It seems scarcely credible that after nearly three years of Ofcom reviews of public service broadcasting and further months of Government policy-making under the banner of Digital Britain, we are now no nearer knowing how news for Wales will be provided on ITV in the coming years. This one area where the election result will make a difference.
Several of the key planks of Digital Britain have this week finally hit the Parliamentary buffers, with the Government having to drop its plans for independently financed news consortia (IFNCs) to deliver regional news services for ITV across the country, and for a 50p a week levy on telephone landlines to fund next generation broadband access to rural areas, and for new powers for Ofcom.
Those companies and consortia who invested time and money in entering and winning the beauty parade for the IFNC pilot schemes in Scotland, Wales and the North East of England are now in limbo. The DCMS has said that no contracts will be signed before the election. Richard Hooper, who chaired the selection process, had in any case warned the groups that they cannot count on any public funding after the two-year pilot.
There will be intense disappointment and frustration in Wales – and at UTV, the winner of the Welsh contest – at this turn of events, although it had been predicted even as bidding for the pilot scheme got under way. The IFNC concept, dreamt up by Ofcom during its review of public service broadcasting, had felt like a break-out from an increasingly sterile status quo. Bidders responded with enthusiasm and imagination, something that had gone missing from ITV in this context for some years past. The contest in Wales was, by all accounts, more intense and of a higher quality than elsewhere.
The prospect of some limited public funding support for the pilots had offered the hope of stability and realistic funding for the development of a quality news service that would better match the need in Wales for a strong competitor for the BBC.
The new chairman of ITV plc, Archie Norman, unlike his predecessor, Michael Grade, is said to be keen to see the company stay in regional news, rather than release slots in the ITV schedule for the IFNCs. But whether this is a principled stance or simply the result of a revival in ITV’s advertising revenues is unclear, as are the terms for the continuation of this commitment.
Is Archie Norman planning to stand-by all the current output of ITV Wales, including 90 minutes a week of general programming, or simply the four hours a week of news bulletins? Or are we, as some suspect, to see the creation of a frothy UK magazine programme, no doubt replete with skateboarding ducks, with shorter news inserts from Wales, and other nations and regions.
If this rumour has any substance, Wales and Ofcom should tell ITV plc straightaway that such thoughts are not to be contemplated. The BBC tried such a ploy years ago – it was called Nationwide. It provided reporters with endless amusement at the expense of the ‘provinces’, but for many it was then and would be today a patronising embarrassment – not fit for purpose.
The uncertainty also leaves a question mark about the credibility of ITV plc. For the last five years anyone who questioned ITV’s repeated assertions that regional news was a cost it could no longer bear – because the old business model was irredeemably broken – was dismissed as naïve. Now, in middle of the worst financial crisis in 80 years, we are told it doesn’t seem so bad after all. As Nixon’s spokesmen used to say, previous statements are ‘inoperative’. Are we to believe that ITV has been crying wolf?
I suspect not. This is almost certainly all about a finely balanced deal involving ITV’s other regulatory obligations and its arrangements with advertisers. The danger for Wales is that the deal is so finely balanced that news for Wales will remain a peripheral matter for ITV plc, with no let up in the incentive to squeeze costs remorselessly. It is not a happy prospect.