Why the future of ITN might be in its past

WHEN Independent Television News first went on air, in September of 1955, it had a big idea: newscasters.

didn’t want BBC-style readers, delivering a script, out of vision.
ITN’s founders wanted on-screen talent, people with a bit of
personality as well as authority. They wanted charisma. The very first
ITN newscaster was Christopher Chataway, a recordbreaking athlete, a
sporting hero re-invented for the small screen. There was also an early
incarnation of Sir Robin Day. Then there was Reginald Bosanquet.

was legendary, louche, looming large in our living rooms for much of
the Seventies. Right through to the present day, with Sir Trevor
MacDonald as the nation’s favourite uncle, ITN has made its name
largely through its faces.

Indeed, there have been times when
viewer chit-chat and the newspapers have focused more on ITN’s
newscasters than on the organisation’s often brave and pioneering

It was fitting, then, that ITN celebrated 50 years in
the business by bringing back five of its most famous faces: Julia
Somerville, Selina Scott, Martyn Lewis, Gordon Honeycombe and Anna Ford.

night last week, one of them was ushered into the studio of what we
must now call ITV News, principally to deliver the news of that day. So
I settled down every evening at six-thirty, to see what this stunt
might say about ITN then – and now.

Somerville was first to tread
the boards in what ITN now calls its theatre of news. First time round,
I don’t recall her being especially saucy. Now, alongside that towering
Adonis, Mark Austin, she was positively frisky. We haven’t witnessed
such small-screen flirting since the morning glory days of Denise Van
Outen and Johnny Vaughan. “You’re adorable,” she told Austin. “Get a room, guys!” I shouted at the television.

least Somerville had fun, which was more than we could say for poor
Selina Scott. In the early Eighties, Scott was ITN’s queen of cool, a
woman of such style and allure that every woman wanted to be her, while
every man just wanted her. Now, though, dragged away from her goat farm
in Yorkshire, she looked so very vulnerable.

Losing autoscript
early on couldn’t have helped steady her nerves. By the end of the
programme, she confessed she was glad it was all over. So was I. It
felt like I’d bumped into an old flame, to be struck by how the passage
of time had not been quite so kind as my memories.

There was no hint of vulnerability from Martyn Lewis. His appearance was nothing but good news.

at ITN after 20 years, via stretches at the Beeb and in business, Lewis
was a complete pro. He embraced all that is new about news presenting.
Here he was, walking and talking, in command of the news wall,
two-waying away. He had warmth, authority, a well-cut suit and a nice
smile. Give that man a job. If they don’t, I might.

The word
mellifluous was invented for Gordon Honeycombe. Now in semi-retirement
in Australia, but doing the odd bit of voice-over work and acting, he
looked and sounded like he was auditioning for an am-dram production of
a Shakespeare history play.

This is not just my cheap shot at a senior citizen.

appearance was telling, highlighting how the style of TV news
presentation, not just at ITN, has changed in recent years. Gone are
most, if not all, of those rather actorly performers. In their place
are proper journalists communicating stories they understand, in a
manner the viewers can relate to. Good thing, too.

The weirdest
appearance of all was that by Anna Ford. I have no criticism of Anna’s
performance. But it’s 25 years since she last fronted an ITN bulletin,
and now she’s more BBC than Lord Reith. She simply doesn’t belong in
the ITV studio. This was like finding your mum in a strip joint. It was
just wrong.

And finally… what about the future?

It’s quite natural, on big birthdays, that we look back. But these occasions should also be used to bring the future into focus.

ITV News is stronger now than it has been for many years, with
editor-in-chief David Mannion and editor Deborah Turness reviving an
organisation that had lapsed into a persistent vegetative state. The
recent series of scoops on the London bombings have put the icing on
its birthday cake.

Commercially, though, there are questions
about ITN’s future. From its small beginnings, broadcasting to ITV
viewers, initially only in London, ITN went on to become a powerful
force in the business. But it’s lost the contract to supply Five News,
and Channel Four is actively looking at other news providers. And
before long, the ITV Network will almost certainly own ITN more or less
outright. That will bring uncertainties, in a world in which financial
realities become even more dominant.

Perhaps the real clue to
ITN’s future lies in its past, a past highlighted so vividly in these
birthday celebrations, which were a good excuse to get out some of the
old family pictures – the ITN archive. Not only is it extensive, it’s
increasingly valuable, making many millions for ITN. Any ITN/ITV
accountant might question why it should go on with the expensive
business of making news programmes, when it can make so much money from
old content.

Coming from a rival, it might surprise you to hear
that I believe it would be a great shame, for journalism and for the
viewing public, if the archive was all that remained of ITN. I hope a
way can be found for the “Independent” bit of both ITN and ITV News to
be preserved, and for it to continue to be involved in making
mainstream news. Before ITN was launched, the BBC had an unhealthy
monopoly of TV news.

There is now more competition, of course,
with me and my Sky colleagues producing the news for Five, and
continuing to lead the way in rolling news. But Britain’s news viewers
will always be better served by a truly competitive marketplace, in
which a number of independently-minded news teams are free to compete
with one another.

ITN has played an invaluable role in creating
and protecting the British tradition of objective, independent TV news
coverage. It would be a sad day if that legacy was allowed to be thrown
away, and an ITN newscaster was forced to say “And finally…” for the
final time.

Mark Calvert is editor of Five News

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