The real threat that should worry ITV journalists

Desktop editing is a side issue, says Laurie Upshon. The real question is who will pay for regional ITV news in the digital era?

THERE AREN’T many of us left now who can remember the last time ITV journalists went on strike, in 1979 — and that turned out to be more like a 13-week holiday for most. Technically the NUJ was not on strike when the rest of ITV was involved in the last piece of nationwide industrial action.

Many were sent home on full pay. One distinguished network reporter spent weeks beside the pool of a Mediterranean island hotel because he was told it would be strike-breaking if he travelled back to the UK (I won’t reveal his name).

Others like those at Southern Television, the original ITV broadcaster for the South of England, were "locked out" by the company’s management. A token picket was mounted, mainly as a photo opportunity as the station’s wellknown newsreaders posed behind the warming coal-fired brazier with handmade banners proclaiming how unfairly they had been treated. Most of these journalists took second jobs to support their families, but had their salaries paid in full when the strike ended — on top of a whopping double-figure, inflation- busting pay rise. Oh, the good old days of ITV… and, ironically, perhaps the end of the NUJ’s influence in commercial television newsrooms.

The decade that followed saw Maggie Thatcher crush the miners and create the climate that allowed Bruce Gyngell and Rupert Murdoch to do the same to the craft unions at GMTV and News International. All across the industry, commercial television management started to chip away at the restrictive practices and bizarre agreements.

Out went the "soft shoe"

allowance for working in the studios, overcrowding allowances in newsrooms and "in-vision" payments for technicians.

Scrapped, too, were the ridiculous cumulative overtime payments that allowed some workers to buy sports cars on the proceeds of just a few days’ work.

By and large, journalists were untouched by this revolution and were content with their lot. In some ways, the tough action against the craft unions made it easier for them to do their jobs without silly rules imposed by their technical colleagues, particularly after the introduction of videotape for newsgathering, replacing film. The journalist’s role as the creative leader in the newsroom was now firmly established.

But now, fast forward to April 2006 and the headlines (in the trade press anyway) tell us that the NUJ and ITV will go to ACAS for talks over a demand for £3,000 for using new technology.

This was the first time, in my memory at least, that the NUJ had called its members out on a national stoppage. Now, strike action has been suspended.

The dispute is said to be about the introduction of desktop editing, but there are side issues and this could be seen as a final attempt by the NUJ to exert some influence in ITV newsrooms.

After all, despite all its lobbying, it failed to stop the cut in regional programme hours that saw scores of television journalists lose their jobs. Only 61 per cent of NUJ members took part in the strike ballot, and of those, 58 per cent voted for action. Despite recent recruitment, NUJ membership is very patchy in many newsrooms, and according to ITV, any action would only involve about 90 of the 600 journalists working in regional news.

There would have been some lobbying on both sides to either increase support for the action or persuade staff not to go on strike. And there would be some residual bitterness in newsrooms between colleagues who took differing decisions. But either way, the impact of a 24-hour stoppage would be minimal in terms of output, and many viewers would not notice the difference on the day.

All of the main newsreaders would be on duty — not on the picket line.

Feature stories are waiting on the shelf and, if necessary, "common" stories with an interest to more than one region would be trafficked across the ITV system to fill any gaps. Although the NUJ would probably point out that this dilutes the quality and the individuality of the regions’ news programmes.

However, if there is a strike and the viewers don’t switch off in droves — and they won’t — it could easily backfire on the union. There are some in the now-unified ITV who believe more use could be made of material between newsrooms.

Stories from Gloucestershire, for example, are already traded between Central South and ITV West. Thames Valley stories can be of relevance to viewers of both Meridian and Central.

Lincolnshire is shared by Anglia, Yorkshire and Central. A more widespread use of stories by more than one regional newsroom, possibly even the introduction of shared complete news bulletins, could see a case being made for further reductions in staff or budgets — and this is one of the other issues behind the action.

There is a bigger threat hanging over the ITV regional system. Charles Allen, the broadcaster’s chief executive, has made it clear that once the terrestrial analogue signal is switched off, ITV will be in the same competitive marketplace as every other commercial broadcaster. There is no reason why it should be saddled with the substantial cost of a regional news service that others do not have to provide.

Unless someone else pays, we could see the end of regional news on ITV in a few years.

To my surprise, some journalists in ITV shrug off this scenario. There does seem to be genuine anger by some of those considering action that no financial recognition has been made of the tasks they now carry out.

It is not just desktop editing — that stable door banged shut eight years ago in Birmingham and Bristol, when journalists started to cut their own material on their newsroom computer system.

They have been doing it ever since, some with a dangerous enthusiasm.

(Here I must declare an interest, in that I was responsible for introducing most of the new technology to ITV Central.)

It’s not about journalists shooting their own stories — they’ve been doing that on occasions on the Isle of Wight, Abingdon, Nottingham, Birmingham and other newsrooms for six years or more. (We are now seeing newspaper journalists shooting video stories for internet consumption and the growth of so-called citizen journalism.)

There are issues about timing of bulletins, and in some areas, changing the pattern of the working week. It is in a climate of standardising agreements across all ITV newsrooms, "deskilling" some posts, reduced staffing and evertightening budgets that some journalists were prepared to go on strike on 18 April. But if these problems continue, would they be prepared for a more prolonged series of strikes later in the year?

Laurie Upshon was controller of news for ITV Central until September last year. He now runs his own media consultancy. Upshon was one of the journalists "locked out" at Southern TV during the 13-week strike in 1979.

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