Media: News at Ten - MPs ignore the inconvenient evidence: Gerald Kaufman and his House of Commons committee are in no position to accuse others of evasion, says David Lister

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The Independent Online
'THIS IS a select committee of the House of Commons.' The phrase does have a magisterial ring. Gerald Kaufman, chairman of the National Heritage Select Committee, clearly thinks so as he recites it regularly when he believes a witness is getting above himself.

Mr Kaufman has cut quite a few witnesses down to size this year as his committee has taken evidence on the press and privacy, the future of the BBC, the price of compact discs and, last week, the ITV companies' attitude to News At Ten.

The committee hearings have been nothing if not dramatic: full of interruptions, warnings and short fuses. But watching them, one is tempted sometimes to repeat Mr Kaufman's reminder of the committee's status - but aim the reminder at him and his committee.

Too often the committee members have seemed more concerned to reverse the traditional roles and play Paxman and Day, rather than conduct an impartial examination. They appear to have decided before the curtain rises who are the heroes and who the villains.

In the report on News At Ten, issued within 24 hours of taking evidence (funny how fast MPs can write reports when it is a subject that concerns their own public exposure), the ITV chiefs seem to have changed from witnesses to defendants. Greg Dyke and his colleagues had put their case in an 'evasive and wholly unconvincing manner,' the MPs announced.

It was reminiscent of the same committee's inquiry into the difference in compact disc prices between here and the United States. The record company executives were treated like used- car salesmen. The managers of Dire Straits and Simply Red, who wanted prices here lowered, were fawned upon.

But there appeared to be real trouble when the manager of Dire Straits, asked to comment on prices in the US, replied that the American scene was quite different, the market was bigger and retailers had CDs on sale or return, which they don't here. The comparison was a 'red herring', he said.

This was not meant to be in the script. After an expenses- paid trip to New York, MPs could hardly have their star witness saying that the whole purpose of the inquiry was a red herring. So the remark was simply and blatantly ignored. Not a single member took it up.

Last week, as well, the committee was too taken up with its own adversarial performances to address some of the more sophisticated problems raised by the witnesses' answers.

First, it failed in the meeting and in the report that followed to challenge the ITV statement that the 10pm timing is no longer significant, as we receive most of our foreign news from the east rather than the west (though other evidence was challenged).

That such a matter-of-fact dismissal of the continuing influence of the world's most important superpower has been repeated and gone unchallenged a number of times in the last fortnight is one of the most astonishing aspects of this saga.

Second, Andrew Quinn, chief executive of the ITV associations, made the point that in the US, where the nightly bulletin is shown at 7pm, there is a greater appetite for news than here. As with the Dire Straits example, this argument was too inconvenient to warrant examination, so it was ignored. There is no mention of it in the report.

But most telling of all was Mr Dyke's plea, in which he reminded MPs how the Broadcasting Act of 1990 had decreased regulation and opened the door to more satellite channels and the increased competition that was now provoking ITV to want to move News At Ten. If Parliament wanted the news to be sacrosanct at 10 o'clock, then why didn't Parliament say so and put it in the legislation, he asked with exasperated gesticulation.

There was, of course, no answer, either at the committee or in the report. Parliament passed the Act, whose inevitable consequence is an ever-fiercer battle for advertising and ratings. If you legislate for a free market, expect to see your most cherished goods sold off cheap when the going gets tough. It is not just Mr Dyke and friends who are guilty of evading the issue.

(Photograph omitted)

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