Media Brand

Departing ITN chief John Hardie: 'Macho media culture has got to go'

By Ian Burrell | Columnist

November 1, 2018 | 10 min read

The departing chief of ITN, John Hardie, is demanding that the “macho” passport-at-the-ready culture in television news has “got to go”, claiming it damages the career prospects of women and undermines the family lives of parents working in the sector.

John Hardie

Pledging ITN’s commitment to a series of radical parenting policies, Hardie calls for a cultural shift in newsrooms to give women a better chance of reaching the top jobs.

“The macho days of job first, family second… that’s got to go, not just from ITN, it’s got to go (from the industry),” Hardie tells The Drum in a valedictory interview. “Equality of opportunity has to take much better account of the realities of parenthood and tip the balance to help people through those years of their life.”

ITN is the producer of ITV News, Channel 4 News and Channel 5 News. It was revealed earlier this year to have a gender pay gap of 19.6% (compared to 10.7% at the BBC).

Hardie, who steps down next month after 10 fiscal years as ITN’s chief executive, has made gender equality and diversity a priority of his final year at the organisation.

“The old idea that people who are serious about their career work seven day weeks and at the drop of a hat get on a plane to Brussels or Syria and it doesn’t matter about your kids – that’s got to change!” he says at his office at London’s Gray’s Inn Road, promising more flexible working. “The idea that you can work four or three days a week and those are still as valuable, day for day, as anybody else working in the organisation – that’s a change that needs to be made culturally. People need to believe that.”

ITN's decade of transformation

Hardie has been a transformational leader of the 63-year-old television news institution, turning it from an ailing and loss-making legacy media business into a confident and globally-focused television production company.

ITN generated £126m in revenues last year and a profit of £6m. ITN Productions, its creative and commercial arm, is set to reveal record revenues of more than £50m next year (from barely £7m in 2010). “All of that is organic; no acquisitions, no subsidies and no external funding – ITN did it all by itself,” he says. It has won an Oscar nomination and commissions from Netflix and NBC.

It’s partly because of ITN’s financial strength that Hardie is leaving now. “I know that 2019 will be the record all-time year for ITN’s business,” he says, claiming that the building blocks are in place for his successor to capitalise on a “golden era” of television production in which the major streaming platforms are creating new and lucrative opportunities for content creators.

But the Scot is clearly concerned that the issue of staff diversity does not blight his record.

His key strategy for tackling gender disparity is showing greater consideration to staff with young families. “When you analyse the reasons why women don’t occupy proportionally as many of the higher paid roles it often comes down to what happened as they took the time to manage parenthood,” he says. ITN gives mentoring support to staff before and after maternity leave and recently introduced a ‘summer family leave’ policy allowing staff with children to take the whole of August off and have their 11-month salary paid over 12 months.

In July the organisation acknowledged it has a BAME (black and minority ethnic) pay gap of 16.1%, prompting Hardie to introduce a new policy of interviewing at least one BAME candidate for every new role. He set targets for increasing BAME staffing to 20% of ITN’s total and cutting the pay gap in half by 2022.

ITN

ITN is a very different organisation to what it was in 2009 when Hardie arrived from Disney, where he had been EMEA head of Disney Channels. His ITN predecessor, Mark Wood, had been in charge for six years, during which time it established a video clips business, closed its 24-hour news channel, and launched the short-lived Setanta Sports news channel.

The financial situation in Hardie’s first weeks was more parlous than even those in the ITV newsroom will have realised. “I had a meeting with insolvency practitioners during my first six months at ITN just to understand what we might have to face,” he says now. “There was a perfect storm of (adverse) economic conditions, underlying structural problems at ITN, and a pension deficit.”

But what the organisation had in its favour was a long-earned and worldwide reputation for its journalism. "ITN may not have been a well-run business but it had some of the best journalists in television news in the world," he remembers. “In 2009 ITN was essentially two news contracts that were not very profitable, an archive business which wasn’t profitable, and the beginnings of some business in the digital news sphere. The theory was that the pictures we were creating in TV news were the raw material to create an agency business like Getty Images or Reuters.”

Hardie’s strategy was to use ITN’s journalistic heritage to create not a news agency but as the core for repositioning the business as a TV production company making everything from documentaries and travelogues to live commercial campaigns.

The company was commissioned by Netflix to make the docu-drama gangster series ‘Drug Lords’, and by NBC for the hour-long special ‘Inside the Royal Wedding: Harry and Meghan’. It won an Oscar nomination for the short documentary ‘Watani: My Homeland’, the story of a Syrian family’s refugee journey. The film’s director, Marcel Mettelsiefen, is one of five directors on ITN’s roster for making commercial campaigns and is currently working on a project for a major client.

From the news business to the ad business

Hardie admits that ITN’s advance into advertising has attracted criticism from those who thought it inappropriate for a news organisation. “We have no doubt we were correct to get into that business,” he asserts. “People say ‘Why is ITN in the advertising business?’ Well, Facebook is (and) Google is. Broadcasting is (part of) the advertising business and we have a role to play in that business, particularly in production.”

Advertising production was “a fast, fast-growing business” during 2016 when ITN turned heads with a Virgin Holidays campaign that was streamed live from 18 locations in nine countries. It was named campaign of the year.

Then the impact of the Brexit vote kicked in. “In the aftermath of the referendum there was no doubt that some companies pared back in anticipation there might be problems in the economy – I’m making no political statement, I’m simply saying it did happen,” says Hardie. ITN “caught a little bit of that cold” as marketers scaled back their ambitions.

Confidence is now returning, he claims, with clients such as Camelot and Matalan coming to ITN for campaigns that have the feel of a television show. “We operate very quickly indeed at very good pricing because we are used to making news and production in fast turnaround,” says the chief executive.

The heart of the business is still its news bulletin contracts. ITV News is celebrating a 10-year high in audience share for its early evening bulletin. While its News at Ten is routinely trounced by its BBC competitor it has its largest audience share for three years. Hardie claims that a tactical switch to single anchor presenting has allowed the likes of Julie Etchingham, Tom Bradby, Charlene White, Nina Hossain and Mary Nightingale “to have a much more powerful relationship as journalists with the viewer”.

Channel 4 News is still basking in the kudos from its investigation of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica (a story originated by The Observer). Hardie claims that without Channel 4 News’s undercover video, “I doubt Mark Zuckerberg would have been in front of Senate committees”. The bulletin is watched by 650,000 on television but can find an audience of 10 million a day for videos edited bespoke for social media.

ITN

Despite all this, Hardie admits that he can envisage his passion for his role waning. “I knew I didn’t want to stay for the next five years and once you realise as a chief executive that you are not committed for the next five years I think you should start to make plans for succession.”

He does not get to anoint the next chief, though he has spoken about the business to several candidates being interviewed by the ITN board, chaired by ITV finance chief Christy Swords.

Hardie is not leaving media but is planning a “next great venture” somewhere at the intersection of television and marketing (before a 21-year career in TV he spent 14 years at Procter & Gamble).

As well as posting record revenues next year, ITN will be in Doha in September to broadcast the World Athletics Championships, the third largest sporting event in the world. Hardie believes that ITN will expand into “fact-based drama” and that the impending battles between the global streaming services will create a surge in demand for factual programming to reduce consumer churn by offering alternative content to marquee shows. “I think we have only scratched the surface of the potential for fact-based programming for the major digital platforms,” he says.

When Mark Wood left ITN in 2009, he claimed it was “flourishing as a diversified multi-media company”.

Hardie’s recollection is different. “Having inherited something less than a springboard back in 2009, I think it’s my obligation to leave things so that the new person can come in and not be chasing their tail trying to achieve an unachievable profit forecast or put out the fires,” he says.

“This is a good time to leave.”

Read more here from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell

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