UTV must not follow ITV’s merger with BBC regional news in England

Let’s hope that the de facto merger of BBC regional news with ITV’s news offerings doesn’t set a precedent for Northern Ireland. The decision announced last week that BBC and ITV are to co-operate to keep ITV regional news going in England is as big as if the old Soviet Union and the US were to share the Bomb or Rangers and Celtic decided to become a single Firm (well maybe not quite). The unions accuse ailing ITV of bad faith and they may well be right in believing that the new relationship amounts to a virtual BBC takeover. We shall see. A merger isn’t contemplated for UTV News and BBCNI thank goodness. While protests against production cuts have been in vain, UTV is keeping its head above water as a separate company from ITV plc, and the two are sparring over the charges to UTV for ITV productions. No way will the surge in UTV’s radio revenue in the Republic be repeated, so the outlook must be uncertain. Locally, a virtual BBC monopoly would be bad for the BBC and bad for the community. Greater penetration by RTE, TV3 and TG4 while desirable in themselves are no replacement for local product.

Adds. David Cameron has called for the BBC licence fee to be frozen. Shrewd politics.Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley is right that in conditions of growing BBC power by default, the corporation has to do human much better and stop behaving like a nervous politburo. It must cooperate with other cultural institutions far more to promote British ( and Irish)- based culture in these financially strapped times. The wrong way to go about it would be a TV news monopoly in NI.

This BBC-ITV link is big news…. The real significance of the new move is that the BBC is doing something that, on the surface, is against its own corporate interests. Believe me, this is only the start. The advertising recession is brutal. There’s talk of 300 local papers disappearing in the year ahead, while independent television and radio producers slash back programmes and some go to the wall.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London