Media: Have we got (no) news for you

The Neil Report; The death of `News at Ten' comes at a time when there is no longer any regular serious current affairs on ITV
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The Independent Culture
The furore surrounding ITV's successful campaign to ditch its flagship News at Ten has meant that the efforts of those who run Britain's most-watched commercial station to downgrade their commitment to network news has not exactly gone unnoticed. But their equally successful strategy to denude ITV of serious current affairs has provoked little uproar because it has been done more slowly and stealthily. The combined effect, however, is producing a significant shift in the country's television culture: as of next year, prime-time ITV becomes a no-go area for mainstream news and current affairs.

This change marks the end of ITV's pretensions still to be regarded as a public-service broadcaster and calls into question whether its lapdog regulator, the Independent Television Commission (ITC), has any further purpose. For viewers it means that those who wish to follow current affairs in more depth and with more rigour than superficial tabloid values allow will henceforth have to depend almost entirely on the BBC - a broadcasting monopoly which is hardly healthy for a vibrant democracy.

Those of us who have followed ITN's long and troubled relations with its ITV paymasters are not surprised by the demise of News at Ten. It is widely known that ITV tried to kill it in 1993 and was only stopped by some heavyweight disapproval from the then prime minister. What has been forgotten in an industry with short memories is that ITV never wanted News at Ten in the first place.

When News at Ten was launched in the late Sixties on the back of the successful move to half-hour, prime-time newscasts by the American networks, it had to be forced on the ITV companies by the then regulator, the IBA. Even reluctant ITV bosses insisted on a short trial period of several weeks; they hoped to kill it off after that. It was only because the fledgling news programme proved to be such a ratings and critical success that they became reconciled to its survival (and the BBC quickly launched a half-hour news of its own).

But news has never been a priority for those who run ITV. The regional panjandrums of commercial TV were happy to dine out on the numerous industry awards to ITN and to bask in its international reputation. For a long period, under the editorship of David Nicholas and with Alastair Burnet as its main anchorman, ITN was widely regarded as more authoritative and innovative than anything BBC news had to offer.

But ITV kept it on a tight budget, never allowed it to develop its own distinctive documentary strand despite the great brand name and, unlike the US networks, steadfastly refused to market and promote news as an integral and essential part of the schedule. Even as ITV bosses were bemoaning the recent slip in News at Ten's ratings as TV channels have proliferated, they did nothing to revive them through on-air and print promotion of the programme and its presenters. Perhaps they feared that such marketing would be too successful.

The main regional ITV baronies in London, Birmingham and Manchester resisted ITN's wish to diversify into documentaries and current affairs because it would have been competition for their own network offerings. And, as long as Granada was making World in Action and Thames producing This Week - both broadcast at peak viewing times - viewers in search of serious current affairs were not necessarily cheated. But the death of News at Ten comes at a time when there is no longer any regular serious current affairs on ITV, at least not at a time when most of us want to watch.

This Week, which used to provide weekly commentary and analysis on mainstream politics, no longer exists. The various - and increasingly tabloid - offerings which replaced it have all bombed (and none had the serious purpose of This Week). World in Action has survived - and at peak time - but only at the cost of relentless dumbing down: its hard-edged investigative journalism has given way to a tabloid agenda, with much emphasis on consumer concerns and stunts (its current contribution to the devolution debate has been to ask actors to wear anti-Scottish T-shirts in Glasgow to test the reaction).

I had a huge row with This Week over its flawed "Death on the Rock" documentary, and the relentless left-wing bias of World in Action used to grate (though it once did a wonderful expose of Gerry Adams' terrorist past). But nobody could deny they were quality programmes with a serious purpose. Nothing like them now exists anywhere on ITV's network schedules.

Indeed, ITV can no longer be bothered to provide live Budget coverage, it is increasingly reluctant to interrupt its regular entertainment shows with breaking news coverage and it has lost all interest in live coverage of important national events, unless they are surefire ratings winners, like the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales. The network's sole contribution to serious discussion of mainstream politics, Jonathan Dimbleby, is buried in the Sunday lunchtime slot and, though professionally presented, lacks the impact or authority of its predecessors, Weekend World and Brian Walden (both of which were broadcast just before Sunday lunch rather than during it).

This is a pathetic state of affairs for a network that still claims it adheres to public-service obligations in order to protect its position as the nation's premier commercial channel. The excuse most commonly trotted out by those who control it is that the government has made TV so competitive, with new channels springing up all over the place, that it can no longer afford to broadcast current affairs programmes with limited appeal in prime time. This is self-serving nonsense.

The American commercial networks face far greater competition than ITV (over 70 per cent of US homes are multi-channel, compared with around 20 per cent in Britain) yet they manage to provide a more considerable diet of network news and current affairs while their local affiliates all provide substantial local news programming.

No major US network would fail to broadcast live the President's state of the union address or other important national events. All regularly interrupt their schedules with breaking news. They spend substantial sums promoting their news programmes and their anchors. Sunday morning is wall- to-wall political discussion. And news magazine shows increasingly dominate prime-time ratings (four of them are among the 20 most-watched programmes in America).

This is all done in America without the cajoling of a regulator. Yet ITV, which remains far more cosseted from market forces than any US network, can manage none of this, despite making profits of over pounds 400m last year. Clearly, the problem at ITV is not just the failure of regulation: its traditions are also being undermined by the priorities of those who control it.

They promise a weekly American-style news magazine at 10pm as a sop to critics but, unlike the US networks, British television seems unable to popularise without trivialising. The suspicion remains that it has scrapped News at Ten to make way for more uplifting programmes like the recently- broadcast Vice: The Sex Trade, which no supposedly vulgar mainstream US network would dream of showing.

ITV is able to get away with all this because the ITC has been nobbled by the ITV companies. The ITC is a shadow of its former self, run by an unknown and undistinguished businessman with little experience of TV, and populated by bureaucrats who do ITV's bidding. When no ITV bosses would appear live on BBC2's Newsnight recently (so much for public accountability) to defend the end of News at Ten, the ITC's director of programmes obligingly stepped in to put ITV's case.

In America it is known as "regulatory capture": those doing the regulating end up in thrall to the powerful commercial interests they are supposed to be controlling. But now that the ITC has sold the pass on ITV's public- service obligations, it is difficult to divine any purpose in the further squandering of taxpayers' money on a lame-duck television regulator.

Andrew Neil is the editor-in- chief of `Sunday Business' and `The Scotsman'