ITV’s Welsh News – a race to the finish

Geraint Talfan Davies assesses the runners and riders in the unprecedented sprint to award contracts for ITV’s news for Wales

If anybody is going to be in a hurry at the start of this year, it is the independent panel set up by the UK’s Department of Culture Media and Sport to decide on who will provide news of Wales, Scotland and one English region on ITV – under the creative but inelegantly named concept of an independently financed news consortium (IFNC).

At a Cardiff conference before Christmas, the eager audience – there was a whiff of public money in the air – was rather surprised that the DCMS official present gave a clear impression that the unless contracts had been signed with the chosen consortia before the General Election was called, the process would be put in abeyance.

Since the Conservative spokesman, Jeremy Hunt, is said to be unenthusiastic about IFNCs, many gave credence to a rumour circulating at the same conference that a deal was being concocted whereby ITV would be granted concessions lightening some of its other public service obligations, including regional services in England, in exchange for sticking by the provision of news services and some other programming in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This would avoid having to commit public money to the IFNCs.

With 6th May being most people’s favoured date for the General Election, this might suggest that the IFNC contracts would have to be signed by the end of March in order to squeeze under the wire – rather quicker than the DCMS published timetable which suggests only that preferred bidders would be announced in late March, with final contractual discussions in April-May and a contract award in May.

Were the panel not to reach the finishing line in time there would be a sharp sense of disappointment in the media community in Wales, since IFNCs hold out the prospect of a break out from the status quothat could help strengthen the media infrastructure in Wales. A resumption of the ITV status quo ante doesn’t lift the spirit in the same way, except maybe in the Treasury. There is at least the prospect of some nail-biting, not to mention abortive expenditure by prospective bidders.

However, there are reasons not be too gloomy. Richard Hooper, the panel chairman, and a former chairman of the Radio Authority as well as former Deputy Chairman of Ofcom, is not a man to waste his time on a fruitless journey. It is generally thought that under him the Radio Authority made a rather better fist of dealing with radio licences than Ofcom’s radio licensing committee (on which he did not sit), although his sharp business sense tended to emphasise financial staying power over editorial ambition.

The 6-person panel, announced on Friday (8 January), is a judicious mix of television, radio, newspaper and local online experience, that responds to the multi-media nature of the IFNC concept. It also contains an experienced Welsh representative, Glyn Mathias, who has been political editor for ITN at Westminster and for BBC Wales at Cardiff, as well as Wales’s representative on the Electoral Commission where he was, reputedly, very influential. He has also been a member of Ofcom’s Welsh Advisory Committee, a committee that, during Ofcom’s review of public service broadcasting and its aftermath, has taken quite a robust view of Welsh needs. Scotland is represented on the panel, by Val Atkinson, a former Deputy Head of News and Current Affairs at BBC Scotland.

The line-up in Wales is already becoming clear, following the submission of obligatory pre-qualification questionnaires before Christmas. In fact the DCMS timetable states that the short-listed groups will be announced tomorrow (12th January). Despite the fact that the panel membership was not announced until the end of the last week, this may yet prove possible, since all it will require is the removal of those obviously not meeting the criteria. The panel will then proceed to a process of what is called competitive dialogue – certainly preferable to a straight auction.

Bidders will be judged, not only on overall cost and value for money, but also on management strength and processes, depth and breadth of service offered, relevance to and understanding of regional issues, culture and opportunities and, lastly, strength and credibility for the proposals in terms of journalism, news gathering, creativity and innovation, a multi-platform approach and technical management.

The two most powerful bidders for the Welsh contract are sure to be Llanelli-based Tinopolis, although it is not clear whether it will be partnering with anyone else – although Trinity Mirror is currently without a suitor in Wales. In business terms, Tinopolis is Wales’s most successful independent producer by far, being the only one to have had the financial strength to turn itself into a major UK player. It’s no surprise that, therefore, that it will also bid for the Scottish contract with the owners of three of Scotland’s biggest newspapers – The Scotsman, The Herald and the Aberdeen-based Press and Journal.

The second is Taliesin News, a consortium comprised of

– the existing ITV Wales news staff and ITN

– Norfthcliffe Media (owners of the South Wales Evening Post, Llanelli Star and Carmarthen Journal)

– Newsquest (owners of the South Wales Argus)

– Tindle Newspapers (owners of 12 weekly titles across south Wales as well as Radio Ceredigion and the Welsh language newspaper, Y Cymro)

– Boomerang – the independent television producer and

– Cardiff University’s School of Journalism.

This second consortium will be chaired by Clive Jones, chairman of GMTV. Before his retirement from ITV plc he was in charge of all ITV’s regional news operations. He is also a non-executive member of the S4C management board, and was thought to have been influential in S4C’s unsuccessful bid to become the tendering organisation for the news contract in Wales. It is not yet clear whether he will stand down from his S4C’s responsibilities if his consortium wins.

The real surprise in this consortium is the omission of Media Wales, offshoot of Trinity Mirror, the biggest newspaper owner in Wales. Trinity Mirror is involved in bids in Scotland and in the Tyne Tees-Border area. It is hard to know whether the omission is a political judgement or the result of commercial disagreement, but it may become academic in a year or two if relaxation of ownership rules sees Trinity buying either the Swansea or the Newport paper.

Another interested party is the Belfast-based UTV group, owner of two Swansea radio stations – Swansea Sound and The Wave. It has teamed up with NWN Media – formerly North Wales Newspapers – owner of the Wrexham Leader and a range of titles across north and mid Wales. UTV will also be bidding for the one English regional contract, in the Tyne Tees-Border area. UTV has strong radio interests in the north west of England and in Ireland, north and south of the border. It has also been a strong television performer on its home patch, one of the few regions where ITV outperforms the BBC.

One of the most interesting submissions from Wales, although the least likely to succeed, is from Pembrokeshire TV. On the back of 18 months experience of an online television service for Pembrokeshire, Peter Edwards and Gordon Main, have put forward an idea for a network of 22 local news operations, based on Welsh local authority areas. In all probability this will not get over the first hurdle, but the panel could benefit from thinking deeply about the critique of television news that they have put forward. They want something deeper and meatier, with an emphasis on investigation, and delivered by not-for-profit organisations. Definitely something to ponder.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chairman of the IWA

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