The reality behind ITV's latest soap

On The Press: For the big business stories, reporters need the common touch
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The Independent Online

The ITV takeover saga has been better entertainment than most ITV programmes, with the possible exception of Taggart. It had larger-than-life characters, involved vast sums of money, was about power and vanity and grudge and rivalry. In fact it was soap without the romance dimension - as far as we know.

When the Telegraph takeover was at its most gripping it was still a bit dull, because the key players, the Barclay brothers, set out to be smaller than life. TV people are not always charismatic, but they enjoy celebrating themselves and their industry. Many of them take on celebrity as though born to it - some were; television, like newspapers, has its dynasties. They like their get-togethers, their awards, their Edinburgh, their Bafta.

Deep down, television people are performers, so the luvvie tendency is great, whether you are a serious, principled, revered news celebrity such as Jon Snow or the people's mogul like Greg Dyke. Although he has counted many beans, you would never call Dyke a bean counter. Dyke, however, would refer to his rival Charles Allen using that term. They do not like each other.

Lurking as we do in the business section of this newspaper we must be careful not to tread on the toes of those more expert in boardroom matters. But the ITV story does illustrate journalistic points about engaging a wider public in specialist stories, and some cultural differences between print and broadcast. Business pages are important to the credibility of the more serious newspapers. The pages are high-profile to a relatively small but influential group of people.

Today's celebrity obsession has not exactly democratised business but has punched a hole in the ghetto wall. John Harvey-Jones broke the mould by bringing business to the people through TV. Alan Sugar is today's model. These businessmen are often scorned by their greyer peers for doing the business equivalent of dumbing down.

But businesses can be celebrities too, and when the household names are in trouble or being taken over, there is interest beyond the business community. Marks & Spencer, Rover and J Sainsbury are all examples. It is here that newspapers and television need the reporter who knows the subject and the players, but has the common touch when it comes to explaining it all to a wider public.

The job is easier when the players are quasi-celebrities anyway because they live in a medium that is forever in the spotlight. Soaps are written about in the tabloids as though they were real life; Davina's ratings are a "news" story; Paxman and Humphrys are given celebrity treatment in the serious press; and satellites pass overhead changing the face of television and upsetting the liberal press.

The on-off takeover of ITV (this one may be off but the soap will keep running) had all these ingredients, even though below the surface it was another bid story aimed at making money for the star performers. In this case they were Charles Allen, ITV chief ex-ecutive (many millions if someone else took over the company); Greg Dyke, front man for the pre-dators (many millions if all went well); Goldman Sachs, the merch-ant bankers (many millions anyway).

The grudge between Allen and Dyke goes back to the Granada takeover of LWT (I don't understand why, as a lot of people, including Dyke, made a lot of money out of it). But since then Allen has tended to be well regarded by the City while Dyke is well regarded by the "creatives". In a culture clash like this, the money men usually win; the creatives win only if they are money men too. Dyke is. Subsequently, while he was engaged in his post-Birt, pre-Hutton BBC director-general period, Granada and Carlton came together to make ITV.

Docu-drama is about plot and personality, and this one is no exception. Of more importance are the issues. We talk constantly these days about the future of newspapers in the digital age. Perhaps because television is part of the digital age we talk less about the future of television. But ITV audiences are falling just like many newspaper circulations. We hear about falling advertising revenues for newspapers. But ITV ad revenues are falling, too. TV was always good at distracting us from the reality and the issues with a good soap.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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