At the height of ITN’s woes over News at When, BBC head of news Roger Mosey rubbed salt into the wound by stating that Sky had supplanted ITN as the BBC’s true competitor.
David Mannion – then recently installed as the editor of ITV News – vowed in an early address to his staff to make Mosey eat those words, although I recall the language being rather more colourful.
Mannion has set about his task with relish and the mood at 200 Gray’s Inn Road has certainly lifted along with the energy levels of the ITV News service.
Despite a significant reduction in budgets and the added strain of running a 24-hour news channel alongside its terrestrial output, ITV News does seem to have rediscovered its “mojo”, as Austin Powers might say.
Next month ITV News gets a new set and graphics to go with the new editorial vigour and management.
The million-pound redesign promises to bring the rather tired-looking ITV News into the 21st century and, more importantly, in line with the rest of ITV’s branding.
The new set – I am told – is the Alton Towers of television news with the latest virtual reality gizmos. It is also, in effect, the public symbol of an extraordinary revolution in the way commercial news in Britain is run and managed.
Stage One of this revolution was the wholesale change of guard at ITN. Editor-in-chief Richard Tait, ITV News editor Nigel Dacre and chief executive Stewart Purvis left in quick succession after long and illustrious careers at ITN.
Then, at the end of last year, as part of the ITV merger, Clive Jones of Carlton was appointed head of ITV News. This rather duplicates the role of Steve Anderson, who is currently controller of news and current affairs at the ITV Network Centre.
The latest development is the suggestion that Mannion – at present an ITN employee – will soon become editor-in-chief of ITV News (network, regional and rolling), reporting to Jones and, presumably, employed directly by ITV.
All this leaves ITN in a rather peculiar situation. Excuse my rather extended metaphor, but it’s as if England (ITV News) had made a unilateral declaration of independence from the UK, leaving Scotland (Channel 4 News), Wales (Five News) and Northern Ireland (the ITN Archive) as a separate entity.
Unsurprisingly, Anderson (the current king) is not particularly happy with the unilateral declaration of independence and these new constitutional arrangements. He may not remain at ITV for much longer as his news responsibilities appear to have been seized by Jones (the president).
There is an almost Shakespearean quality to these dramatic personal and constitutional upheavals at 200 Gray’s Inn Road.
It was Anderson who secured up to £6m of additional funding for coverage of the war in Iraq last year, enabling ITV News and the ITV News Channel to rise successfully to the challenge and disguising the significant cutback in coverage budgets.
It was Anderson who helped to bring his own successor, Mannion, into ITN and who signed off on the million pounds-plus relaunch we’re about to witness on ITV News.
It should also be pointed out that Anderson was the news controller who failed to prevent ITV schedulers destroying News at 10 and who presided over the contract negotiations that led to ITV’s network news budget being cut by a third.
There are, of course, many different versions of these events and as a former News at 10 editor myself, it’s sad to see its demise. However, the good news is that ITV News is definitely getting better and Mosey may get his comeuppance.
The BBC needs competition on all fronts – not just on 24-hour news – and despite the schadenfreude, even BBC news executives will welcome a revitalised ITV News service.
But there is one extremely large dilemma hanging over all these changes. It’s about who controls the purse strings.
For the past decade the budget for ITV’s network news has been set by the ITV Network Centre and managed under contract by ITN, in which ITV is only a minority shareholder.
Under the current arrangements you have to ask who is calling the shots in the financial management of that contract (for example, its profitability).
Despite the constitutional revolution, ITN still has a contract with ITV with five years to run and about £200m at stake.
So who decides what profit ITN should cream off from its biggest contract? Is it chief executive Mark Wood, backed by his non-ITV shareholders? They would certainly say so.
Is it Nigel Pickard and Anderson at the ITV Network Centre? They negotiated the new contract.
Or is it Jones, who works for ITN’s biggest shareholder and customer, and perhaps in future Mannion, who is currently an ITN employee reporting to Wood? One thing everyone agrees on is that more money is needed if ITV is to rebuild a credible news operation that can continue to compete with the BBC and Sky.
Who will hold ITV News’s purse strings in future? Mannion, left? Or Jones?
ITV clearly understands that resourcing is crucial, but no one is saying where the buck stops.
A lot of this would be sorted out quite swiftly if ITN became a wholly owned subsidiary of ITV – in effect its news division – but although this is certainly the endgame, there’s no immediate sign that the non-ITV shareholders want to sell their stake in ITN.
In the meantime, no one – including the new regulator Ofcom – wants to intervene publicly in the complicated and exceptionally political world of ITV News.
News regulation is an incredibly sensitive matter – it bedeviled the final years of the Independent Television Commission – and politicians and regulators are understandably reticent on this matter.
Against this background, the producers, reporters and technical staff at ITN, who actually make the news rather than run it, are ploughing ahead.
Next month we will be able to witness the fruits of their labour and their bid to become the UK news leader once again.
Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll be back in four weeks.
Next week: Janice Turner