Welsh democracy without ITV – Grade’s endgame

The more you look at Ofcom’s proposals for reducing ITV’s programming for the nations and the regions of the UK, the more you sense that the endgame for ITV is approaching. And it’s happening just when the clouds are gathering over our newspapers, too. These are unprecedented crisis years for the media in Wales.

Braced for some months past for a reduction in general programming from four hours a week to three hours in January 2009, shocked ITV Wales staff at Ofcom’s press conference in Cardiff last week were desperate to know when the decision was taken to reduce the requirement still further to one and a half hours. According to the Ofcom team it was ‘within the last six weeks’.

This underlines how quickly events are moving and raises the most pressing question of all: how long can even this new deal last? ITV is on course to realise savings of £40m in this financial year, but has already said it wants another £35m cut out in 2009-10. One thing is absolutely certain – especially given the prospect of a few glum years for the economy – the deal will not last until 2014, when the current licence period ends. Indeed, I would be surprised if Michael Grade isn’t knocking on Ofcom’s door within six to nine months asking for a further renegotiation. Tragedy being replayed as farce.

Of course, it might not be Michael Grade at all, but a new owner attracted by one or two ITV assets, such as Coronation Street, and taking advantage of ITV plc’s desperately low share price. You can bet your life that such an owner is going to want to be rid of public service obligations altogether, and even more urgently than Grade.

In newspapers, Trinity Mirror, the biggest newspaper owner in Wales and the largest regional publisher in the UK, is closing three local papers in North Wales, and its printing base in Liverpool. The Daily Post will now be printed in Oldham instead. The circulation of the Western Mail from Monday to Friday is now less than 35,000 – only the higher sales on Saturdays brings the weekly figure up to just over 37,000.

In the first half of this year, across all Trinity Mirror’s regional titles, advertising was down 6 per cent, but the figure masked the accelerating trend – 3.1 per cent down from January to April, 11.3 per cent in May-June, and 17 per cent in July. Operating profits were down 21.7 per cent, and operating margins were down by 4.6 per cent although this still left a profit margin of 21 per cent that many businesses would regard as quite healthy.

Despite its substantial investment in a multi-media newsroom in Cardiff, ghoulish rumours started to circulate last week that Media Wales – publisher of the Western Mail and other titles – had been given two years to turn itself round. Although the use of Trinity’s new regional and local websites is rising sharply, digital revenues account for less than 10 per cent of revenue, and 13 per cent of profit.

The newspaper industry is starting to argue for relaxation of competition rules to allow further consolidation of ownership in regional newspapers, although consolidation of itself does nothing for quality of output. Arguably, consolidation killed off ITV’s regional mission.

Without the passing of a new Communications Act before the next General Election, in Wales we face the baleful prospect that there could be no-one left in ITV Wales HQ at Culverhouse Cross to cover the General Election itself in 2010, the Assembly elections in 2011 or a possible referendum on law-making powers for the Assembly. Viewing voters in Wales would be entirely reliant on BBC Wales – a prospect that would be deeply embarrassing for Ofcom, a regulator that has made so much of the need for plurality in broadcasting.

Ofcom itself brought forward its review of public service broadcasting by two years because it saw how quickly the existing business models were breaking down. The Assembly Government should now be insisting that the Westminster Government delivers on the promise made by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Andy Burnham MP, in a speech to the Royal Television Society last week, to bring forward its own legislative timetable.

The devolved Assemblies could make common cause on the issue, starting by insisting on representation on the DCMS Convergence think tank, that has been operating in parallel with the Ofcom PSB review. Wales should take the lead because its media crisis is, for a variety of reasons, substantially deeper than that facing Scotland or Ulster.

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