11 OCTOBER 2003, Page 32

An American-owned ITV would be even trashier than the one we have now

The merger of Carlton and Granada may seem a matter of little importance. Who cares if two ITV companies, neither of which any longer produces very distinguished programmes, should come together? But the development is in fact of some interest because it may well lead to an acquisition by an American behemoth of the new company, which will represent almost the whole of ITV, By themselves Carlton and Granada were too small and too unprofitable to tempt the likes of Viacom. The merged £4 billion company, once it has accomplished its cost savings, may be an alluring prize.

Twenty-five years ago, the 15-odd companies which then comprised ITV attracted some 50 per cent of television viewers. With the rise of BSkyB and the advent of Channel 4 and Channel 5, ITV has declined in importance so that its proportion of the television audience is now close to a quarter. The station that produced Brideshead Revisited and World in Action has fallen back on old staples like Coronation Street, game shows, thirdrate American films and mostly unmemorable home-grown dramas. News at Ten, which in the 1980s regularly put BBC news in the shade, is now being shunted to 10.30. So one is hardly talking about a precious national jewel falling into American hands.

And yet one has to ask how the public interest would be served by such an acquisition. Why has the government introduced legislation which makes it possible? France or Germany, or indeed the United States, would not allow a foreign company to acquire a major terrestrial television network. But in Britain ITV is being fattened up for an American buyer, while Channel 5 may be reserved for New Labour's friend Rupert Murdoch. Though in terms of popular culture we are well on the way to becoming a colony of the United States, there is no obvious justification for completing the process. No one should doubt that, whatever covenants were entered into, an Americanowned ITV would be even trashier and more dominated by American programming than the one we have now. The merger of Carlton and Granada is in itself unobjectionable, save to advertisers who fear that the new company may use its more powerful position to extract higher rates. It is the probable American acquisition that should worry us.

This is the time when those who do not want Britain to be entirely engulfed by

American popular culture should rally to the BBC. For with ITV shortly coming on the block, the BBC remains, except perhaps for Channel 4, the only broadcasting organisation that is beyond the reach of foreign predators. And yet the government and, so far as I can see, the Tories are contemplating abolishing the BBC's unique source of funding, the effect of which would be to throw it into the commercial world, where at least parts of it would be ripe for picking. Of course the BBC is sometimes biased against the Tories, and it has undeniably dumbed down over recent years. We must constantly enjoin it to do better but, for all its faults, it remains the British Broadcasting Corporation. and it still upholds standards of excellence that would be threatened in a commercial free-for-all.

No doubt there are many on the Right who would be perfectly happy to see the BBC broken up and some of the remaining bits and pieces fall into American hands. But sensible Tories should rather see the BBC as an indispensable national institution, one certainly in need of reform but also requiring protection against foreign or commercial encroachment. If I have one wish of the new editor of the Daily Telegraph, it is that he abolish the egregious `Beebwatch' column, which for me exemplifies a rather spiteful and almost unBritish state of mind. Some of us have been pointing out the BBC's occasional bias for years, and I will continue to do so. The effect of the Telegraph's campaign, and no doubt its intention, is to discredit the BBC and undermine it as a British institution.

On the subject of the Telegraph, an awful lot of guff has been written about its departing editor, Charles Moore, over the past few days. But first let me clarify something I wrote last week. I observed that 'the paper [Mr Moore] edited took on board the robust pro-Israeli and pro-American views of its proprietor, views which one does not particularly associate with the old Daily Telegraph'. Some people have rightly pointed out to me that Lord Hartwell's Telegraph was strikingly pro-Israeli (as opposed to pro-Likud) and, it being the Cold War, strongly pro-American. This is all perfectly true. However, I do not think that the old Telegraph's feelings of affection for either Israel or America, though they were certainly powerful, were as central

to the paper's world view as they are today.

That's that. One of the most amusing things I have read about Mr Moore appeared in last Thursday's Guardian in an article by the paper's media business correspondent. He wrote that Mr Moore 'resembles the typical Telegraph reader in every way apart from his age'. Mr Moore is only 46, and the implication was that most Telegraph readers are approaching 100, and that a few of them can remember (and possibly even fought in) the Battle of Omdurman. There is, of course, no reason why the Guardian should not have a dig at the Telegraph, but its view that Mr Moore culturally, socially and intellectually resembles that paper's readers is very quaint. Do they seriously believe at the Guardian that most Telegraph readers are High Tory intellectuals who love hunting and live in the country? It was Mr Moore's genius that he could empathise with readers who in many, if not most, respects are quite unlike him.

Several commentators have suggested that Mr Moore is no newshound, whereas his successor, Martin Newland, is a former news editor who lives and dreams news. I do not think they are right about Mr Moore. He has a perfectly good nose for news but he generally allowed the well-oiled Telegraph news machine to get on with it. Though he may have given it too much latitude, you could hardly say that the paper's news coverage has declined. Mr Newland may be at home here, but I would have thought that his main challenges lay in improving and maintaining standards in the rest of the paper.

The Independent is claiming to have put on more tabloid sales than it has lost broadsheet sales in the first week of its experiment within the M25 area, These are early days, and the novelty of the tabloid version may wear off, but I would not be surprised if the paper did not end up selling more copies overall. That said, I confess to being a little disappointed by the tabloid version, though some commentators have raved about it. It is simply a mini-version of the broadsheet, in which all the design features of the bigger paper have been translated to the smaller one. The intention was evidently to make the tabloid look obviously like the Independent, but what works on a broadsheet page does not necessarily work on a tabloid one. A radically redesigned tabloid would have made a greater splash.