Stewart Purvis: ITN is on the front line, whatever Martin Bell says

'ITN always attracts opprobrium from those who squirm at the idea of mass audience'
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The Independent Online

As a BBC reporter, Martin Bell always was a fearsome competitor of his ITN counterparts. But in his article for The Independent last week, he was in danger of providing evidence of what he called his own "sense of obsolescence". At the heart of it is a simple misunderstanding about what ITN is. It can be forgiven because of ITN's uniqueness as the world's only provider of news programmes to competing broadcasters. But, frankly, my forgiveness tank is running a bit low for those who ought to check before going into print.

The bulk of ITN services are not directly advertiser funded, because most of our £100m revenue comes from fixed-term, index-linked contracts with our broadcast customers. Nor do we just produce the news for ITV. The 1990 Broadcasting Act transformed ITN into an independent production company, providing news services to a wide range of radio and television broadcasters.

So when Bell accuses ITN of "dumbing down", what exactly is he talking about? Channel 4 News, winner of this year's Broadcast magazine award for best news programme? Or perhaps 5 News, the most innovative news programme to arrive on British television in the past decade?

No, it's clear that Bell still thinks the only thing ITN does is ITV News. And it is ITV News that he undoubtedly had in his sights last week. He is not alone. It's our highest profile production and has always attracted more than its fair share of opprobrium from those who squirm at the very idea of "mass audience".

Since 1955, ITV's news has always been the equivalent of a mid-market newspaper – authority with accessibility. ITN's former editor, Sir David Nicholas, called it "quality popular journalism". Foreign news always was and always will be an essential element.

So by what measure do critics condemn ITV News? In Bell's case, he cited our "fire sale" price reduction to beat off competition for the ITV News contract from Rupert Murdoch. He goes on to claim that our coverage of last year's Afghan conflict is a case in point. Let's take each of these in turn.

It is true that the price of our news service to ITV has fallen since the early 1990s. But can Bell name any other company in any media market in the world that has beaten Rupert Murdoch no fewer than five times in five years? (ITV News, 1996; Channel 4 News, 1997; 5 News, 1999; IRN, 2000; and ITV News, 2001.) And, throughout all that, averaged profits of about 10 per cent of turnover.

More importantly, what Bell has failed to acknowledge is that ITN is way ahead in harnessing technology to reduce costs and maintain quality. We even won an Emmy last year for the introduction of digital technology across our newsrooms, allowing journalists to produce their own news packages from their PCs.

It has also allowed us to preserve front-line resources. ITN has 60 news crews in the UK alone. Taking into account the news exchange deals with our international partners and suppliers, ITN can rely on more than 2,000 news crews around the world to gather and deliver the latest breaking stories. And we now have 14 satellite up-links – crucial in getting stories from the field back to the studio.

As for our alleged neglect of foreign affairs, well I suggest Bell tells that to the 22 crews ITN deployed to the Afghan front line last year. And while he might not have appreciated it, the audience did. Every single one of the peak-time news programmes we produce across the three commercial networks recorded year-on-year increases in audience. ITV News comprehensively beat BBC News the night of 11 September.

So if the alleged weakness of ITV News isn't in its front-line resources, or its ability to defeat red-in-tooth-and-claw competition from the likes of Rupert Murdoch or its increased ratings, then where is it? I would suggest it is in the eyes of those who see "popular" and "quality" as mutually exclusive, and who would prefer that broadcast news didn't embrace the technological and editorial innovation that will keep it as a mass medium in the 21st century.

Stewart Purvis is the chief executive of ITN

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