Multi-million pound pay packages for top TV celebrities grabbed the headlines last week, when the government revealed its white paper on the future of the BBC.
Yet while the sexier elements of the Tory-BBC row occupied most attention, ITN boss John Hardie insists that the most important issue behind any reforms is the provision of high-quality news bulletins.
Hardie says the privatisation, or part-privatisation, of Channel 4 would be a “concern” for ITN, which produces several current affairs programmes for the broadcaster in addition to Channel 4 News.
“We all wait with bated breath,” he says. “What we will say is it’s absolutely crucial that the current affairs and news provision of Channel 4 continues.
"They’ve committed to a full hour of news and current affairs of a high-fibre nature right at the beginning of peak, which is a major commitment [and] it is very well funded… We think that is precious.”
He describes Channel 4 News as having a “very distinctive take on news”, adding: “That has to stay. So whatever the solutions are, whatever the perceived problems are, I think if we lost Channel 4 News and current affairs the country would be the loser for that. That sounds pompous, but I genuinely believe it makes a very strong contribution.”
Channel 4 itself is anxiously awaiting a government decision on its future, with its chairman last week condemning the “prolonged uncertainty”.
Culture secretary John Whittingdale said last week he is “keen to make public our conclusions [on Channel 4] as soon as possible”.
Before dealing with Channel 4, his department had the small matter of publishing a 132-page white paper setting out the future of the BBC.
The white paper proposed that all BBC programming outside of news and current affairs should be open to competition from outside organisations. Hardie says this could create “real opportunities” for independent production companies like ITN.
ITN probably would have welcomed a widened opportunity to pitch for news and current affairs content also, of course.
“We’re not particularly advocating that BBC should let us pitch for BBC Ten O’Clock News or Six O’Clock News – I think they’re probably quite happy with that,” says Hardie.
“I mean, Newsnight is definitely a programme that could be made be an independent company.”
He adds: “I’m not advocating we’d do that either… I think it would be very interesting, a take on Newsnight, what an independent producer would do with that.”
At a time when the BBC is under pressure to save money, the future of its 24-hour news channel is said to be at risk. Hardie says he has “no opinion” but does not think ITN is missing out by not having its own 24/7 TV news service, describing bulletins as a “superior form of television news”.
“I think it’s moved on,” he says. “I think we felt… seven years ago, the fact that we didn’t have a 24/7 news channel was kind of a disadvantage, we couldn’t just do a news flash on air at any time that we wished.
“I don’t think it matters now. Because what we want to do – what our clients want us to do – is have excellent bulletins. And there’s a real advantage in making bulletin news because your… journalists don’t have to keep popping up twice an hour to do the latest ‘things haven’t really changed’. They can go and find news and find out things and do interviews.”
Hardie is not a journalist, but he is clearly a news man. He watches all of ITN’s bulletins, he has a 24-hour news programme on in his office, he “dips into” into websites such as Buzzfeed, Vice and Mail Online, and he also reads several newspapers a day.
But the chief executive is planning a shift in focus away from news after setting out a 2020 vision for ITN. While he wants broadcast news, a “mature” part of the company, to still be in low-digit growth in four years, the plan is for it to make up less of the business.
ITN recently reported a 2015 turnover of £120m, £85.6m – or more than 70 per cent – of which came from broadcast news.
By 2020, Hardie wants the company to generate £180m in revenue and for non-broadcast news to make up half of the business.
“We will continue to be the largest player in independent broadcast news,” Hardie says. “But we’ll grow significantly in television programming, sports, TV commercial production and in digital content.”
His prediction beyond that? “Ten years from now, ITN will be regarded as the single most successful production company in this country, with a strong portfolio, here and in the US and in the English language world. We’ll be not just number one in broadcast news, we’ll have a number one to three position in at least three of the areas in which we’re operating.”
If the BBC is forced to shop around for more of its programmes, ITN looks ready to pounce.