We went for the best deal

I found myself at the centre of a major development in British television news this month. For nearly half a century ITN has been the sole supplier of news services to commercial terrestrial television in the UK – first ITV News, then Channel 4 News, then Big Breakfast news and in 1997 Five News.

Sky has been trying to break this monopoly for more than five years. It finally succeeded when Five awarded it its news supply contract at its second time of pitching.

Although ITN has been an outstanding supplier for the past seven years, winning more awards for my channel than any other single production company, we felt that in the future Five would get a better-value deal and a more aggressive and competitive news service from Sky. It wasn’t an easy call.

Many column inches have been written about Five’s decision and there’s been much gnashing of teeth about Murdoch getting a toehold on terrestrial television. In fact this was a straightforward commercial and editorial judgement.

In all the analysis that has followed two important points have been largely overlooked.

First, Five is going to be spending more on its news next year – about 20 per cent more. Contrast this with ITV, which cut its news budgets by about the same percentage two years ago.

Second, from 1 January, 2005, British terrestrial television news will cease to be a BBC-ITN duopoly and Sky – already the market leader in rolling news – will become a third force in traditional news programming.

That, surely, is a good thing for all consumers of television news.

March began in rather hellish fashion for me and I have no one to blame but myself.

Every year I make a resolution – “never again”. And every year I succumb to the blandishments of the good people of the Royal Television Society.

Jury hell involves endless late-night viewing sessions working my way through skyscrapers of videotapes.

Then there’s the invidious business of choosing your favourites without showing favouritism, and the near impossible task of comparing apples with pears – say choosing between the ultra-courageous war camera person who happened to be in the right spot at the right time and the technically brilliant camera person who showed a real gift for artistic composition.

This year the RTS Television Journalism Awards threw up some interesting results. First, they marked the return to form of ITV News – or at least parts of it. The Early Evening News is the most improved news show on television. Johnny Irvine’s double award of best reporter and best foreign reporter of the year was also vindication of ITV’s impressive investment in coverage of the war in Iraq in 2003.

The oddity was Rageh Omaar’s absence from the award winners’ rostrum.

He wasn’t even nominated for reporter of the year or best foreign reporter and he was pipped at the post in the specialist reporter category by his BBC colleague Hilary Andersson.

This was an intriguing omission and reflects the different perspectives held by viewers, industry insiders and award juries. My view is that there was some kind of subconscious revisionism going on in the RTS jury room.

During the war, Omaar was lionised by the British print media. His good looks, suave manner and sheer ubiquity made him a household name. The “scud stud” tag was not welcomed by him, nor was it an original nickname (I believe it was first applied to US cameraman Arthur Kent in the Gulf War), but that sort of thing causes resentment among professional colleagues and I’m sure that played a part in some of the judges’ minds.

There is, though, another factor beyond professional envy at play here.

A number of television journalists I know believe Omaar is a victim of “hotel-rooftop-itis” – otherwise known as 24-hour news disease.

This is the fate that often befalls reporters working on rolling news outlets in big story locations without much back-up. Forced to report and opinionate almost continuously from the rooftops or balconies of their hotel they are unable to leave their posts for any length of time to actually do some traditional eyewitness reporting.

This a frequent complaint from the Stakhanovites of rolling news, who can sometimes file 10 or 15 reports a day on television and radio.

With so many BBC news outlets to service, the demands on Omaar were particularly intense. He probably didn’t even have time for a piss on the busy days, let alone a trip to downtown Baghdad.

It has been suggested to me that while Omaar may have been the viewers’ favourite, his professional colleagues (in other words, your typical RTS juror) tend to favour classic displays of field reporting over the more endurance-based feat of live reporting for multiple outlets.

For the record, I think this is a rather reductive and unfair characterisation of Omaar’s work. Having reviewed several of his reports from Baghdad, I can assure you he did a lot more than live two-ways from the balcony of the al-Rashid Hotel. His field reporting was first class, fair and insightful – as you would expect from someone who has probably spent more time in Iraq than any other TV journalist in the UK.

There is no doubt that ITV’s Irvine, who “did the double” this year, produced some superb and courageous reporting from Baghdad, but he – like Omaar – owes some of his reputation to sheer visibility.

Reports of Sir Trevor McDonald’s imminent departure from the ITV anchor’s chair have been dismissed as premature tittle-tattle, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t indulge in a bit of succession speculation.

My money is on a bloke. I don’t feel ITV is quite ready to break that convention, so we can assume it’s unlikely to be Kirsty Young, Mary Nightingale or Fiona Bruce.

The male frontrunners from the fortysomething generation are probably ITV’s Mark “golden boy” Austin and Dermot “dark horse” Murnaghan, who left ITV and is clearly being groomed for big things at BBC News.

There are a couple of other possibles: Jeremy Thompson is a terrific anchor on Sky and then there’s Alastair Stewart.

Fifteen years ago Stewart was beaten to the anchor job on News at Ten by McDonald. He then left ITN to front London Tonight, which was being run by his friend and mentor Clive Jones.

Today, Jones is in charge of the whole of ITV News and Stewart is back in Gray’s Inn Road, still fronting London Tonight, but now also the morning star of the ITV News Channel.

Could we be about to witness the ultimate network comeback? 

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll be back in four weeks

Next week: Bill Hagerty’s final column

by Chris Shaw

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