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7 Jan 2004 : Column 374

Regional Broadcasting

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

7.15 pm

Mr. John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise concerns about the decision by Granada-Carlton, the new single ITV, to run down Meridian television, which is based in Northam in my constituency. With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I shall try to allow other hon. Members to contribute to the debate.

Before Christmas, Meridian announced 175 job losses. Its plans include the closure of the Northam studios and relocation to Fareham, the closure of the Maidstone studio, the winding up of the successful teams, which covered, for example, the recent rugby World cup and ocean racing, and a major restructuring of the most successful of the regional ITV news services.

In part, I want to express local but important constituency concerns, but I also want to raise the implications of what Meridian is doing for the entire new ITV. The managing director of Meridian said that its plans are a blueprint for the rest of the new single ITV. If so, my right hon. Friend the Minister needs to recognise that there are major implications for regional independent television and serious challenges from the outset for Ofcom and the new regulatory regime.

The contrast between the promises made to Meridian staff at the time of its take over by Granada and what is happening now should make everyone who is concerned about ITV cautious about relying on promises or assurances that its management might give. I hope that the Minister will note that, too. Of course some change is inevitable, especially in a highly technology-dependent and sensitive business. I understand that there is probably no real business case for large outdated studios of the sort at Northam in Southampton, but, although change is inevitable, that does not mean that we should not consider what is proposed carefully.

I pay tribute to all the people who have worked at Northam over the years, not just under Meridian, but under TVS and Southern Television too, and who created programmes that will be familiar to hon. Members, such as "How?", "Worzel Gummidge", "Out of Town", the "Ruth Rendell Mysteries", "Village Voices", "Spotlight", "That's Life" and many other programmes, both regional and national, including sport, most recently the World cup.

Southampton as a city has gained enormously in profile and prestige from being the main home for both BBC South and ITV for a long time. In the 1980s, the then Labour council fought a hard battle to keep BBC Television in Southampton, for which we have been well rewarded. It is a shame that the new Liberal Democrat council, despite its efforts, has not been more successful in keeping Meridian in the city.

The south-east does not have a simple, clear regional identity, such as the south-west or the north-east, but neither are we a glorified suburb of London. The south-east has the most successful regional economy. We have distinct counties, sub-regions and communities. We

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have our own sporting, cultural and artistic traditions. We have unique cities, towns, villages, countryside and coastal areas.

The south-east should be reflected to its residents, to the country as a whole and to the wider world through good regional broadcasting.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the region also includes people in my constituency in south Essex and in the constituency of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who is in the Chamber nodding in agreement that our constituents would be impoverished by the proposals and that we should do everything we can to retain those facilities in Southampton?

Mr. Denham: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. People watching these proceedings on television may realise that there are far more hon. Members on both sides of the House than is normally the case for the end-of-sitting Adjournment debate. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will recognise the concern that is being expressed in the Chamber.

In the south-east, we also want our fair share—or, to be frank, a larger share if possible—of television production and its related creative industries in our region. The past two years and the current proposals suggest that responsibility for regional broadcasting is about to pass almost entirely to the BBC. First, there was the national deal with the Independent Television Commission, which cut regional programme slots from 15 to eight and a half hours a week—much of that can hardly be described as regional programming. Not long ago, budgets at Meridian were cut from between £20,000 and £25,000 for a half-hour slot to between £5,000 and £12,000 and I understand that the figure may fall further. Now, we learn that half the staff at Meridian are to go.

What a contrast to the promises made by Charles Allen, then chairman of Granada, and Steve Morrison, its managing director, when they took over the company. I have been given what I believe are genuine and reliable transcripts of their presentation to staff. Mr. Allen, currently head of the new ITV, said:

the staff—

Mr. Morrison told staff:

"Absolutely passionate about regionalism", "the business of expansion", "more production coming from this and our other sites": what a contrast with the

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closure and contraction currently facing Meridian. It is not surprising that many people working for Meridian feel badly let down.

I know that Ministers cannot be responsible for what business executives tell their staff during company takeovers. However, the issue is not just the development of any old private business; it relates directly to the future of Channel 3, to the public service broadcasting obligations of ITV and to the development of one of the UK's major industries—television production. Those should be of concern to my right hon. Friend the Minister and I hope that she will take note that it would be dangerous to rely too much on the promises and assurances that might be given to her and others by the people now running ITV. Meridian staff did just that, and look what is happening to them.

The truth is that the drive for a narrow interpretation of shareholder value in ITV is leading to the same short-term drive to maximise profit at the expense of the long-term investment in and development of the business as has been seen in other major companies in the US and the UK over the past few years. Even the much-vaunted new investment in the new studio looks likely to cost less than the money that will be made by selling the Northam site. I believe that one of the consequences will be a sharp decline in Meridian's ability to make regional programmes—whether we are talking about programmes about the region for the region, programmes about the region for the network, or the ability to make a wide range of programmes designed specifically for the network.

Indeed, I fear that the impact may well be wider than Meridian itself. Of course, national or international sports coverage, a particular area of expertise in the Meridian company in Southampton, need not be based in Southampton or any other specific UK location; but the concentration of media skills in regional centres sustains the whole industry in that area. It is the pool of talent that supports independent programme-makers and the BBC, works with academic institutions and assists new local broadcasters.

Let me say in fairness that I know Meridian does not intend—or says it does not intend—to turn its back on all those links, and wants to develop new links. Nevertheless, I believe that a sharp reduction in television employment such as the one that is proposed, and the loss of skills that that will involve, is bound to have a wider impact on the health of the television industry in the south. We have been told that Meridian is the model for the rest of the new ITV. If that is so, it means stripping out serious regional programme-making in ITV and also encouraging a decline in the strength of the regional television industry as a whole.

I am also concerned about news coverage. It may well be possible, with new technology, to organise and deliver news coverage more efficiently and effectively than is the case at present, but it is pretty clear that the current proposals are driven primarily by a wish to cut costs rather than by an analysis of the best ways—including the most efficient ways—of delivering a news service in the future.

Meridian is unusually successful as an independent television news service. Maidstone has regularly achieved ratings as high as 50 per cent., while Granada

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usually achieves about 12 per cent. The outlets in Southampton and Newbury regularly secure about 30 per cent.—much more than many other ITV regional news programmes. I would say at the very least that altering the current arrangements, which are so successful, without really good justification based on an analysis of the best way of serving the public rather than an analysis of the best way of saving money, is a strange way of going about things.

I have not been able to confirm this, but I have been told that the original announcement of job losses was not covered by Meridian's regional news. That is surely unusual; would it have happened if any other company was to lose 175 jobs?

Moreover, is the regional political coverage that Members of Parliament enjoy safe? It is easy to understand that a single ITV company might want to save money on its political coverage, but I suggest that that would be at the expense of the local knowledge that makes regional news and regional political coverage worth having.

These changes are happening just as the new regulator, Ofcom, comes into existence. I shall end by raising some issues that should be of direct concern to the Minister: that constitutes an invitation to Members who may wish to intervene. Let me say that, as the Government move towards statutory consultation rights for UK employees, I hope the Minister shares my distaste for the way in which Granada apparently went off to the ITC to secure support for its proposals before informing any of its staff.

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