How not to win an ILR franchise… 

14 March 2024 tbs.pm/80927

CHARLES WINTOUR, a member of the consortium which unsuccessfully challenged LBC for the ILR London news and information franchise, believes the IBA is the wrong body to monitor cable television. Here, the former editor of the London Evening Standard writes about his experience at the hands of the IBA and calls for an overhaul of the way in which contracts are awarded.

 

 

Cover of Radio magazine

From Radio magazine for December 1982

LORD THOMSON of Monifieth is a kind, shrewd and thoughtful man. As chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority he is now leading a campaign, which has the backing of the BBC, for the IBA to be awarded the task of overseeing the development of cable television.

Whether he succeeds or fails, he is fortunate in the process by which this franchise will be awarded. The merits of his case will be openly debated over a period of months. The decision will ultimately be taken by a democratically elected body, namely the House of Commons. Whatever the decision may be, the case will have to be argued publicly by the Government. There is the possibility of appeal. Lord Thomson could even argue for amendments in the House of Lords.

Recently I was joint deputy chairman of London Sound, a group which applied unsuccessfully to the IBA for the London news and information franchise. Their decision was made, in private, within five days of our 90-minute interview.

Members of the Authority have no democratic constituency; they are nominated by the Home Secretary. Having reached its decision, the Authority gives no reasons. And there is no appeal.

Perhaps a brief account of our experience would be enlightening for those who now have to decide on the merits of the IBA’s claim to wider responsibilities.

Coming together at short notice, we assembled a board and programme team with outstanding media experience, including Jocelyn Stevens (former deputy chairman of Express Newspapers), Gerard Mansell (former deputy Director-General of the BBC), Nigel Ryan (former head of ITN) and Tina Brown (editor of The Tatler).

We were convinced that we could do better than LBC which, after eight years on the air, had never been listened to by six out of 10 people in the London area, according to its own research.

Charles Wintour

Charles Wintour

Working against the clock, Jocelyn Stevens submitted our case. He raised the money — far more than we needed — from British sources such as pension funds and insurance companies which had never invested in radio before. (LBC was 53 per cent owned by a Canadian company, which had 49 per cent of the voting rights.) We gathered more broadcasting talent. We put great stress on multiethnic programming. We developed ideas for giving greater independence to IRN. We investigated various studio sites, including one in Dockland. And we rehearsed our crucial meeting with the IBA.

Fractious

Of course, the rehearsals were nothing like the real thing. The rehearsals were a touch fractious; the interview was courteous in the extreme. The rehearsals devoted most time to programming; the interview concentrated more on finance. The rehearsals spent much time on education, but the interview contained not a single question about education.

We also made ourselves familiar with the potted biographies of the 12 members of the Authority issued by the IBA. (In fact, only 10 turned up for the interview.) They are all part-time, paid less than £60 a week [£200 in today’s money, allowing for inflation – Ed] (apart from the chairman and the vice-chairman [Sir John Riddell]) and picked to give a good spread of regional interests.

They include a lady who designs country house interiors in Yorkshire [Juliet Jowitt]; a woman barrister who takes an active role in social and charitable work in Northern Ireland [Jill McIvor]; a retired chief executive from a Welsh county [Gwilym Peregrine]; a London University professor specialising in microwave measurement [Alexander Cullen]; a Scottish minister [William Morris]; and two more women — a project co-ordinator in a privately funded job creation scheme for Toxteth [Paula Ridley] and a very articulate black schools inspector from London [Yvonne Conolly].

 

 

The Authority did its utmost to be fair. LBC had been through many troubles; they had improved to some degree; they were liked by that minority of Londoners who listened to them regularly. Although we had a Chief Executive with a track record in radio which far exceeded anything else in independent radio, although we expressed our determination to improve the station’s standards, with what Lord Thomson in his rejection letter described as ‘verve and freshness,’ we were an unknown quantity.

But radio franchises are relatively small concerns compared with television. It seems indefensible that decisions sometimes involving millions of pounds, loss of jobs, changes of favour, should be left to this part-time body. It is true that they are assisted by a very able group of officials. In particular, we are grateful to John Thompson, Director of Radio, for steering us towards a sensible presentation of our ideas.

It was last May I telephoned to ask him if it was worth putting in an application. He paused a long time. (Conversations with John Thompson are always full of pregnant pauses, but his next remark was undoubtedly delivered by Caesarian section.) Then he said: yes, he thought it would be worthwhile. The IBA had an obligation laid upon them to reconsider the franchise and would discharge their duty faithfully. He added that a lot of work was involved. He was right there, if wrong in suggesting that the application was worthwhile. It was only worthwhile if we won.

For the future, I make three suggestions. First, an interview of 90 minutes is too short. Towards the end, members of the Authority were hustling through their questions, aware of the shortage of time. A number of areas were not covered at all.

Second, in considering franchises for particular areas, the IBA should appoint three local assessors who know the needs of the area and can advise which applicant, in their view, can best meet them. Further, the advice of the IBA’s civil service should formally be requested, which does not happen now.

John Thompson

HELPFUL: John Thompson, the IBA’s Director of Radio

Third, the IBA is in the communications business. The chairman should not be afraid to say why they took a decision. To state, ‘We arrived at our decision only after much thought and analysis,’ is a cop-out.

Congratulatory

When the decision was announced, Jocelyn Stevens sent Christopher Chataway, chairman of LBC, a congratulatory telegram. Chataway replied gracefully, saying he knew what it was like to lose since he had been an unsuccessful applicant for breakfast television. The system is no better now than it was then. Sometimes the IBA gets it right — I happen to think they were right about the breakfast franchise, though I was involved with another group. Sometimes their decisions are baffling. I still do not understand why Southern Television lost its franchise.

Surely it is reasonable to conclude, however, that if Lord Thomson refuses to overhaul the present lucky dip arrangements for handling such applicants within his existing bailiwick, his Authority can scarcely expect to be regarded as a worthy contender for the job of monitoring cable.

 

From the Nick Taylor collection in the Transdiffusion archives

 

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