Very funny – but who’ll laugh last?

Morecambe and Wise it may not have been, but the Desmond and Jones double act, which made its debut in the FT last week, certainly managed to raise a few wry chuckles at David Elstein’s expense.

Neither the authorship nor the timing of the humorous diatribe should surprise. Desmond (Mick) and Jones (Clive) are increasingly the acceptable face of Granada and Carlton; a fact brutally underlined by the uncharacteristic absence of both Charles Allen and Michael Green at the normally unmissable International Television Festival in Edinburgh during the weekend that followed. Clearly the aim, or part of the aim, of the article was to deny former Five chief and putative ITV stalker Elstein free run of the festival by exposing the threadbare credentials of his so-called takeover plan.

Unfortunately for ITV, the calculated ‘outing’ may have precisely the opposite effect. Up to this point, the Elstein plan, and the motivating force behind it, have been veiled in the deepest speculation. Various shadowy figures have been put forward as prospective members of an alternative management A-team (not always convincingly denied, admittedly). But, as with the sketchy details of financial savings which have been leaked, these mean little without the backing of major shareholders in Carlton and Granada, which is far from evident so far, even from the powerful and disgruntled Fidelity. Is it just a phantom plot then, as Desmond and Jones suggest, designed to while away the otiose hours when Elstein is not chairing the Conservatives’ broadcasting review?

Well, not exactly. The Elstein financial savings figures seem no more than a sighting shot, based on one particular outcome of the competition authorities’ deliberations (double divestment of the ITV sales houses). In fact, the results of these deliberations won’t be known until next month, after which there will be a further two months’ discussion about their implementation. Which stakeholders in their right minds are going to take up a firm position before then? Indeed, comprehensively rubbishing the Elstein proposals, as Desmond and Jones have done, merely dignifies them with a weight they are not yet entitled to, by showing how rattled Granada and Carlton are.

And perhaps misses their major point, which lies not in the detail of financial figures so much as a leadership issue. If, post-merger (supposing there is one) Green and Allen prove incompatible or unsuitable as figureheads for a new-era ITV – as they are often said to be – who better to broker an alternative than Elstein? In the meantime, he seems to be playing at least some of his cards right. The farce which dogged Active Value’s hasty attempts to parachute an alternative management team into Cordiant Communications suggests that you need to start your soundings and manoeuvrings early on, or not at all. No one can accuse Elstein of being late into the action.

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