Crisis at ITN 

1 January 2004

The federated structure of ITN and its lively presentation style was exactly what the original four contractors had wanted. Now ABC came along, and they didn’t want to play.

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.

However, it didn’t suit ABC, the latest ITV contractor to join the fold in 1956. ABC balked at the costs involved in running a news service – a quote of £77,400 a year for two bulletins a day to a total of 17 minutes, plus a 5 minute newsreel if required – with much of the costs the result of the inclusion of filmed inserts. Their fundamental view was that they could do it themselves more cost-effectively.

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, meanwhile, reminded ABC that they had agreed to come into the ITN organisation at the outset and that there had been no secret about the costs involved. They simply pointed to ABC’s 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, but never forgot the affair and vowed to return to independent television later.

Aidan Crawley would be back – as a member of the consortium that helped to sound Rediffusion’s death knell – and ultimately became London Weekend Television.

Based on an article originally appearing in ABC At Large

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