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5 Dec 2007 : Column 305WH—continued

4 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Almost three years ago to the day, on a similar December day—there was a chill in the air and reports of storms later in the week in the north of England—I held a debate on ITV and regional programming. I said that I was going to tell a winter’s tale about the threat to regional programmes on ITV, and I want to continue with that winter’s tale. Three years ago we were largely debating the gradual reduction to just half an hour of non-news programming for ITV in the regions.

Today’s debate will concentrate primarily on news, which is at the very core of ITV’s regional commitment. Michael Grade, the chairman of ITV, referred to regional news being in the very DNA of ITV, but that is now under threat. I shall speak briefly, because this issue is creating a great furore throughout the length and breadth of the land. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) wants to say a few words about the situation facing Border.

It is quite difficult to see what ITV is proposing, because it has not put its formal proposals to Ofcom as part of the public service broadcasting review—the second such review. Rather confusingly, Ofcom’s briefing on regional programming states that there are 21 UK variations of ITV regional news programming, yet ITV has hinted that it wants to cut the number from 17 down to nine. Nevertheless, it is pretty clear that some services are under threat. Services in the west country look as if they will be combined, and Border and Tyne Tees are under threat.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): The cuts focus on sports coverage as well as news. Is my hon. Friend aware that Scottish people will be denied the opportunity to watch the European football championships next year because ITV in Scotland failed to bid, whereas ITV in England did not?

Mr. Grogan: My hon. Friend brings very disturbing news to the Chamber, particularly because the European championships is a listed event that should be available to everyone. I understand that the BBC has the rights to some of those games, but I shall find out whether that will be the case in Scotland, or whether they will be available only on satellite.

From Scotland to Yorkshire: another proud region! Our regional news programme has been split into two. Earlier this year, on the very day that Michael Grade took over as chairman of ITV, “Calendar” news was launched. A headline in the Yorkshire Post stated triumphantly: “Future is local as Calendar leads ITV fightback”. Since then, we have enjoyed two services: one for the north and west of Yorkshire, and another for the south and the regions outside Yorkshire covered by “Calendar”. That has been an amazing success, with a 14 per cent. rise in viewing figures during that period, but now that, too, is under threat, along with many other services.

Regional news has been in the DNA of ITV since its conception. It was not mentioned in the Television Act 1954, but minutes from the Independent Broadcasting
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Authority in November of the same year said that there should be separate provision for purely regional news. That tradition is now under threat.

Regional news is valued tremendously, as is shown by Ofcom’s research. The National Union of Journalists, which has campaigned vigorously on this issue, points out that Ofcom’s research suggests that only 3 per cent. of people want less coverage of events in their regions, but that 91 per cent. think that ITV’s geographical footprint is too wide or about right. Some 97 per cent. want the same amount, or more, coverage of current events in their region. The service is most under threat in regions such as the south-west, where more people than anywhere else—58 per cent., according to Ofcom’s research—rely on television for regional news. That is one of the areas where ITV is thinking of merging.

Ofcom’s research is not an academic point because it likes to adopt an evidence-based approach. When non-news programming was cut, it was said that that was not valued very much according to opinion polls and so on, although that was disputed. Ofcom said that it would not allocate spectrum for high definition terrestrial television because it was not valued enough by ordinary viewers. Now, staring it in the face, is clear evidence that regional news, and ITV regional news in particular, is clearly valued by the punters. It is imperative that Ofcom responds to that if it is to be treated seriously.

I shall be tabling a early-day motion as soon as this debate is over through which more than 80 Members from both sides of the House will call on Ofcom and the Government to work with ITV to find a solution that enables ITV to generate sufficient income to maintain a regional news network of which the country and the regions will be rightly proud.

I have already mentioned the flamboyant Michael Grade—I mean that in a praiseworthy sense—who has taken over ITV and largely revived its fortunes in recent months. However, he has changed his tune on regional news. I come to my second substantial point.

As recently as June, Michael Grade attended Ofcom’s nations and regions conference in Cardiff and made an impressive speech. He complained that most programmes for the nations and regions on ITV had no ads because advertising minuteage was being transferred to more popular programmes such as “Coronation Street”. He suggested a possible solution: ITV could get an advertising credit of another two or three minutes for every hour of programmes for the nations and regions, particularly news, that it ran. He said:

not programmes produced in the regions for the network, but programmes such as news for the nations and regions. He continued:

That was in June. In September, Mr. Grade dropped a bombshell—it was a shock to many directors of the once-proud ITV regional companies—by hinting at massive cuts in ITV regional news from 2009. He also wrote to all MPs, but there was not a mention of the idea of additional minuteage for ITV—he seems to have given up the ghost on that. Clive Jones, the distinguished boss of ITV news, who has visited the House on a
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number of occasions, has said that that was very much the solution. I think that Ofcom and the Government need to be a little wary. Perhaps Mr. Grade is trying it on to see what he can get away with, but his words suggest that there might be other solutions.

Regional and local news can make money. I went to another Ofcom conference last week at Canary Wharf, and Mark Dodson, the boss of Channel M, was there. Channel M is a cable channel that is desperately trying to get outlets in Manchester. It is primarily, although not entirely, a news channel, and the main evening news is watched by 150,000 viewers every week—that is 57,000 more viewers than at this time last year. Mr. Dodson said:

Clearly, Manchester is a particular TV market, and the same model could not be replicated everywhere. However, the situation seems odd because, as is suggested by the experience of “Calendar”, ITV’s strength is that the more the news is local, the more successful it is likely to be.

In the next few months we will have the public service broadcasting review. Ofcom says that it might produce interim reports early next year, so there is not much time. Mr. Grade has threatened that if he does not get his way and Ofcom does not agree to the cuts, he will keep the same number of news programmes, but cut the quality, sack journalists and so on. I remind Ofcom that the House gave it a statutory duty under the Communications Act 2003 to maintain the quality of regional programming, so it is not necessarily clear that Ofcom should roll over if Mr. Grade attempts to carry out his threat after his proposals have been amended by Ofcom through its review.

I also call on Her Majesty’s Government to take an interest in the matter. I welcome the noticeable change of tone from the Secretary of State, whom I greatly admire, and Ministers. There is a big Back-Bench interest in the subject throughout the kingdom, and Ministers should also be interested. The Secretary of State has set up his own review of public service broadcasting. I would not expect the Minister to confirm that that is a shot across Ofcom’s bows, as it were, as if to say that if Ofcom does not do its job and defend PSB sufficiently well, its powers will be examined to see whether it needs additional powers, or Ministers need to make more policy decisions. Ultimately, and rightly, the Secretary of State, from what he has hinted, feels that major policy decisions should go to Minister’s desks as well as those of Ofcom officials.

Regional news is beloved of many people up and down the country and a key part of our democracy. It would be scandalous if the House was to acquiesce to the BBC—I speak as chairman of the all-party BBC group and as a great admirer of the organisation. It would be bad for our democracy if the BBC had a monopoly on regional news and if the editor of “Look North”, which covers my constituency in Yorkshire, were the only person to determine whether a story was sufficiently newsworthy to go on local TV.

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For that reason and others, including the fact that the BBC will not broadcast local TV news—it pulled out of that following the TV licence settlement—there is a tremendous opportunity for ITV. It should not give up the ghost of its heritage. If it concentrated more on regional advertising and did more marketing, and if it argued for additional regional minuteage, a solution to the problem could be found, and we could knock back substantially Mr. Michael Grade’s proposals.

4.12 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): If I speak for longer than three minutes, will you notify me, Mr. Williams? I want the Minister to have plenty of time to reply to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) is very knowledgeable about this matter and covered the vast majority of points that I wanted to make. I thank him for giving me some of his time—it is unusual for hon. Members to do so.

I wish to speak specifically about Border Television. It does not do only what its name suggests, because while it covers the borders between England and Scotland, it takes in a third country: the Isle of Man. To that extent, the service is unique among those for the ITV regions. It is also important to me because its studios are in my constituency and it employs nearly 100 people in well-paid jobs. However, I am not concerned about only the jobs. We have a good station that is appreciated by the people in the area. No other station in the country has a higher percentage of possible viewers watching the local news, but that might be destroyed. There is a perception that if the amalgamation goes ahead, programmes will be broadcast from Newcastle, probably from the Gateshead studio. The BBC does that—its programmes are broadcast from there to Carlisle and the rest of the north of Cumbria—but it does not get such good viewing figures. In fact, they are only just about acceptable. We cannot seriously consider sending news from Newcastle to Stranraer, Douglas on the Isle of Man and the southern part of Cumbria. That is not possible and it would not be acceptable. The people in Stranraer will tut and will not accept that whatsoever.

My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) intervened earlier about Scottish football. The worry that we have in our area is that all that we might get could be Granada and Manchester United. The people in Dumfries would much sooner be watching Queen of the South than either Rangers or Celtic. We have a unique station; it works well, and the reality is that it has always been profitable. It was profitable when it was taken over, which was not so long ago.

When I asked Michael Grade how much would be saved by getting rid of Border Television, the answer was, “I’m not going to tell you.” In a further meeting, he said, “I will tell Ofcom, but I am not making this matter public.” I suspect that he is saying that because the amount is very small.

There is a massive campaign in the borders to save Border Television. I attended the switching on of the Christmas lights in Carlisle, and thousands of people were signing postcards to send to Ofcom. I know that the same has happened in Dumfries and throughout the rest of the region. There will be a rolling campaign. I
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think that there will probably be more letters and more support from the Border television region than anywhere else in the country. We do not want to lose the uniqueness of the area. We do not want to be joined with the south, if that is the option—the people of southern Scotland certainly do not want to joined with the rest of the area—because we believe that we will never get mentioned.

For example, Barrow-in-Furness, which is in the Granada region, has been mentioned 13 times on Granada Television in the past three months. The Isle of Man, which is covered by Border Television, has been mentioned 83 times. The reality is that we have a good station, and we are going to fight for it. Ofcom should listen. ITV signed a contract, and we should keep it to that contract.

4.17 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Margaret Hodge): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on securing the debate. I was not here when he secured the debate three years ago, but I am delighted to respond to him today.

I want to deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan), as I have an answer for him. I have been told that the European championship finals in 2008 will be on both BBC and ITV. The issue has been confused by Scotland’s World cup qualifiers, where the home games are on Sky and the away matches are on Setanta. That is because the qualifiers are not listed as a universal sports event, but I have been told that it is our intention to review the list of sporting events around 2008-09, and we will no doubt take on board his comments.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) made a strong case on behalf of his constituents and Border Television—I know that that issue is contentious. He emphasised both the popularity of the channel and the unique role that it plays for his constituents. I am sure that Ofcom will take seriously his representations, and those of his constituents, if they respond directly to Ofcom in the consultation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selby knows that the Government are committed to retaining a strong regional dimension to public service broadcasting, reflecting the UK’s cultural traditions and meeting the needs of diverse communities. The commitment can be broken down into two separate policy goals, which I am sure that he shares. One is that programmes are made for the regions; the other is ensuring that programmes are made in the regions. Both are important, which is why we hard-wired a regional dimension into the Communications Act 2003. As a result, the 2003 Act facilitates the development of a critical mass of production embedded outside London and the M25 area, and it ensures that broadcasters continue to invest time and money in producing high- quality programming for the regions.

BBC and ITV offer programmes made in and for viewers’ regions, and ITV, Channel 4 and Five are required to produce a proportion of programmes outside the M25—indeed, 51 per cent. of ITV’s spend and 58 per cent. of its hours are in the regions. ITV claims that it carries 5,000 hours of regional programming each year.

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The key theme of today’s debate is the regional programming dimension, which my hon. Friend emphasised. As I think we all appreciate, that dimension has provided ITV’s unique appeal and has been one of the reasons for its success as far back as its launch in 1955. I think that the BBC responded by killing off Grace Archer—those of us who are old enough might remember it—but even that did not capture the same audiences as today’s. One of the reasons why ITV’s regional programming has been successful is its distinctive voice. Its services are seen as the region having its own conversation, rather than as London or the metropolis talking to the regions.

I agree with my hon. Friend’s independent research—people really value their regional programmes. The weekly reach of any regional programme, whatever research is considered, is always greater than that of any commercial radio or television station. He is quite right to draw attention to such programmes’ popularity and importance in people’s lives. He is also right that competition from ITV forced the BBC to respond and change.

It would be wrong to think narrowly of regional programming as the regions talking to themselves. Regional programming should cater to regional interests and communities of interest, but that does not mean that it should not reflect the regions to the nation as a whole. Much programming does that—programmes such as “Emmerdale” or “Coronation Street” have been highly successful in that genre. However, regional news constitutes the vast majority of ITV’s regional output in terms of both volume and cost. ITV spends more than £100 million a year on its regional provision alone.

The key question, which my hon. Friend addressed, is how sustainable such expenditure is in the light of increasing competition from digital and multi-channel television and new media. Mingled with the impact on ITV’s falling advertising revenues, that is a challenge to the viability and sustainability of ITV’s traditional funding model. ITV’s total revenue in 2006 was £1.6 billion, down from an all-time high of £1.9 billion in 2000. My hon. Friend suggested that Ofcom should look again at the constraints on advertising built into ITV contracts’ rights renewal mechanism. No doubt Ofcom and others watching the proceedings in this Chamber will consider it as a possible issue.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): May I preface my remarks by saying that the Minister comes to this debate from an immense success in protecting arts funding in the comprehensive spending review? I am grateful to put that on the record.

We in the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group have been involved in discussions with Ofcom and ITV. We thought that we were making progress on a range of options available to ITV to maintain its income stream and regional news production and delivery. Our concern is the unilateral announcements that have been made about targets for savings of £40 million and Michael Grade’s complete disregard of the debate that has been going on. Our view is that we should say to Ofcom, “Use your teeth on this occasion to bring people to the table for those discussions.”

Margaret Hodge: ITV has put a proposition on the table that must be considered by Ofcom. Last night at ITV’s Christmas reception, I said that I was looking forward to the debate that will arise from that. At this
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point, it is ITV’s proposition. No doubt ITV has the potential for advertising revenue as much in mind as anything else.

Ofcom’s last public service broadcasting review was in 2005. It concluded in relation to public service broadcasting commitments that some programmes that previously could find a place in the schedule would no longer be able to do so, so I think that Ofcom has demonstrated an engagement that hopefully will lead to a viable and sustainable outcome that protects what hon. Members want us to protect but nevertheless recognises the viability of it.

Let me mention another issue that arose as I was preparing for the debate. It is interesting that of the 17 or so stations that ITV has, four cover more than 50 per cent. of the population, so there may well be an issue about stations in relation to population, which I hope hon. Members will have an open mind on too, as the debate concludes.

The “New News, Future News” document, published by Ofcom on 26 June, focused on the significant challenges that face regional news. As my hon. Friend the Member for Selby has said, the analysis and summary of responses will be published shortly—I think that the conclusion will wait until 2009. Ofcom is also considering other interesting issues relating to the disengagement of people from news, which is of interest to us in the House of Commons, and impartiality, on which I have no doubt that my hon. Friend and others have strong views. It was on that basis that ITV published its strategy document “A content-led recovery”, with its new strategy for regional news. The interesting thing, which I hope we all welcome, is that ITV has confirmed its continuing commitment to providing regional news. The focus of the debate is the viability of the model to deliver that. I bear in mind what my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle has said in that context: the model must retain the locality dimension, which is so important.

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