Media / Talk of the Trade: Untimely death on the Thames

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The Independent Online
CONSPIRACY theorists maintain that Death on the Rock, Thames Television's controversial 1988 documentary about the shooting of three IRA terrorists in Gibraltar, was one of the indirect causes of the company's demise last week. Was it? Richard Dunn, its chief executive, is not sure.

'I don't share the view it was a direct rifle-shot execution,' he said last week. But he points to a coincidence. A few days before the programme was transmitted, the Independent Broadcasting Authority - which had previewed it at the highest level - had sent its views to the Home Office about the proposal to introduce competitive tendering for ITV franchises.

The IBA (which later became the Independent Television Commission) was firmly against the idea and Mr Dunn was leading ITV's campaign against it.

He says he thinks the government still had a relatively open mind on the issue at that stage. But in July, four months after Death on the Rock was transmitted, the government decided on the highest-bidder mechanism, which led to Thames being outbid in the 1991 auction.

Mr Dunn believes the timing was unfortunate. He suspects that the incident hardened the government's view that, whatever system was chosen to reallocate the franchises, it had to be absolutely objective rather than giving discretion to the IBA, which it no longer trusted.

The key mover in all of this was Mrs Thatcher. Mr Dunn says that what he would most like to know, and has never been able to discover, is the personal view of the then Home Secretary, the canny Douglas Hurd.

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