Leading Article: Watching Granada

Click to follow
The Independent Online
CAN the Independent Television Commission be trusted to maintain the quality of commercial broadcasting in this country? Ann Clwyd, Labour's National Heritage spokeswoman, has dramatised the question by drawing up a detailed indictment of Granada Television, accusing it of reneging on promises given when it applied for the renewal of its franchise. In a letter to Sir George Russell, chairman of the ITC, she says that the ITC is failing to carry out its statutory duties. She wants Sir George to consider revoking Granada's licence.

These are powerful charges against Britain's most respected commercial television company and the body that is supposed to regulate it. In detail, many of them can be contested. For instance, it is not clear that substantial changes in the board of directors constitute a 'change in the persons having control' under the terms of the Broadcasting Act of 1990, so the specific approval of the ITC for these changes may not have been necessary. These are also early days - only two months into the new franchise - to be categorical about Granada not living up to its promises on programme quotas. Some of the programmes it will no longer be able to make can still be bought in from outside.

Nevertheless, the essence of Ms Clwyd's case should be taken seriously. It is that the 'job slaughter' at Granada, which has removed many of its most respected names, is designed to please shareholders and enable more profits to be pumped from the television company into the main group. In other words, the accountants are winning over the programme makers, the commercial interests of the group over traditions of excellence in the television company. The ITC should therefore intervene, she says, particularly since it granted the franchise to Granada for only pounds 9m, against much higher bids from others, because Granada promised to retain its high standards.

On the other side of the argument it has to be admitted that Granada was overstaffed and poorly managed, and that its structures would anyway be difficult to sustain in today's looser market-place, with guaranteed access for independent producers and new channels raining down from satellites. Some slimming was unavoidable. But there is a danger the cure could kill. Granada in its best days was unique, a regional flagship, pioneer of investigative reporting, producer of popular programmes and high-class drama. Among other things, it proved there is a large audience for quality. In doing so it built up values and traditions that deserve respect and protection.

The ITC appeared to recognise this when it granted the franchise so cheaply. It should not be too narrowly technical and legalistic in its response to Ms Clwyd. It is a new body, still exploring its functions. Its mandate is to represent the public interest in commercial television. This involves more than simply counting the number of current affairs programmes or quality dramas put out by each company. It can permit itself a reaction if it feels that the spirit of a franchise is under threat. Although the verdict on Granada is still open, Ms Clwyd has set out good reasons for anxiety. It is not too early for the ITC to make those worries its own, and to warn the management of Granada that it will now be under especially close scrutiny. Not only Granada but the ITC itself is on trial.