Welsh Assembly Votes To Back IFNCs, Suspects Tories’ ITV Support

Welsh Assembly members on Wednesday adopted a motion expressing support for the UK government’s multimedia independently-funded news consortia (IFNC) proposal – in a heated debate that was a microcosm of arguments due to play out in Westminster…

Conservatives sought to hijack the motion, which would welcome the idea of using public funds to finance nations-and-regional news replacements on ITV (LSE: ITV) after 2012, with an amendment that would instead support ITV’s new chairman Archie Norman to continue producing such output.

“A standpoint that ITV had as few as a couple of months ago, up to today, may have changed,” said Tory member Alun Cairns in the Senedd chamber, referring to a report that the new ITV boss, a former Tory MP, may U-turn on ITV’s belief there’s no longer a business model in nations-and-regions news.

The Conservative approach is to support ITV in meeting their (current) franchise obligations. There is an opportunity to deregulate the market to allow ITV to increase their income … allowing them to meet their franchise obligations.”

But, with widespread support from other parties, including members of the governing Labour and Plaid Cymru pairing, the assembly passed the Lib Dem motion 40-9. “This is the only game in town,” said culture minister Alun Ffred Jones.

The motion has no teeth since the assembly government has no devolved media powers, but it may send a message of support to the UK Department for Culture, Media & Sport, which was meeting to pick consortia pilots today, and to whichever government sits in Westminster after May’s general election.

Comments from the debate…

Culture minister Alun Ffred Jones: “It’s ITV themselves who have been saying the cost is too great for them. It’s incredible that the Conservatives are basing their arguments on a single report in The Guardian that says perhaps Archie Norman is changing his mind – that’s one of the weakest arguments I’ve heard in this chamber for some years. This is the only game in town unless ITV make a very public U-turn – we shouldn’t gamble on ITV saving the day at this time.”

Tories are “gambling” news provision on ITV’s uncertainty, the minister said. He criticised Tories’ alternative proposal to instead create metropolitan TV news channels as inadequately serving areas larger than cities, and he said the only working example of such a channel in the UK is Channel M, which was effectively shut down today.

Lib Dem member Kirsty Williams: “It’s a bit late in the day for that organisation (ITV) – via The Guardian – to say it’s changed its mind. It’s too important a topic to be at the whim of a company that at first said it doesn’t want to do it.” Williams wants the minister to “lobby the DCMS to ensure the contract is signed before the general election”.

Plaid Cymru member Bethan Jenkins: “The Tory plan would scrap IFNCs and introduce up to 80 local media companies (LMCs). LMCs don’t work.” She presented research that claims city TV channels don’t scale well, would only be available to a minority of viewers and there is insufficient spectrum: “The cost of acquiring the spectrum is as nothing compared with the cost of creating content.” Favouring the IFNCs, she said: “There is an appetite for change.”

Lib Dem member Peter Black: “The Conservatives are being driven from Westminster on this issue against the interests of Wales. That (Archie Norman) article was put in as a spoiler – he knows there’s a change coming.”

Labour member Andrew Davies: “It’s a bit rich of the Conservatives to come to this debate today saying they want to do all they can to support ITV.” Davies said the ITV regional model is “unsustainable”. But he conceded: “My own party has made some considerable mistakes over the regulation of broadcasting over the last decade – free-market ideas have led to the position we’re in today.”

Tories’ Cairns had also said: “We need to recognise the strength and brand that ITV has produced in producing an alternative … The IFNC is a short-term proposal because it would only take us up to the franchise negotiations in 2012. ITV pay too much for their franchise; their potential income has been restricted because of the Contract Rights Renewal.”

Rather than have Ofcom release ITV from its public service commitment to produce nations-and-regions news, as ITV had suggested, Cairns wants them retained: “They currently have a legal obligation under their franchise agreement to deliver regional and national news in the UK. They’re not going to walk away from it because of their public service commitment. You’re talking about giving them (IFNCs) £7 million to give them something (ITV is) legally obligated to do in the first place.”

After being argued down, Cairns did not hang around in the chamber while the presiding officer, sensing opposition to his amendment, declined to give members the opportunity to vote on it. They instead adopted the original motion only. The winning IFNC bid is expected to be announced next Thursday. There are three Welsh candidates.