The James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture
- 24 Aug 07, 07:30 PM
Never mind the scandals: what’s it all for?
Oh dear. What a terrible trade we work in. Blue Peter is bent. Five is a faker. Richard and Judy’s competitions give a glorious new meaning to their slogan ‘You say, we pay.’ (They did, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds.) Big Brother gets castigated for being an exploitative freak show. (Sorry, what’s the story there, then?) The ITV press office misrepresents a documentary. Channel Four’s Born Survivor Bear Grylls turns out to need Room Service. Even Children in Need, and Comic Relief, turn out to be guilty of something worse than insufferable smugness. The Prime Minister is mad at us. Even the Queen is cross. And that great Alpha Male, Gordon Ramsay can’t even catch his own fucking fish.
Now, some of these so-called scandals are just nonsense: the shock of discovering that Griff Rhys Jones isn’t standing on a mountaintop for the title sequence of his latest series is one example: I can exclusively reveal that Newsnight’s old backdrop of a London skyline was a painting and that the famous Panorama slogan about being ‘a window on the world’ didn’t mean it was a pane of glass with a metal handle. Other of the attacks will blow over. Some are wilful misunderstanding. And some are just part of the weather. We do not, for example, need to worry too much about being condemned by newspapers which reprint the foreign holiday snaps of a short-sighted nightclub bouncer to tell us there’s a Great White Shark lurking in the sea off Cornwall, and then providing useful tips on how to avoid being eaten (such as ‘don’t clap your hands and bark like a seal’.)
But this needs saying, and it needs saying quite clearly. There is a problem. Potentially, it is a very big problem. It has the capacity to change utterly what we do, and in the process to betray the people we ought to be serving. Once people start believing we’re playing fast and loose with them routinely, we’ve had it.
And the problem is not going to be addressed until senior people in this industry have the courage to come out and state quite clearly state what television is for. What I say tonight is my own ideas, not the views of the BBC. I don’t think it will do for senior figures in this industry to stay hunkered down, occasionally lashing out at young people in the business or setting up inquiries of one sort or another. What’s needed is a manifesto, a statement of belief.
Let me say right now that some of the things of which we stand accused are contemptible. I can see no circumstances at all under which you can justify defrauding the public on a premium rate phone line. In fact, I can’t quite see why there aren’t grounds for prosecution. And, frankly, I find it pretty hard to believe some of the television bosses when they say they had no idea what was going on. I know people who worked on ITV Play who told me the best part of a year before the scandal how bothered they were by what was happening. Whoever was responsible should be sacked.
But in a way, that’s the easy part. My worry is really about the bigger picture. And I have to say that it seems to me things haven’t been much helped by they way they’ve been handled. We’ve had the preposterous spectacle of some of the most senior figures in broadcasting running around like maiden aunts who’ve walked in on some teenage party, affecting shock and disbelief at what they’ve heard. It simply won’t wash for senior figures in the industry to blame our troubles on an influx of untrained young people: the ITV Alzheimer’s documentary and the trailer for the series about the Queen were made by a couple of the most venerable figures in the business.
The question we have to ask ourselves is, is there something rotten in the state of television, some systemic sickness, that renders it inherently dishonest? But the question behind that one is simply, What Is Television For?
To take the first question first: is television inherently dishonest? Of course it’s not. The question is like asking do cars kill people? It rather depends who’s driving. Right now the impression is being given that the only thing real on television is the cellulite on How to Look Good Naked.
We should start with some acknowledgements, the first of which is that all television is artifice to some degree. Let’s not pretend it isn’t. Even the news: when we see a reporter in waders broadcasting live from a flooded street, do we honestly think the whole town is underwater, and with it the OB truck? Every time you stick a noddy into an interview, that’s artifice. Even the live television interview itself is artifice.
The key thing is that the audience have to be able to have confidence in us to show them something which, while being manufactured, is a fair representation of the true state of affairs. That does not demand that things aren’t edited – or even that interviewees are not challenged or helped to express their views clearly. It demands that we can be trusted to handle the resulting material honestly. Lose that, allow the impression to get out that we can’t be trusted, and we’re throwing away the one commodity which makes our work worthwhile.
Now, apart from a brief and undistinguished stint on Radio Brighton and a less than stellar period as a newsroom sub, I have spent all my working life in television. I went into it because it was exciting, because it was as creative as I could manage once I realised I didn’t have the talent to write novels, because I conned myself that I wasn’t really starting work. And, in particular, because I got turned down for every other job I applied for.
I have never regretted it, for a number of reasons. Because I work with clever, talented and funny people. Because it never really seems like work. And, most of all, because I think this medium matters.
My point is this: if we allow the belief to take hold that the medium as a whole is guilty as charged, for it to be reduced to the abject, commercial amorality of much of the worldwide media, British television won’t be worth working in. We should all get out and do something more worthwhile, like selling timeshares or dumping toxic waste on poor countries in Africa. If we’re going to stay here, we have to rediscover the purpose of this medium.
I once asked Tim Gardam, when he was editor of Newsnight – before he went on to run Channel Four – what people like us did before television was invented.
“Oh that’s easy,” he said, “we went into the church.”
There’s something in this. In the old days the Church offered young people who weren’t going to inherit the family estate or go into the army the chance of a comfortable, if not particularly well-paid, occupation which didn’t oblige them to get their hands dirty and gave them an ‘access all areas’ pass through the land. Much the same awaits television producers and researchers now. We could go on: the skulduggery inside contemporary media organisations is every bit as pervasive as anything in Trollope. And there’s the uncomfortable sense that for some people events have no meaning unless they are somehow sanctified by the presence of television: how else are we to explain those people queueing for a DNA test to establish whether their sister may be their mother-in-law on confessionals like the Jeremy Kyle Show?
But the broader comparison is the way that the media have come to occupy a very similar role to that once performed by nineteenth century clergy. Edmund Burke is supposed to have coined the expression ‘the Fourth Estate’ when he talked of the three Estates in parliament; the aristocracy, the Church and the commoners, and then pointed out that the reporters in the Gallery had more power than all of them. This was an absurd exaggeration then but it is much less of one now. In twenty-first century political life the aristocracy counts for nothing, and the church not for much. In effect there are two estates that count, the popularly elected and the self-appointed.
When I was asked to give this lecture – and I realised I couldn’t wriggle out of it, as I’d wriggled out of it before, (PETER BARRON) I thought I knew what I wanted to talk about. It was about the relationship between those two estates, the media and political life. Broadcasting has utterly changed the way that politics is conducted in Britain. And then, a few weeks later, Tony Blair nicked my subject, in a speech at the Reuters Institute in Oxford in which he talked about us being a pack of feral beasts. His analysis is the most sustained, high-profile critique of what we’re about, and I’m going to deal with what he had to say – and what’s become of television news - later. Blair’s focus was on news, but what he identified as the cause of the trouble applies right across television. In a nutshell, he defined the source of the problem as hugely increased competition, which makes impact by far the most important consideration in broadcasting, because impact gives competitive edge. But no sooner had he made his speech than the series of scandals I mentioned earlier began going off, like a series of Bonfire Night fireworks.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognise that what links all the scandals – what is the defining problem of contemporary television – is trust: can you believe what you see on television, does television treat people fairly, is it healthy for society? There’s a real danger now either that we lose trust. Or that in attempting to regain it we retreat into such a mind-numbing literalism that we neutralise the imaginative capacity of the medium. I heard the other day of a production company which is sending its producers and researchers on a re-education course in which they’re instructed that if an interviewee does not say on camera what they have said in research, they may not be reminded or encouraged to repeat what they said previously. It would, they were told, be construed as coaching witnesses. This is ludicrous.
And I am not entirely convinced by the spectacle of senior figures in this industry walking around like some order of medieval self-flagellating monks offering pre-emptive cringes to all and sundry. What we need instead is a clear, unambiguous statement of ambition.
Before we can do that we need to recognise is how the world in which we operate has changed.
Firstly, I would modify what Tony Blair said about competition. As everyone knows, in the last quarter century we’ve gone from three television channels to hundreds. Goody, goody, lots of jobs. Lots more sponsors for tables at those self-regarding awards ceremonies. I’m afraid, though, that it comes at a price. The truth is this: the more television there is, the less any of it matters. Once upon a time people used to console each other after some gargantuan on-air shambles with the words ‘ah well, it’s only television’. It was supposed to give some sense of consolation – at least no-one was dead. But it wasn’t really meant. Nowadays you could say it and mean it. This is the key characteristic of the current climate: there is a vast amount of stuff out there. Ubiquity is the mother of indifference.
And as we all also know, in the digital age, that problem is going to get worse. We have already entered a world in which, though sites like Youtube, anyone can publish anything. It’s removed the magic from production. The more familiar people become with the medium – like the boy in the jam factory who didn’t eat the stuff because he knew what went into it – the more sceptical they’re likely to be.
As far as the big broadcasters are concerned, the sad truth is that, apart from soap-operas, there is now hardly a programme with which a broad audience has a regular date. Dr Who is a glorious exception, as is the cleverly produced new series of the X factor. But the reason beleaguered bosses at the BBC, for example, keep trotting out the example of Planet Earth as a reason for the organisation’s existence is precisely that it is so rare.
Secondly, once the audience is able to watch television at a time, and in a style of its own choosing, the authority of the broadcaster is immediately undermined. Things like the iPlayer, just as much as the file-sharing websites mean it is no longer some scheduler telling people when something is available, it is the viewer deciding what they want to watch when they want to watch it. It is a subtle but significant change in the balance of power.
Thirdly, the decline of almost all audiences means that no one programme, or organisation any longer has the natural authority of dominance. (And a company’s ability to produce a soap-opera which does well in the ratings does not enhance the authority of its current affairs programmes.)
Fourthly, television is now encountering something which politicians have had to live with for years. The weather has changed. We no longer live in a time when trust was axiomatic. The crisis of confidence in television reflects the crisis of trust in politics: the old ‘we know best’ culture – in which producers affected a patrician concern to enlighten the poor dumb creatures who were their viewers won’t wash any longer.
But the most important change, it seems to me, is the philosophy which underpins what we do.
Take one case. The biggest brouhaha of the summer was the fuss over the misleading editing of the trailer for RDF’s documentary for the BBC about the Queen. Let’s be realistic. Ten years or so ago the BBC wouldn’t have dreamed of farming out a documentary about a year in the life of the Queen to an independent best-known for such seminal works as Wife Swap. There’d have been a producer like Eddie Mirzoeff, a cameraman like Philip Bonham-Carter, and an immensely ponderous production process. The thing would have lumbered on through endless meetings with royal liaison people, aspired to a secret screening with a lady in waiting or two, and been generally badly up itself. But it was a clear, controllable operation. Instead of which, what happens? An independent negotiates access to Buckingham Palace and then sells the project to the BBC. The BBC insists upon another company exec producing the series, the thing is filmed by a young one-man band, RDF contract a more experienced producer to put together his mountain of rushes, the BBC changes it mind about how many programmes it wants, and then the production company re-edits a bit of tape for showing at a festival, to drum up foreign sales to make a turn on the whole project. You begin to see how things could have gone wrong.
I am, emphatically, not saying there was some Golden Age, because that’s pointless. After all, there are some people here old enough to remember the television of that time. Like the White Heather Club. But there was something qualitatively different about much of the medium. The useful thing about the example of the Queen is the way it demonstrates the changing imperatives, the variety of operators, the confused lines of accountability, the fact that money intrudes at every stage.
Now this is new. For most of the media, most of the time, the motivation has always been pretty simple: you grab as much of the potential audience as possible, in order that you can screw the maximum amount of money out of them. Television was different because those who made it had a different sense of intention. In those more innocent days – and it applied to both the BBC and the commercial sector, producers made programmes because they were passionately engaged with the world and wanted to communicate what they’d found out. Too much of the time now they simply pick things from the world which look as if they might make good television, regardless of whether they do anything other than meet the demands of a format. To put it simply, people at the top are less concerned with content and a lot more concerned with bottom lines. There are too many people in this industry whose answer to the question what is television for? is to say ‘to make money.’
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the restructuring of the industry which the Tories began and Labour has continued. The BBC was big and lumbering and arrogant, and plenty of the independents are lean, and quick and creative. But the dynamic shifted. Those reforms also removed from ITV obligations to produce all sorts of programming which was once deemed to be a public good. Instead of great regional companies with distinguished records – Granada Television being a case in point – we have one amorphous mass. Tonight with Trevor Macdonald is most definitely not World in Action. Then came the retreat from children’s programming. One by one the public service requirements are being abandoned. Given the chance, who seriously doubts that ITV would abandon much of its regional broadcasting? I’m not really blaming ITV: once you treat television as if it’s no different to running a fast-food empire, of course commercial judgements rule. But who has confidence that news and current affairs will survive even on Channel 4 in the digital age without a regulator’s enforcement? And the only way to stiffen the regulator’s backbone is to ask them to define what, precisely, is television for.
The difficulty is that I see precious little evidence that anyone is grappling with this question. In fact, I don’t see much evidence anyone knows which way is up. Or to put it another way, it’s not that the television industry doesn’t have a compass. It’s that too often it doesn’t even seem sure any longer that North exists.
There has been a catastrophic, collective loss of nerve.
To go back to the comparison with the Church, too often the medium seems like the Vatican in one of those periods of medieval complacency. The cardinals of our trade are more interested in selling indulgences and keeping the estate intact than they are in articulating qualitative judgements about what’s good, what’s bad, which programmes matter, and which don’t.
Instead we have television executives behaving like politicians. One of New Labour’s tricks was to commission polling evidence and focus groups to find out what people wanted. And then to offer it to them.
Television has gone much the same way. Too often it seems that the people at the top of this industry no longer ask themselves what they ought to be using this uniquely powerful medium for. Instead of seeking to enlighten the audience, they set out to second-guess them. It won’t be long before we discover what politicians have discovered: if you spend your time telling people what you think they want to hear, pretty soon you lose their respect.
Television and politics are facing the same challenge: how do you connect? Which brings me to the question of news.
News is the most important element in the overall ecology of television. It is the canary in the miner’s cage. If and when – and I sincerely hope it’s never – people begin to trust television news as much as they trust many of the newspapers, then we’re in trouble.
But I thought the way we responded to Tony Blair’s speech was pretty pathetic. Again, let’s be frank. These two trades, politics and media have a great deal in common. Both deal in words and images, both involve a contract with the public based upon fairly explicit promises. And both are trades best practised by people who aren’t over-encumbered with a sense of their own frailty. We are also, of course, both down there with estate agents and car dealers when it comes to public affection and trust. Look at the charts: producers do rank just above paedophiles. Just.
By and large, the response to Blair’s attack just pressed the F12 key. Yah booh. You’re a politician. We’re media yahoos. Get over it.
Of course, the attack all seemed a bit rich, coming from a government which took the media more seriously – and tried to control it more effectively – than any previous administration. I remember once being in Number Eleven Downing Street waiting to do an interview with Gordon Brown, and a side door from Number 12 opening. In previous governments, Number Twelve was where the Chief Whip had his office. Now, as it swung back I was astonished to see the place had been taken over by what seemed to be a fibre-optic version of a Victorian counting house - a squad of young people sitting at rows of desks, on the phone bending the ears of journalists. At the top – can he really have been sitting at a higher desk? - that’s certainly how I think I remember it – sat the brooding figure of Alastair Campbell. The scene showed how thoroughly priorities had changed: where once government used the room to control and discipline its MP’s in parliament it now used it to try something similar with the media. If you read Alastair Campbell’s diaries – which will turn out to be such a gold mine for future…. psychiatrists – you get the first hand version. This was an administration so obsessed with its own PR that the man hired to handle it is even drafting the resignation letters of people who quit the government as a matter of principle. My own theory about why the diaries are only 789 pages long is that he ran out of expletives to use to describe the media. But the fact he came loathe the trade he had once practised shouldn’t blind us to the fact the may have a point or two.
In his speech, which managed to avoid the words wanker, prat, shit and the like – obviously not drafted by Alastair - Blair admitted that a vast amount of the work of his government – perhaps too much - had been devoted to handling the media. He justified it by claiming this was because we in the media pay little attention to what goes in places like parliament because we’re obsessed by impact. In a choice between impact and accuracy, he said, impact wins. Scandal or controversy beats ordinary reporting hands down. He went on to accuse us of using extravagant language: every problem’s a crisis, policies don’t run into difficulty, they end up in tatters. We see everything in black and white, and have given up separating fact from comment. “We are” – and this a direct quote “all being dragged down by the way that the media and public life interact.”
Now we could despatch some of these ideas quite quickly. We do not need to take seriously complaints about the marginalising of parliament from a Prime Minister who could hardly be bothered to turn up there much of the time. Nor need we concern ourselves with complaints about trivialisation of cabinet government from a man whose cabinet meetings could last less time than an edition of Ready Steady Cook. We do not need lectures about cynicism from an administration which employed people who believed that September 11th was a good day to bury bad news. Most of all, we do not need homilies about destroying people’s reputations from an administration on whose watch Dr David Kelly was driven to suicide.
But I found the media’s response – and particularly the response of the television industry - to the Blair challenge pretty depressing. Hardly anyone engaged with the substance of the criticisms – of our triviality, our short-sightedness, our preoccupation with conflict. The immediate and almost universal reaction was not to examine the charge sheet, but to utter a blanket plea of ‘not guilty’, usually followed by well, you misled us about WMD, as if that somehow entitles us to say whatever we like. Well, it won’t do.
There was plenty wrong with Tony Blair’s speech. To talk about the media being ‘feral beasts’ was weird, because, as we all know, feral either means untamed, or it means to run wild, as if they were once tamed. But surely we ought to be untamed? The alternative is to be some sort of poodle.
There’s a story in Simon Armitage’s All Points North, a memoir of his life in Yorkshire, where he was probation officer, of a home visit to see the mother of a young offender on a run-down housing estate. He found the tattered house, with an enormous half-wild Alsatian dog running around the overgrown front garden.
The mother answered the door, the Alsatian pushed past her into the house, and the probation officer and mother sat down to a cup of tea. Ten minutes into the conversation, the dog took itself off into the corner of the room and relieved itself. Copiously. The Probation Officer is first appalled, then decides to use the dog as a way into the question of the delinquent son. He plucks up the courage to ask the mother: isn’t there anything she could do to control the dog?
To which the woman replied. ‘But I thought it was your dog.’
You can imagine the story, if it were told in Downing Street, becoming some laboured metaphor about the relationship between Probation Officers and offenders being like that between spin doctors and the media. But to me the hero of the story’s quite clear. It’s the Alsatian.
What was wrong with Blair’s speech was that instead of attacking the Alsatian he went for the Independent. This was a pathetic target. If the problem’s a feral Alsatian, don’t kick the neighbour’s toy poodle instead. It was also foolish, because if any paper chooses not to be part of the pack, it’s the Indie.
But to suggest that just because he picked the wrong example the whole complaint is – as Alastair Campbell (how we miss him!) would put it – ‘bollocks’ or ‘crap’ or something similarly cerebral, won’t do. Something has changed - and changed profoundly - in the way that public life works.
Just look at this progression. Once radio and television reported speeches in parliament. Then we asked Cabinet ministers what they would like to say to the nation. Then we cross-examined them. Now the BBC political editor comes on after they’ve appeared, to pass judgement on whether their performance was convincing.
And yes, I do appreciate that people like me are seen by some of Tony Blair’s cheerleaders as part of the ruination of this relationship. I want to say three things about that. One, that I do genuinely believe there ought to be a chasm between journalists and politicians. I intend no criticism of colleagues in the lobby who’ve come to a different conclusion. But that’s what I think. (I do not, incidentally – and I am heartily sick of this quote of being attributed to me – think they’re all lying bastards. I never said it. And they’re not. Although I do think we should always be very sceptical.)
In fact I fear there’s a dreary tendency on all our parts whenever a story breaks to address it by asking for an interview with the minister responsible. I’ll give you an example. When we learned a few weeks ago that ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ meant that thousands of prisoners were going to be released early, it was an opportunity to have a sensible, grown-up discussion about why we lock so many people up in this country, what we do with them while they’re there, and whether releasing them a few weeks early makes any difference. That discussion might have involved people who know about penal policy, maybe a prison governor, and perhaps a thoughtful ex –con. Instead of which what did we end up with on Newsnight (and elsewhere)? The latest prison minister and his conservative shadow. Why do we do that? Because we’re too close to Westminster politics, and because when the production desk is being run ragged, looking for guests, the one thing you can be sure about is a politician’s willingness to spout confidently.
And secondly, on the subject of confrontational interviews, not every interview needs to be like that. In fact most of them aren’t – just the usual journalistic interrogatives: who, when, where, why, how. In the small proportion which are more contentious the way to avoid confrontation is pretty simple. You just answer the question.
But I’m not going to devote the rest of this lecture to attempting to justify what I do, because I want to engage with a slightly bigger picture.
I’d like you to imagine a Prime Minister who has more powers than any other in the entire twentieth century: powers to order his citizens to go into battle, to order industries to stop of start production, powers even to seize public property. He does this with little serious public opposition. And in his entire period in office he holds not a single news conference.
It is unimaginable. Yet it is true.
The Prime Minister was Winston Churchill. The only occasion on which he held a press conference was on December 23rd 1941. He was visiting Washington. Roosevelt belonged to a different political culture. He persuaded a baffled Churchill to undergo the ordeal. The transcript in the Roosevelt papers reads as follows:
“The President. ‘And so I will introduce the Prime Minister. I wish you’d stand up for one minute and let them see you.’” Churchill then stands on a chair and takes a dozen or so questions from the reptiles, almost all of whom address him as ‘sir’, and not one of whom follows up his original inquiry with any persistence or repetition. Occasionally, perhaps because he genuinely was going deaf, perhaps to give himself time to think, Churchill says he can’t hear the question, and it is repeated, slowly. At the end, the Prime Minister is thanked by the press corps.
That one occasion apart – and that was an event into which he’d been lured by his host – I can find scarcely any evidence that the greatest political leader of the last hundred years ever chose to talk directly to the media. Odd, really, when you think that he’d once been happy to put the word ‘journalist’ in his passport, and showed that steely mercenariness which is the pre-requisite of any successful freelance: he even tried to sell speeches he’d made in parliament to an American media organisation. What an example to us all. But underneath it all, he regarded us with disdain.
How very different to our own dear leaders today, who will play tennis or head footballs in their business suits, ride bicycles, kiss babies, say that today is not the day for sound-bites, but the hand of history is on their shoulder, and so on and so on.
In those days, the media knew their place. Even ten years ago in this country, if you were asked about the media, you thought of your own newspaper, or weekly magazine, or favourite television channel. But if you ask the question nowadays you get an entirely different answer: the media are – is - an entity in its own right, a collective being with its own distinct nervous system. It eats, it breathes, it excretes. It has distinct pleasure centres in its brain and it has an awful lot of problems with its eyesight.
Just look at the growth in news. In the year before Blair took office (1995-6), the BBC alone broadcast just over five thousand hours of news and current affairs (5,270). Ten years later, the figure had risen to twelve and a half thousand hours (12,485) In this environment, politics is increasingly played out in the media. Sometimes it seems that politics is only about the media. The media are certainly the amniotic fluid in which public life swims. For ten years we have seen ministers announcing policies on radio and television instead of in parliament, and watched them cross-examined about them on radio and television instead of in parliament. Gordon Brown says he’ll change this way of doing things. Let’s wait and see.
The basic charge sheet against us from Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell is as follows. Firstly, that we behave like a herd. Secondly that we have a trivial and collective judgement. Thirdly, that we prefer sensation to understanding. I’m sorry to say, but I think there’s something in all of these arguments. Takes the question of herd – or pack – like behaviour. This was not a criticism made when the Blair government began, when the herd collectively gave the impression he could do no wrong. He liked that. Before that, of course, we had collectively believed that the Major government was the Downing Street outpost of the Keystone Cops. In time, the worm turned for the Blair regime, too. Then the Blair government decided pack behaviour was a bad thing. Alastair Campbell tells me that he came to believe that, ‘News was only news if it was bad news for the government.’ So, he claims, the Olympic bid was consistently reported as something that was sure to fail. Government White Papers were discounted before they published – not surprising when we’d already been told was going to be in them – and news was the presentation of opinions about them. Reporting became increasingly more opinion and less analysis, as a consequence of which – another Campbell comment – ‘there is now more reporting of politics than there has ever been. And less understanding.’ The media as whole were smug and self-satisfied and believed they could do no wrong. The BBC in particular was incapable of ever admitting it makes mistakes.
Well, none of this comes as much of a surprise when you recall the Hutton Inquiry. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth examining. Are we instinctively oppositional? With the exception of honeymoons like the start of the Blair years, I think we are. Does it matter? Well, it would obviously be better if we always acted thoughtfully. But on the whole, I think the interests of democracy are better served than in a system where the media think it part of their duty to help the government get its way.
The big question here is the one of legitimacy. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I wonder about what I do. It comes in the form of a question. ‘And who, precisely, do you presume to speak for?’ Who ever voted for you? It’s something we’d do well to remember.
The answer to the question of whether people like me have any special right to interrogate the powerful is no: I have just the same right as anyone else. The only difference between my position and that of any other citizen is not entitlement but opportunity. I’ve got the chance. But the justification is built on an intuitive understanding of what the function of the medium is. That we ask the questions the average reasonably intelligent member of the public would like to see asked. And if you ask a question, you owe it to the audience to get an answer. Even if you have to ask the question more than once. Or more than a dozen times.
The relationship between the media and politics is, Tony Blair tells us, increasingly fractious. I’m not really sure this is something we need to worry too much about: our responsibility is to the citizen. But we ought also to acknowledge one enormous blind spot. There is a tacit understanding between the two sides which does no-one any favours. There are three parties here: the politicians who govern, or want to govern, secondly, the media, and the thirdly, the public. It is a very odd characteristic of this relationship that while the media and politicians feel free to criticise each other, neither has the guts to criticise the public, who are presumed never to be wrong. It is not just that Sun readers are always right. The whole public is always right.
One very small example. Last April, GMTV tackled the case of a Yorkshire man who needed medical treatment to prevent the loss of an eye. The treatment was currently unavailable on the NHS. The man was interviewed down the line, at the end of which one presenter turned to the other and said, ‘It’s just wrong, it’s as simple as that. Sometimes you just have to say that.’ At which his co-presenter tutted ‘He’s an ex-serviceman too. He’s devoted most of his life to public service.’ The exchange ended ‘And even if he wasn’t, he’s paid his taxes. Anyway, coming up after 8 o’clock….’
Now, in an ideal world, everyone should get whatever treatment they need, regardless of the cost. So the presenters were only repeating what you could hear in any Starbucks across the land. What no-one ever says when covering these stories is that rationing is the inevitable consequence of the fact that people won’t pay more in taxes. Let none of us for a moment suggest the British people might be hypocritical or even thoughtless. No danger of that at GMTV. No danger, really, of it anywhere.
Would it not be a lot more sophisticated –and honest - to acknowledge sometimes that things may be more complicated than they appear?
Let’s not follow the tabloid newspapers on issues like that. And also, let’s not believe them when they say we’re all dishonest. Overall, I have to say that I think standards of probity on television are pretty high. I believe most of what I see on television, and when, in the heat of the moment, things turn out to be wrong, I’m willing to give those responsible the benefit of the doubt: it’s not easy getting things clear in the early stages of any moving story.
The problem, it seems to me, is less one of honesty than of attention span. The press of events now dictates that almost every story is best if it’s a moving story. In fact, if it’s not a moving story, it’s hardly a story at all.
The only radio news story which has made me sit up in bed in the morning this year was the Today programme’s revelation in March this year that Bob Woolmer had been murdered. Except, of course, he hadn’t. The next month I was in Egypt, when I switched on BBC World to have reporting of the Nigerian elections interrupted with the words
‘And we’re just getting some breaking news. It’s from Britain.’
Oh my god, I thought, that’s happened. More bombs? Blair assassinated? The newsreader continued.
“Prince William and Kate Middleton have split up.”
Actually, that is by no means the worst example this year. In early June a building collapsed in Westminster. For the best part of an hour, the news channels talked of little else. Aerial live shots were beamed back. Reporters are deployed, required to repeat endlessly the same minimal facts to fill the void. Eyewitnesses are interviewed. They talk about how when the top of a building collapses, bits of debris fall to the ground. And then, slowly it emerges that what has happened is what looks to have happened. Part of a building has collapsed.
Now, although it’s easy to poke fun at it, I would defend that coverage. Obviously, the fear in the back of everyone’s mind is that there’ll be another successful terrorist attack, and the only way to find out is to be present, reporting.
But the problem is that all news programmes need to make noise. The need’s got worse, the more crowded the market’s become. We clamour for the viewers’ attention: “Don’t switch over. Watch us! You won’t be disappointed!” (I confess that making this appeal in the dog days of August is peculiarly dispiriting. Sometimes you want to sit there and say, ‘Not much has happened today. I’d go to bed if I were you.’ But, no, the pretence must be maintained that forty-five minutes’ worth of discussable material exists.) So, we all shout. The difficulty is that it is one thing to do this shouting at periodic intervals during the day – at lunchtime, in the early evening, at nine or ten o’clock, or at bedtime. It’s quite another to have to do it every fifteen or thirty minutes.
Self respect – and the culture of the medium - demands that we try to make an impact. You want to write an intro that grabs the viewer. The problem is that a sort of expectation inflation sets in. The warnings are out there. Once it was enough that that great success of the Blair years, Big Brother locked a bunch of people up together and watched what happened. Now they have to be given things to do which are calculated to embarrass, humiliate or provoke them – the audience’s jaded palate needs to be constantly titillated.
The danger is that the same thing happens with news: if for no other reason than to save producers and presenters from more of that dead-eyed somnambulism you can already see too often, the story needs to be kept moving. So it needs to be constantly hyped. Making a lot of noise is one thing we’re all pretty good at.
So the pavement-standers in Downing Street or wherever must pretend to omniscience, even though they’ve spent so long on the end of a live-link that they’ve had no chance to discover anything much beyond where the nearest loo may be. In this context, the very slightest development which might give some sense of movement to a story is fallen upon as if it were a press release announcing the Second Coming.
Take, for example, the outbreak of bird flu in Suffolk this spring. The thing was contained and dealt with effectively. There was no panic, except in so far as it was generated by television news coverage. An expensively coiffed presenter is driven up to Suffolk to stand in a field in the vague vicinity. A helicopter is put up so a reporter can speak of the incident as if it was the scene of a major tank battle.
For me the nadir was an interview with a woman who owned a chicken coop. The reporter knew what was wanted. ‘We have a dead chicken over there,’ the woman wailed. ‘Whether that chicken was knocked down by a car, we don’t know.’
And that was it. There was a dead chicken in Suffolk. Cause of death unknown. What, precisely was this chicken’s owner interviewed for?
There are plenty of definitions of news. But whether you subscribe to the view that it is something out of the ordinary, or – my own favourite – that it is something someone doesn’t want you to know - the fact that a chicken has died in Suffolk, possibly after colliding with a car, doesn’t cut it. What’s happened is that we have a dynamic in news now that is less about uncovering things than it is about covering them. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a war in Lebanon or floods in Doncaster, it doesn’t really exist until there’s a reporter there in flak jacket or wellingtons, going live.
Television has always been driven by technical feasibility as much as editorial judgement. When pictorial news came from newsreels, people in Stornoway learned of the battle of the Somme four weeks after the event. When the Americans were in Vietnam, reporters had to get their film back from the front and then often persuade someone to carry it on a plane to someplace they could get it processed and cut. Now, you go live, live, live, wherever you can. It’s happened because of the pressure to be fresh and urgent, because of the way the market works, and because, well, because it’s possible.
Of course, we ought also to recognise that 24 hour news itself may just be some intermediate technology, like analogue television, or VHS cassettes, or DVD’s. I don’t think I’m attacking the principle of 24 hour news. But I am saying that we all need to redefine what we think of as news. Sometimes I wonder whether there’s enough going on in Britain to sustain these channels at the level of portentous immediacy they require. Of course there’s enough going on to sustain 72 hour a day news coverage. God knows, just look at almost any regional news programme, with its tawdry catalogue of misfortune, recited in deadbeat vocabulary. You’d think that every child in the city was being sexually abused, every journey every day disrupted, resulting in ‘pure misery’, every teenager a drug-crazed psychopath. Does it alarm? Sure. Does it help us understand? You must be joking.
But in the very crowded world in which television lives, it won’t do to whisper, natter, cogitate or muse. You have to shout. The need is for constant sensation. The consequence is that reporting now prizes emotion over much else.
In this press of events there often isn’t the time to get out and find things out: you rely upon second-hand information – quotes from powerful vested interests, assessments from organisations which do the work we don’t have time for, even, god help us, press releases from public relations agencies. The consequence is that what follows isn’t analysis. It’s simply comment, because analysis takes time, and comment is free.
In news, as much as anywhere else in the industry, the question is no longer ‘what can we do?’ It’s ‘what can we afford?’ Finding things out takes time and money. Easier to stay in the warm fug of what everyone agrees is news. Which is, of course, why we behave as a herd of not-very-clever animals. It’s less risky than thinking for ourselves.
So no-one seems to question judgements. An obvious example is the decision to broadcast the deranged rantings of the young man who shot dead over thirty people at Virginia Tech. You’ll recall that before the killings he posted a tape he’d made of himself to NBC, who, when they got it, pondered the ethics of broadcasting the thing for all of five seconds before plastering it all over the network, on the ludicrous justification that it was as close as we’ll ever come to understanding the mind of a mass murderer. And then British broadcasters – including, I’m ashamed to say Newsnight - did pretty much the same thing.
Or what about Madeleine McCann, the three year old girl who disappeared in Portugal this spring? This provoked huge coverage, with reporters on twenty-four-hour-a day stakeouts, presenters flown out to stand on the pavement, attempting to parlay ignorance into authority. Everyone was there because everyone else was there. If you dared to ask what this circus was about you got the response “we’re there because the family want us to be there. We’ll stay as long as they want us to be there.” The McCann family are still in Portugal. The reporters went back and visited them a couple of weeks ago. Then they came home again.
At times like this, when the television hurricane hits a story, it too often sucks good sense and consideration out of the brains of those involved.
All this does – very effectively – make a lot of noise. But to what end? Of course, you still hear people saying ‘I don’t watch the news – it’s depressing.’ The answer to this is to invite them to imagine a world in which things which made you happy were so unusual they were newsworthy. No, much more nowadays, the problem is that news is determined not by its importance but by its availability. How else can we explain the decision to interrupt reporting of floods in Britain to go live to America breathlessly to cover Paris Hilton’s release from jail? Sorry, who? Why? What relevance is this to any of us?
If you’re not careful, eventually, you get to a point where you just think ‘what is the point of watching this stuff?’ I have been a television journalist for almost all my working life. And I have to confess to a gnawing anxiety. Does exposing people to this ceaseless torrent make them any better off? I have always believed passionately – and continue to believe – in the public’s right to know, that a well-informed democracy is a healthy democracy – but you do begin to wonder when this ceaseless tide of predigested stuff comes at you.
I feel uncomfortable saying this, because I know that some colleagues may take it as an attack upon them. So let me say that I think the young people entering television now are more technically able, more visually creative than at any time in the short history of the medium. I admire them, not least because I have no idea how they do half the things they do. My point about the vaccuousness of much news reporting is not to lay into them, but to plead for them to be given the time and the space to do a better job and for all of to stand back and ask what we’re using this medium for.
We need to recognise a key distinction. Visibility is not the same as understanding. Again, we need to ask: what is all this FOR?
My old friend Peter Weil – the only man to invent a daytime television show and receive letters from the audience demanding the return of the test card – thinks that at this stage what I should just come out and say ‘John Birt was right.’ Something like ‘Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, John Birt – the three most misunderstood men in recent times.’ But I can’t quite do it. He’s recalling the infamous article written by Birt and Peter Jay, which talked about a bias against understanding on television. It led to some very worthy and immensely dull television programmes, to an invasion of blokes in funny suits at the BBC, followed by enormous structural changes, most of which have been quietly forgotten. But you could at least say that Birt had a clear idea of what television was about.
I’m not talking about quite the same thing. For one thing, I find it too amusing to try to imagine how the pre-scripting of films and the careful pre-selection of congenial witnesses would survive the current hoo-ha about fakery.
My point is that there comes a point where the frenzy has to be put to one side, the rolling story halted, so that we can make sense of things. Television journalism’s justification should be the justification of journalism through the ages: to inquire, to explain and to hold to account. The news may have been dull, but it was respected because it made sense of the day. That involved people assessing, filtering, separating the froth from what mattered. It was, in short, the exercise of clear judgement. And in return, it demanded - and got - the trust of the audience. Right now we could do with less hyperventilating and more deep breathing.
We’re back, then , to the question of what television is for. All the recent scandals and so-called scandals have one element in common: money. When Roy Thompson described his Scottish ITV company as ‘a licence to print money’ he was sneered at, because by-and large the independent companies had to demonstrate that they had some higher purpose. Granada did not produce the most punchy current affairs programme on television, World in Action, to make money. We need to rediscover a sense of purpose. Deep down, I don’t think the objective has changed since that early summary as being to educate, inform and entertain. It’s a boring list, but it will do us as well now as ever. Right now, it seems to me that worry about engineering has driven out worry about content. We need to spend less time talking about how we deliver things, and a lot time talking about what we deliver.
We know what the dangers are. Left to its itself, the medium will achieve its potential to be no more than a giant electronic circus or freak-show. We know how bad it can get, whether it’s the Russian station which has its newsreaders read the news while performing a striptease, or the Brazilian audience show with its Deformity of the Week feature. In Britain, for the first several decades of its life, television has been something better than that. The presence of the BBC was obviously a big factor. Regulation had something to do with it. But most of all, I think, television has maintained high standards of creative excellence and honesty because the people who worked in it believed they were doing a job which mattered.
If we were merely running a timber-mill, we should be satisfied that we were cutting lengths of wood to the right length and width and depth. But we’re not. We are engaged in a trade which has the potential to do amazing things, to show people things they didn’t know existed, to give them the power to make informed decisions about how they see the world and how they want to be governed. We have the power to open their minds.
Why else do advertisers pay such enormous sums for access?
We aren’t dealing in lengths of wood: however much we may affect to claim that we are showing unvarnished reality, we are manufacturing something – as I say, all television – even the boring old vox pop - is artifice to some degree.
When Tony Blair made his attack on the news, a letter to one of the newspapers – I think it, unlikely as it sounds, the Daily Telegraph – defended us. Blair should back off, because, he suggested, the media were marginally less dishonest, even though he regarded us – and this is the lapidary phrase – ‘with genial contempt’.
I guess that sums up much public feeling about television. They’re no fools. They understand that interviewees are selected and films are edited. They still, I think, by and large trust us. They may not repose as much confidence in us as in their doctor – just as well, really. But they certainly trust us more than they trust many other sources of information.
I have always shuddered a bit when I heard television people talking about their profession. It’s not a profession – if it were, there would be a professional body able to enforce standards. No, we’re a trade. But a trade which earned the confidence of the public because it understood that the position of intermediary was a position of trust.
I did think about ending this lecture with a list of possible initiatives. The invention of a Viewers’ Commisioner, with his or her own investigative staff and the power to insist upon the right to insert themselves into television programmes to correct serious mistakes if programmes themselves are unwilling to do so. A professional body with a clear code of practice, membership of which would be a requirement of employment at any respectable company. And lots of subsidiary ideas, like, for example, a code of practice so we can put a stop to the unpleasant spectacle of companies getting rich on the back of the willingness of young people to work for nothing.
In the end, though, those things are secondary. They’re engineering, too, in a way. What’s really needed is a much clearer sense of leadership.
There is a clear anxiety that both parliament AND television are sliding into irrelevance, disappearing into the mists of history like the quill pen and the coffee house. The Web, we’re told, makes expensive, professional broadcasting a thing of the past. But the problem with blogs is the same as their strength: they don’t operate by conventional journalistic rules about checking facts, and they’re unencumbered by any thought that there might be more than one side to a story. The blogosphere is a place where everyone can scream and no-one needs to listen. Rather than making an attempt at fairness irrelevant, it seems to me it actually makes it more necessary.
The more profound problem is really about demographics. The audience is getting older and we don’t know what to do about it, so we have the spectacle of a bunch of middle-aged people in the grip of some comb-over compulsion. Youth. Where is it? Why doesn’t it watch us? How do we get hold of it? This is the great motive force in contemporary television. Why do they want to find it? The motive is the same everywhere. Money. Commercial television, because it is the market the advertisers crave. The BBC because it fears that if doesn’t get its nails into this age group, it’s going to succumb to Daily Express syndrome where the paperboy shoves the newspaper through the letterboxes of houses with the curtains drawn.
(It’s tempting to shout ‘Stop It! The truth is that television in Britain is commissioned by middle-aged people who rarely watch the box, attempting to reach young people who look at it even less, when it’s actually watched by old people. Twenty to twenty five year olds aren’t sitting goggle-eyed for one very good reason: they’ve got better things to do. The people who do watch it – and pay their licence fees and their other bills – are older people. Why don’t you give them what they want?)
The anxiety about irrelevance expresses itself in obsessions with the red button, with interactivity, fatuous opinion polls, podcasts, ‘multiplatform 360 degree programming’, etc, etc, we’ve all heard the jargon, even if we’re not entirely clear what some of it means. In the process, something’s gone wrong. We’ve got too interested in the way we deliver what we do, at the expense of what we deliver. We have become obsessed with how the copper wire is organised, and forgotten about the electricity.
But where is this restatement of what television is for to come from? Well, the obvious place is the BBC, precisely because of its privileged position. I know the BBC Trust hasn’t been in the job very long. But it does seem a big disappointment that it appears so far to consider its job to be more to do with chastising the senior management than with preaching a higher social purpose for the organisation.
Of course, the BBC’s got problems of its own, and they also come down to money. It was comprehensively outmanoeuvred by the Treasury in the last licence fee settlement, so that it is now committed to spending nearly one and a half billion on things – whether they be the cost of digital switchover, on-demand, building office blocks in Salford – which have nothing much to do with sole purpose of its existence, which is to produce worthwhile programmes.
Even so, quite how these obligations produce a budget crisis in an organisation with an assured income of three and a half billion pounds is still something of a mystery to me. A commercial organisation confronted with the need to make economies would probably say well, our meat pies aren’t selling well, but our soups are, so let’s get out of pies and make more soup. The BBC isn’t a commercial organisation, of course, so instead seems to want to stay in every television and radio channel and to maintain its internet presence, but to do so with fewer resources. The argument, I think, is that since society is more fragmented, it needs a multiplicity of outlets to serve it: why does no-one consider the alternative hypothesis that if social division is a bad thing perhaps a broadcaster’s function could be to build social cohesion? But no, everyone must do more for less.
On Newsnight, for example, over the last three years we’ve been required to make budget cuts of fifteen percent. We have lost producers, researchers and reporters. Nor can we make the films we once made. Now we’re told we likely to have to make more cuts: at least a further twenty percent over five years. It is unsustainable, and I cannot see how the programme can survive in anything like its current form if the cuts are implemented. To get a single – important - film transmitted last week involved surviving a sustained barrage of astonishingly threatening lawyers’ letters from Carter Ruck and ear-bending from one of the country’s most expensive PR firms. You can’t do that if you’re replacing grizzled output editors with people on work experience, no matter how enthusiastic they may be.
I’m sorry if this sounds like special pleading – after all, no show has a God-given right to continue indefinitely. But the bigger question is whether the BBC itself has a future. Working for it has always been a bit like living in Stalin’s Russia, with one five-year-plan, one resoundingly empty slogan after another. One BBC, Making it Happen, Creative Futures, they all blur into one great vacuous blur. I can’t even recall what the current one is. Rather like Stalin’s Russia, they express a belief that the system will go on forever.
I don’t want to be apocalyptic, on the basis of what may turn out to be short-term problems. But I think it foolish to be too confident on that score. I guess there’ll certainly be one more licence fee settlement. But can we really be certain there’ll be a fourth? Or a fifth?
The problem is, the anomalies are so enormous. The idea of a tax on the ownership of a television belongs in the 1950s. Why not tax people for owning a washing machine to fund the manufacture of Persil? And how do you justify a tax on television ownership to finance production of material which will never appear on television? And what about material intended for television which is viewed through an iPlayer, for which no licence is required? It is all too easy to imagine a future in which our grandchildren will talk of having had an ancestor who worked for the BBC in the same way as people nowadays mention having had a grandparent or great-grandparent who worked for the Sudanese Political Service, or was a District Officer in Bechuanaland.
It’s possible that good old British hypocrisy – or creative ambiguity - will get us over the contradictions inherent in the licence fee. I certainly hope so, because the alternatives aren’t appealing. But we have to move beyond the platitude tossed about that it is the best –or the least-worst - television service in the world. So it bloody well ought to be. And I speak as the presenter of programme which was obliged this spring to follow an hour devoted to celebrity dog-walking.
The BBC is going to have to justify its existence not by the way it broadcasts or the buildings out of which it works, but by what it broadcasts. We seem, far too often, to lose sight of this. Articulating a clear sense of purpose and expressing it through much better protection of the defining brands is more persuasive than producing the occasional piece of tea-towel television celebrating the glories of Britain.
There is a fight going on for the survival of quality television right across this industry. The recent skirmishes and scandals have not gone our way. As an industry we need to lay out much more clearly what we’re doing and why. Let’s spend less time measuring audiences and more time enlightening them.
Despite the last few months, I do not believe that this uniquely powerful medium has been taken over by charlatans. But we ought to acknowledge that parts of it are in danger of losing their redeeming virtues. We need to be open. We need to admit when we make mistakes. We need treat our viewers with respect, to be frank with them about how and why programmes were made, to be transparent.
We need, in short, to rediscover a sense of purpose.