ITN shareholders call for single owner to compete with news rivals

ITN yesterday demanded that all ownership restrictions on the commercial TV news operation be lifted, allowing ITV to take it over.

The news provider said the Communications Bill, now passing through Parliament, must free it of ownership rules. Under old media laws, no company could own more than 20 per cent of ITN. The Bill will set a 40 per cent limit but that still means that at least three companies have to own ITN.

Currently Carlton, Granada, Reuters, Daily Mail & General Trust and United Business Media each own 20 per cent of ITN – the last two shareholders are reckoned to be looking to sell their stakes. The Government believes that ITN's editorial output needs special protection from any one company owning it.

Carlton and Granada, which are in merger talks, bought ITN's rolling TV news channel last year and are known to be interested in buying up the whole business. The prospect of outright ownership by ITV was welcomed by ITN yesterday in a briefing for journalists.

Mark Wood, ITN's chairman, said: "In my view this [ownership of ITN] is not something government should be regulating at all. You don't need to regulate the ownership to regulate what goes on the screen."

Mr Wood said ITN and its shareholders were lobbying hard for a lifting of the ownership rules. The Communications Bill has passed through the committee stage in the Commons and will soon go to the House of Lords, where it is believed there is the best chance of an amendment to the ITN rules.

"Our shareholders are very supportive but shareholder interests change. Getting five parties to agree on things is not easy. Granada and Carlton have said they want the option of full ownership.... News businesses need investment," he said.

Mr Wood pointed out that the BBC and BSkyB, ITN's main domestic competitors, do not have equivalent ownership structures. He added that he wanted to see a clear remit statement published by the BBC for its rolling news channel, News 24, that distinguished it from the ITN and Sky News channels.

For the current year, ITN's revenues are forecast at around £90m with a profit in the low single digits. Of that, some £20m will come from its "enterprise unit" which includes services such as a news archive service, which sells ITN's historical footage but also that of other suppliers, such as Reuters.

ITN yesterday secured a deal to sell the archive clips of al-Jazeera, the satellite TV news operation based in Qatar that shot to fame after broadcasting Osama bin Laden's speeches following the 11 September terrorist attacks. ITN will sell all the al-Jazeera historical footage but clips from a current day's events will still be handled by the Arab station.

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