Granada 'in serious breach of franchise'

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ALLEGATIONS OF 'disappeared' directors, staff butchery, and breach of promise were levelled against Granada Television in an official frontbench Labour complaint yesterday.

Ann Clwyd, Labour's National Heritage spokeswoman, said she had formally asked Sir George Russell, chairman of the Independent Television Commission, and Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, to review Granada's licence.

She had been 'shocked' by what she had been told by well-placed sources within the industry, who alleged that Granada was 'seriously in breach' of its licence conditions: if neither the ITC nor the Government took action they could be challenged in the courts.

'This is a story of boardroom savagery, the like of which British television has never seen,' Ms Clwyd said.

'It presages disaster for British television and provides a staggering indictment both of the system which Margaret Thatcher set up for the franchise application, as well as the way in which the ITC has subsequently shut its eyes to what is going on at Granada.'

Her allegations included 'broken promises about the quality of the programmes, boardroom greed, sackings, making life impossible for those capable of producing high-class television and breaches of the Broadcasting Act 1990.'

Referring to the death of the North-West company's founder earlier this month, Ms Clwyd said: 'Sidney Bernstein is dead: so, too, perhaps is Granada. Granada, the television company with a wholly justified reputation for its crusading investigative journalism as well as for its inestimable contribution to television film and drama, is having its heart ripped out by the new management.'

She alleged Granada was defaulting on pledges made in its May 1991 bid to continue with the franchise it had held for 35 years, and personnel changes that had taken place since meant it could be in serious breach of conditions imposed on it.

She complained that when Granada had put in its licence application, it had 'paraded the names of 13 directors who could be guaranteed to ensure high quality programmes . . .'

But she said: 'This roll-call of honour now reads like a list of missing persons. All except two of them - Steve Morrison and Katherine Stross - have gone. Some of these directors, who have told us they were sacked, do not for obvious reasons want this made public. . .

'So in tracing the fate of Granada's board, I have used the neutral term 'sadly departed' to encompass those who were sacked, forced out, or resigned.' She then listed David Plowright, Andrew Quinn, Malcolm Wall, Tony Brill, Vivien Wallace, and Alastair Mutch in the 'sadly departed' category, with Simon Towneley, Dennis Flach and Don Parker retired. Ms Clwyd claimed the boardroom changes had constituted a 'fundamental shift' in the control of the company under the terms of the Broadcasting Act - and the changes had fallen within the statutory period under which they had to have ITC approval.

'Either it has not discharged this statutory responsibility, or, and this would be so astonishing as to call in question the competence of the ITC, it has approved changes which. . . are allowing the company to renege on the promises it made when applying for its licence.'

She claimed that the 'job slaughter' had not stopped at boardroom level. Within months of getting the franchise, 'wholesale butchering' had led to the 'disappearance' of more than two dozen senior figures, from the chairman to the head of sound.

Ms Clwyd then detailed six points on which she alleged Granada could be in breach of its franchise application, in which it had promised:

Fourteen films in development from which four a year would be offered to the network. Its Films for Television department had been dismantled;

To offer the network two or three drama-documentaries a year. Ms Clwyd said it was 'unlikely that more than one a year can be made';

An offer of six feature films 'in active development'. According to Ms Clwyd, none were in prospect 18 months later;

A hi-tech news operation based in Liverpool, since when the new Liverpool operation had been closed down and withdrawn to Manchester;

A commitment of massive resources to regional programmes, since when there had been 'severe' budget cuts.

It had also 'made great play of the fact that it was an important centre of technical research and development' but the chief engineer and research and development staff had 'sadly departed', and the laboratory closed down.

'Granada is now seeking to retain its franchise by false pretences,' Ms Clwyd said yesterday.

A spokesman for the ITC said last night that Sir George Russell wanted to see Ms Clwyd's letter before responding. However, he said that the ITC had to approve changes of ownership, leading to a change in control of the franchise, rather than changes in personnel and management.

He added that the ITC was monitoring all of the ITV companies in terms of the hours of the various categories of programming they broadcast, rather than the individual titles. Many of the franchise applications were based on hope that their programmes would be picked by the new central commissioning structure set up to ensure independent producers and smaller ITV companies were treated fairly.

The ITC further pointed out that the new franchises were only seven weeks into a 10-year licence period and that it was early to judge what was happening.

A Granada spokesman said: 'It is difficult to reply to Ms Clwyd's allegations without seeing her letter. But from what we have been told there seems little substance in them.

'Granada continues to be the largest programme supplier to the network and produces over nine hours per week of high quality programmes specifically for the northwest region as promised in our franchise application.'

(Photographs omitted)