman doesn’t often find himself in tune with the feelings of his

colleagues.



On this subject, however, he is - and it’s not difficult to work out

why.



News at Ten was an undemanding, uncritical showcase for politicians and

it was one that they could watch while still comfortably enveloped in

the mellow glow that comes over some public figures before the panicky

run up to last orders.



All of which may explain one or two oddities about this saga. For

instance, the doggedness with which Kaufman has pursued this issue even

though it is now firmly the responsibility of the Independent Television

Commission.



Despite pressure from Kaufman, the ITC gave ITV the initial clearance to

move News at Ten.



So that, in turn, might explain why Kaufman issued the threat he did

last week. Kaufman was obviously piqued that the ITC ignored him in the

first place. Now he is implying that if the ITC ignores him again,

they’ll be sorry. He stated: ’It will be a very important test of the

ITC as a regulatory body whether they abide by their own criteria and

require ITV to put right, in the view of this committee, what they have

put wrong.’



Kaufman is actually the one who, on this occasion, is wrong. The

schedule changes have not failed to meet performance targets laid down

by the ITC - although Leslie Hill, the chairman of the ITV Network,

concedes that ITV’s news audiences can certainly be improved. He

comments: ’It is irrefutable that ITV’s overall news viewing figures are

down, but the fact is that we have met all of the ITC’s conditions and,

where viewing is concerned, we will do better and the figures will come

back. One of the problems we have faced is that the 11pm bulletin has

not inherited a big enough audience, but when we have run the right

programming it has had five million viewers. If it always had that

audience then the overall news figure would at least be on a par with

what it was before. We always said it would take time.



’This is a complex issue but I think we have a very strong case. I have

a great respect for the job that the ITC does.



I think it was a bold decision to allow us to move News at Ten and it

was the right decision. The ITC takes its responsibilities very

seriously and I am sure it will continue to do what it sees as its

duty.’



ITV has expectations. So does the advertisers’ trade body ISBA. Its

director-general, John Hooper, states: ’We have a good relationship with

the ITC but one of our long-term gripes is that it is a regulatory body

with no duty of care towards those who indirectly pay for it - the

advertisers.



So we would like to see the Government deregulate TV advertising and

split that issue away from programming and content regulation.



We would also like to see the BBC and commercial TV being brought under

the same over-arching control. We want to see a white paper that sets a

framework for a future in which media are converging.’



That may now be a forlorn hope - the ITC has been put in an almost

intolerable situation. This also has to be seen in the context of more

widespread speculation about the future role of the ITC and indeed,

about the whole regulatory environment.



The ITC is preparing to consult with interested parties as it prepares

its own white paper submission and it is well aware of the increasing

calls for there to be one single broadcasting authority. In its

deliberations on the licence fee increase, the Government has already

made clear that it believes the BBC could benefit from greater

scrutiny.



Are the political knives really out for the ITC? Would that be a bad

thing? Jim Marshall, broadcast spokesman for the IPA, says that the ad

industry has clear and consistent views on this: ’We’ve made no secret

of the fact that we believe in the long run there should be one

regulatory body for all broadcasters. Whether that single body is the

ITC or not is debatable. There’s more than a touch of hypocrisy in this

News at Ten issue. The ITC has been given a brief these days to operate

with a lighter touch. You can’t give them that brief then turn round and

tell them to do exactly the opposite. Everyone has to acknowledge that

the world is changing and it is becoming more important to understand

the dynamic between public service requirements and commercial

pressures.



For instance, I find it almost insulting that Kaufman can get upset

about News at Ten but has no problems about Panorama moving out of

peaktime.’



Russell Boyman, a managing partner of Mediapolis, also hopes that some

good can come from this: ’We have to stop living in the past. ITV has a

business to run and the interests of advertisers are extremely

important. The point is that there is no public interest being served by

ITV being hamstrung in the way that it is. I don’t hear any great public

outcry about the timing of news bulletins.



You’d have to assume that this is all about a government wanting to have

greater influence over the way its activities are covered. From that

point of view it’s outrageous that an MP can express a vested interest

to this extent. But, perhaps perversely, it might be no bad thing if

this leads to a greater debate about the role of the ITC or its possible

successors.



I don’t think it’s conceivable that any such debate would lead to a more

restrictive regulatory regime than the one we have at present.’



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