Why the bad news from ITN should worry everyone

It is the message that ratings matter more than journalism which sends shivers down the spine
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The Independent Culture
THERE IS a question every BBC correspondent asks when they arrive in a foreign country, hotfoot from base, to chase down the news. Just three words usually. Three very important words. Are ITN here? And if they are, there is a perceptible quickening of the pulse and an instant sharpening of the senses.

My most recent encounter with this phenomenon was in Indonesia during the forest fires that ravaged the country earlier this year. I arrived in-country and was calmly assured by the local fixer that the "opposition" had not arrived. And so I hired a helicopter and took off for the burning forests with my cameraman, confident we had the story to ourselves.

I will spare you a reporter's boring tale of the road - suffice to say that we returned with a strong story and dramatic aerial shots of the burning forests. And then, sipping a cold drink in the hotel lobby, pondering my script, I looked up and saw the bedraggled and muddy frame of ITN's Mark Austin, followed by his equally dishevelled cameraman. My smug satisfaction evaporated. To look as bad as they did, they must surely have been somewhere terrible. Austin was tight-lipped, the cameraman shrugged off my questions and went in search of a beer. I began to feel the old unease.

Mark Austin is an old friend and competitor. We worked the Far East beat together for several years. He is charming and very good company. No better man to share a drink and meal with at the end of the day in some god-forsaken corner of the earth. But he is also very tough, the kind of competitor you learn to keep an eye on. One of ITN's best, one of the Spitfire pilots of TV reporting. And so when Mark tells you he hasn't been doing much all day or he hasn't a clue what is going on, you learn to take it all with a large grain of salt.

I never got to see his piece, but I am sure it was very good, full of ITN's traditional dash and vigour. Naturally, I prefer the BBC's journalism and I take great pleasure every time we trump ITN. I would do, wouldn't I? But only a mean-minded pygmy would deny that ITN are first-class operators, and it would be a foolish BBC reporter who would take them for granted.

At its best, ITN produces well- crafted work that is a model of accessibility. Its best reporters have a natural instinct for what grabs the public imagination. I also happen to think ITN is very good for BBC News. Serious competition is something we need more of. When you know you are up against good operators like Austin or his colleague James Mates (ITN's Washington Correspondent) you take very good care not to get scooped. Of course, you follow your own nose but the knowledge that comparisons will be made between your report on the Nine O'Clock News and your opponents version on News At Ten makes you wary in the healthiest sense of the word.

Which brings me to the purpose of this eulogy to the enemy: the killing of News at Ten. You might have imagined that BBC journalists would be dancing in the wine bars to celebrate the demise of this great ITV institution: the evening field to ourselves. Prime-time news supremacy. Wrong. There is no cheering. Or if there is, it comes only from the shortsighted.

The death of News at Ten is bad news for all in British television journalism. The ITC's decision has established a depressing precedent in commercial broadcasting: if it comes down to a choice between your most venerable news programme and chasing ratings, the news goes.

I cannot say I was surprised by the decision. The arguments from the likes of Gerald Kaufman carried moral but not political weight. And whatever Mr Blair's complaints or those of Chris Smith, this is a government of pragmatists. It was never going to go to the barricades to save News at Ten. It is also a government impressed by commercial arguments. ITV is in serious ratings trouble; ratings mean income, income means survival. If showing movies instead of news at prime time guarantees bigger ratings and the long-term viability of ITV, the Government cannot afford to make too big a fuss. And so the campaign to save News at Ten withered on the vine.

I don't want to sound like a Miss Prim on the ratings issue. We all need them. It is self-evident to say, but worth repeating, that a brilliant programme which is watched by nobody represents a significant waste of a broadcaster's time. However, News at Ten still had, by anybody's standards, a huge audience. It had formidable viewer-loyalty, a brand name to envy. To sacrifice all that for blockbuster movies which, in theory, will drive ratings upwards is mistaken.

I don't accept Gerald Kaufman's argument that the move in itself represents a dumbing-down of TV journalism. I am certain ITN's correspondents will ensure that the material they produce for the new programmes is just as good as it is now. The launch of the new 60 Minutes-style current affairs programme is also a welcome development.

But it is the message that ratings matter more than journalism at prime time which should send shivers down the spines of anybody who wants to see the broadest available choice of information on television. The idea that the late and dramatic parliamentary development will not appear on News at Ten but on some graveyard bulletin at 11pm, when many of the audience will have headed for bed, is depressing. Neither do I think it makes much sense, from a competitive point of view, for ITN. The proposed ITN six- thirty news will follow a soon-to-be revamped BBC Six O'Clock News. I may be wrong but the timing strikes me as unwise. Six-thirty feels like a neither-here-nor-there slot. If I am proved wrong and the ratings soar, I will send a bottle of champagne to the ITV boss, Richard Eyre.

This is, as I have already said, not a matter of partisan sniping at ITV. The battle to save quality journalism in the face of falling ratings is a crisis for television executives everywhere. The issue in the US has largely been resolved by dumbing down. News is kept at prime time but the content suffers as audience-chasing leads the programmers down- market. The result is often entertaining. But demanding or challenging, very rarely.

At its worst, the system can produce journalistic disasters like the "Tailwind" scandal, which caused CNN such grief earlier in the year. (The network wrongly claimed that US forces had used nerve gas to kill defectors in Vietnam. Poor research and a grab at ratings were blamed for the story).

In the US these days, serious journalism tends to be targeted at smaller, niche audiences. That naturally means smaller budgets. One of the results has been a dramatic reduction in the amount and quality of foreign reportage by American networks. The US public, never the best informed on foreign affairs, is left in a state of ignorance, befuddled when their government launches policy initiatives abroad when they have been told little by their broadcasters.

We are a long way from this in Britain. But with competition increasing from satellite and digital channels, the old broadcasters will face pressure. There is no easy solution. But it should be possible to make what we do, the news we produce, something that masses of people will still want to watch. The young may never feel as excited about the news as they do about Leonardo DiCaprio or Kate Winslett. But that does not mean we should abandon the field.

Goodbye, News at Ten. I, for one, will miss you.

The writer is a BBC Special Correspondent