Crisis at ITN


No news is bad news

The issue of news provision on ITV has always dogged the system. At the very beginning, when the new ITA was advertising for contractors, politicians and pressmen were convinced that news and ITV would not go together well.

The fear of bias in television news (and never let it be said that the British ever didn’t understand the potential power of this medium) had led many to call for no news provision or news to be provided by the ITA themselves. News from individual companies, with their multiple shareholders and shareholdings and the stated political beliefs of the newspaper investors, could not, it was felt, be trusted.

Listen to David Hamilton introducing the news from ITN

The ITA would have nothing to do with the idea of producing programmes itself, no matter what the genre. Although the Television Act cleared the way for them to control as much, or as little, of the output as they desired, Sir Kenneth Clark had a vision for the network that had his ITA as the king over the water – a guiding influence, but never seen or heard.

Thus an independent company owned by all the players on the network was created. Independent Television News (a name that purposely let you put a mental comma in any one of three places) was formed with a board drawn from the ITV companies and a representative from the ITA.

ITN began planning for a large news service modelled on that provided by the American networks. In-vision ‘newscasters’, human-interest stories, filmed inserts and hard-hitting interviews from the hardest-hitting interviewers were to be the order of the day.

This suited the ‘BBC with adverts’ mentality at Associated Rediffusion. It also suited the ‘big names, big stories’ enthusiasm at Associated TeleVision. As the network prepared for its leap northwards into Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, it suited Granada’s down-to-earth ethos as well.

Listen to an informal style ABC announcement before the news

It didn’t suit Associated-British. Despite being given full possession of the facts at their hurried interview, shortly after the launch of commercial television, ABC baulked at the costs involved in running a news service – a quote of 77,400GBP a year (equating to about 900,000GBP at current prices) for two bulletins a day to a total of 17 minutes plus a 5 minute newsreel if required.

Stiff letters were exchanged between the ITA and ABC, and between ABC and the board of ITN. ‘Less film, more talk’ was ABC’s suggestion, while ITN’s contribution was to immediately start to fall apart under the unexpected pressure. The ITA’s tuppenceworth was to simply point to ABC’s ambiguously worded contract with a confidence its officers didn’t actually have.

The troubles lead to an unbelievable event in ITV’s history. Robin Day, chief newscaster at ITN, had to interview Sir Kenneth Clark (head of the ITA) about the potential collapse of the company he was working for, live on one of ITN’s bulletins.

This was a breach of the very Television Act that Clark was to quote from on air. As a (nominal) civil servant, he was not allowed to appear on television to talk about television. As ever, the Act did not stand in his way, and while breaking the letter of the act, called for the companies to stand by the spirit of it.

His impassioned defence of the Act, of the ITV system and of ITN as it was constituted brought ABC into the fold. They joined the board of ITN on 1 March 1956. But as a consequence, the debacle cost the head of ITN’s first Editor-in-Chief. He walked away and stood for parliament, becoming a well-known and accomplished MP, but never forgot the affair and vowed to return to independent television later.

He was Aidan Crawley, and he would be back to haunt ABC later.

About the author

Russ J Graham is editor-in-chief of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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