Jowell fans ITV cutback flames

Tessa Jowell: warned that ITV can no longer broadcast at its current level

Media Secretary Tessa Jowell inflamed the growing row over the threatened cutbacks in regional programmes this week.

She told MPs that ITV could no longer continue broadcasting at its current level.

She also ducked a challenge to side with Peter Hain – the Commons Leader and Welsh Secretary – who has warned that cutbacks proposed for ITV Wales are “not acceptable”.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat media spokesman, had asked Jowell in the House of Commons whether Hain was speaking in a personal capacity or on behalf of the government.

The minister had replied that Hain was reflecting “constituency concern about the issue” – suggesting that Hain had not been speaking on her behalf.

Her refusal to step into the controversy came as the number of MPs calling for Ofcom to think again swelled to more than 130.

MPs from all parties and from all over the country confronted the minister in the Commons.

Labour MP Austin Mitchell told the minister: “To reduce services would be damaging to the regional roots of the companies that produce them.

“It would also allow the cut-down of regional newsrooms and regional staff at a time when they need to be expanded to face the enhanced competition that the BBC is giving in regional coverage.”

Jowell said: “Ofcom has no proposals that ITV should cut regional news.

“There are proposals to cut the current requirement from three hours a week of non-peak, non-news programming to one and a half hours in order to meet the licence conditions.

“That is not a requirement but it would lessen the regulatory burden on ITV.

“ITV faces increasing competition with the increased take-up of digital television.

“It is losing audience share, and with that it is losing the advertising revenue that a high level of audience share brings.

“It is an inescapable fact that ITV cannot continue to broadcast at its current level of operation.”

Labour MP John Grogan is spearheading the bid to force Ofcom to think again.

He warned that Ofcom was in danger of being seen “as a soft touch” in its statutory role of defending regional programming.

Managing directors of ITV regional companies are meeting MPs in a bid to explain the cutbacks.

But Ofcom faces its first major row with Parliament if it does not think again.

MP Don Foster commented to Press Gazette : “At the end of the day we need to know whether the government is continuing to back the current level of regional programming as well as the current level of regional news”

By David Rose

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