The head of ITV regional news, Michael Jermey, insisted this week that the broadcaster remains committed in the long term to local news.
But the former controller of ITV Central, Laurie Upshon, said he believed last Thursday's announcement of dramatic cuts to the ITV regional news budget was the 'beginning of the end'for the service.
The ITV chairman, Sir Michael Grade, set out his vision for 'content-led'growth last week in a statement to the stock market.
In the next five years, ITV will look to increase its in-house production, partly at the cost of its regional news operation, which unions say will mean the loss of hundreds of jobs. ITV's regional news output is currently split into 11 regions, with six sub regions, producing 17 news programmes.
The proposals involve changing to a nine-region set-up – including the merger of the Border TV region with Tyne Tees and the West region with the Westcountry. Sub regions could also disappear under the plan.
But ITV claims that a series of opt- outs within the news bulletins will mean ITV continues to offer 17 localised services. For example, opt-outs could take the form of a five to 10-minute news slot from Tyne Tees within a half-hour programme from the merged Border/Tyne Tees region.
There is speculation about how exactly the two major mergers will be enacted. The Tyne Tees studio system is understood to be newer than that of Border TV, which would suggest it is best suited to become the new hub.
ITV staff are speculating that this could mean the axing of the Border news magazine programme Lookaround – which, by extension, would also mean the end of North East Tonight – because a new service would then have to cover both regions.
The head of news for Border TV, Catherine Houlihan, said that all speculation is just that, because no decisions had been taken on any of the detail.
'There will be a new news service for Tyne Tees and Border – where and who will make that, we don't know yet,'she said. 'I don't think there's going to be Tyne Tees news with a little 10-minute nod to Border."
Houlihan said the 'obvious concern'would be if ITV resources were stretched too far to achieve this level of localised news. 'The key to it is ensuring that we have enough newsgathering and news people across the whole of the two regions to sustain that,'she said. 'The truth of that is that they haven't discussed the fine tuning of how that will work."
What the changes might mean for staff is unclear, but broadcasting union Bectu and the NUJ estimate job losses in the hundreds, as ITV looks to reduce the regional news budget from roughly £90m to between £40m and £60m. Bectu argues that the previous public service broadcasting review conducted by the Independent Television Commission in 2003 was meant to secure PSB on ITV for the long term, but that these new proposals create further uncertainty for staff.
NUJ representatives held an emergency meeting last Friday, and issued a warning that they will fight the proposals through lobbying Ofcom and urging the Government to intervene to save regional news on ITV.
The union said if the proposals went through and jobs were axed or services cut, it would ballot for strike action.
Union leaders were further outraged after it was announced that Grade has accepted a £6m share incentive package this week, days after announcing the proposals.
The timing of the proposals may also be significant. Bectu has accused ITV of trying to 'bounce'Ofcom into accepting its proposals before the regulator's forthcoming Public Service Broadcasting review had begun.
Speaking at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch last week, newly-appointed culture secretary James Purnell said the move would have to be examined and approved by Ofcom. 'We know Ofcom has made it very clear that regional news is a continual part of the ITV role. Regional news is very important,'he said.
Upshon, former controller of ITV Central, believes ITV may ask Ofcom to find a way to support that service. 'I'm sure if Ofcom was to find the money for it, diverting it from elsewhere – maybe from the BBC to fund local services – ITV would continue to run them,'he said. 'I can't see ITV wanting to continue with local news past 2012 if they have to pay for it."
Upshon said the move 'handed'regional news to the BBC. 'It's a tragedy because there's going to be no alternative regional news view. The BBC will set the agenda.'But he said that despite the expansion of broadband TV service ITV Local, newspaper groups could benefit from the reduced coverage.
'We have already seen many newspapers offering video on their websites. This is an opportunity,'he said.
So is there any way back for ITV? When he took the job seven months ago, Grade hinted at the need for changes, but poured cold water on the idea of taking public service provider funds in return for delivering regional news.
Calling regional news an 'undervalued asset'at a Voice of the Listener and Viewer conference in April, Grade said: 'I'm not a great advocate of the private sector getting access to public money. There are always strings attached."
Explaining the rationale behind the cuts, ITV regional news head Michael Jermey told Press Gazette: 'This is a set of changes to make sure regional news becomes a strong part of ITV's output as we approach digital switchover. We will be competing against 500 channels that aren't providing any public service broadcasting. We will be the only commercial channel providing any regional broadcasting."
Jermey said that, providing the proposed changes get the OK from Ofcom, there will be detailed consultation with staff and any actual changes could still be a year away.
'We want to keep regional news as part of the schedule, but have to make it in a way which is sustainable for ITV,'he said.
'The long-term outlook is that it stays a part of our schedule. We are committed to it through to the end of our current licences in 2014.'