Much ink has been split recently over the future of Channel 4. Should it stay the same, or merge with channel Five, or be folded into BBC Worldwide? There is, in fact, a much bigger question which has scarcely been addressed. It concerns ITV. Does it have a future?
The broadcaster will unveil its results in two weeks' time but we do not have to wait to know that it is in some financial difficulty. A couple of weeks ago its chief operating officer sent an email to staff informing them that the advertising downturn was likely to put ITV under "severe strain". Its commercial boss said last week: "We are scrapping for our lives at the moment. We need every source of possible revenue – I don't care how small it is, we need it."
The Times has recently suggested that the broadcaster is considering selling some or all of its 40 per cent stake in ITN, which would raise some pin money.
We are talking about ITV, our national commercial broadcaster, not some hole-in-the-wall operator. Last month the credit rating agency Standard and Poor noted that the company's gearing is high, and graded it as a sub-investment "BB+". According to one City analyst, ITV's problems have been worsened by the deterioration of its pension fund, and the company has pledged to make up a shortfall out of diminishing profits.
ITV's position has weakened as television advertising, which supplies about 70 per cent of its revenues, has fallen by some 20 per cent year on year. But it would be idle to blame the company's problems entirely on the advertising recession. The 2004 creation of ITV as a single company out of its remaining constituent parts has failed. It has failed for investors – the share price has declined from a high of over 148p in 2004 to 29p last Friday. It has also failed for viewers, for whom the new mammoth company was supposed to offer superior programming. It hasn't.
One can easily become a bore invoking a golden age of television, but no one could plausibly deny that the quality of ITV's output has declined since the broadcaster was a collection of proud independent companies such as Granada, London Weekend, Yorkshire and Anglia. Where are the documentaries and the quality dramas now? Those who opposed the absorption of Granada into ITV were right. The creation of a super company was driven by the money men, and creativity took second place.
The irony is that ITV is not a super company at all. It is a tiny broadcaster slowly slipping off the radar. Last Friday it was worth about £1.3bn, whereas BSkyB, created only 20 years ago, was capitalised at £8.35bn. Over six times bigger! Isn't that a terrible indictment of the financially-driven men, led by Charles Allen, who created the behemoth of ITV? Admittedly the company has had to face challenges from an increasingly ubiquitous BBC, protected in these hard times by the guaranteed income of its licence fee, but with a few exceptions it has not fought back with better programmes.
Though he can hardly blamed for what has happened, the improvements Michael Grade promised when he took over as chairman of ITV two years ago have not materialised. He is fighting a rearguard action, and it is difficult to see how he can turn things around even if advertising recovers. After the digital switchover in 2012, ITV will be just another broadcaster competing on equal terms with scores of others. Something may survive, but the great days of ITV are over.
A free press protects us against an excess of lobsters
Last week I wrote about the Media Standards Trust, which had criticised newspapers for being inaccurate, and found precious few virtues in our press.
Here's another point. In Zimbabwe, where thousands of people are dying of cholera and malnutrition as a consequence of governmental abuse of power, President Robert Mugabe's mates are planning an 85th birthday bash for the old monster.
According to The Times, they want 2,000 bottles of champagne, 8,000 lobsters and 4,000 portions of caviar. This is moral depravity on a grand scale, and it could only happen in a country without a free press.
In Britain, several bankers were grilled last week. They have been living in a moral bubble, paying themselves vast amounts while they ruin their banks, and not desisting even when they are bailed out with taxpayers' money. Belatedly, though, some are getting the point – not as a result of being examined by MPs, or because of anything the Government has said, but because the media has acted as a channel for public revulsion.
Would the Media Standards Trust regard that as a virtue?
He may like to Twitter, but don't believe Boris is a twit
The brilliance of Boris Johnson is that he has convinced us he is unlike other politicians. Whereas normal ones exhort us to trust them, Boris invites us to love him, not despite his warts and all, but including them.
A good example last week was his "Twittering" – sending out mini blog messages for general consumption on the fast growing social networking website Twitter – after he was reprimanded for riding his bicycle in City Hall. He tried, as he has before, to turn a minor infraction to his advantage. The intended effect of this Twitter was to show that even though he is Mayor of London he is subject to the same rules as the rest of us, and not like normal pompous politicians who try to bend them in their favour.
One such man is the oleaginous Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee. It was during a short telephone conversation with Mr Vaz that Boris allegedly used the F-word 10 times. I must say that this surprises me because during many private exchanges with Boris over the years he has hardly ever sworn, and, if ever at odds, has shown himself to be well-mannered almost to the point of weakness.
Power, though, must change him, as it changes everyone. For all his attempts to convey the impression that he plays outside the normal conventions of politics, his tirade against Mr Vaz shows that he often operates within them. He can be as foul-mouthed as any Tammany Hall politician.
Don't treat Boris as a clown – not only because he isn't one but because it is dangerous to exempt any powerful politician from our usual standards of judgment. Speaking of which, Boris may find that a London Evening Standard owned by Alexander Lebedev is less starry-eyed about him than it was under its previous ownership. We should look through the act, and judge the politician.