What was the biggest media story of last week? It wasn’t, to judge by the headlines and the column inches, Virginia Bottomley’s first major speech on media issues as Heritage Secretary, delivered to the Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge.
Nor was it the news that commercial radio expects to be the fastest-growing advertising medium in 1995, for the third year in succession, on the back of a 30 per cent growth in audience and a trebling of the sector’s stock market value.
Nor was it the publication of annual results from Mirror Group Newspapers showing profits up 12.4 per cent.
It was in fact the revelation (though a revelation accurately predicted by some of the papers several days before it actually happened) that Janet Street-Porter was leaving one of Mirror Group’s smallest subsidiaries, Live TV, as its managing director. This took place after what everyone assumed was a frightful bust-up with a couple of Mirror Group M People (male, middle aged, middle-class and, according to Janet, mediocre): David Montgomery, the Mirror’s chief executive, and Kelvin MacKenzie, erstwhile editor of The Sun.
Street-Porter is a larger-than-life character, noisy, opinionated, arrogant, sometimes brilliant. Journalists love her because she does and says outrageous things in an outrageous accent and outrageous clothes, because she gives great quotes and because (except when parting company with the Mirror) she is always ready to talk to the hacks.
She was, however, merely a middling sort of manager at Mirror Group and Live TV is tiny: one of more than two dozen channels available in a million cable homes, and far from being the most popular (not surprising, when you compare its programme budgets of 2,000 an hour with the millions being spent on Sky’s sports and movie channels, which get the big audiences).
A few weeks ago, when Street-Porter gave the opening lecture at the Edinburgh Television Festival, a number of people expressed surprise that the BBC hadn’t put it on the Nine O’Clock News. The BBC had, after all, reported what the lecturers in the three previous years – Michael Grade, Dennis Potter and Greg Dyke – had to say.
Potter was the country’s greatest living television dramatist, Michael Grade the boss of Channel 4 and Greg Dyke the erstwhile chief of one of the country’s biggest ITV companies. Grade and Potter had launched savage attacks on one of the country’s most prominent and most influential institutions, the BBC, and on its management.
Street-Porter simply isn’t in their league. What if the head of Fisons’ newest and smallest subsidiary had given a speech at a pharmaceutical industry conference attacking the industry, her current bosses and those at her former employer (say, ICI)? Would you have expected to see that on the national news?
No, you wouldn’t. The spat might have made the business pages of the broadsheets. It would have excited much debate in the relevant trade papers. But it would not have made the Nine O’Clock News or News at Ten because, important though the pharmaceutical industry is, its internal politics and the personalities involved are numbered among the less pressing concerns of the nation at large.
Whatever Live TV may one day become, it is for the time being insignificant. Devoting so much space to the ousting of its boss is rather like putting a row between the editor and publisher of Packaging Today on the front page of a national newspaper.
Why do the newspapers (and radio and, on occasion, TV) get into such a lather about unimportant people and events? The media have a great influence on our culture and society, they represent a huge business and their activities are of great importance to many other businesses, in the shape of advertisers.
But – probably because journalists are as interested as the next person in their own backyard, and are rather more knowledgeable about that than about many of the things they write and broadcast about – the media often get more attention than they really deserve.
Monopolies are dangerous things, nowhere more than in the media. But you hear much more about monopolies, and the threat of monopolies, in the media than you do about the same problem in other industries.
Is Rupert Murdoch really more reprehensible than the international cement firms which operated a price-fixing cartel for years and were fined several hundred million pounds by the European Commission? Probably not, but you hear a good deal more about the former and his plans to rule the world than you did about the latter, largely because hacks know rather more about Rupert Murdoch (many have worked for him) than they do about cement and construction.
Regulators as well as journalists succumb to this lack of proportion in treating the media. I flinched last week when Nuclear Electric was fined 250,000 for breaches of safety rules at the Wylfa nuclear power station in North Wales – remembering the 500,000 fine imposed on Granada by the Independent Television Commission for breaches on the Richard and Judy show of the rules on product placement.
Which is worse – a potential meltdown in a nuclear reactor, or repeatedly giving “undue prominence” to commercial products in a television programme?
Which is a roundabout way of saying I thought the most significant piece of media news last week was that release from the Radio Advertising Bureau about commercial radio’s progress. The medium has made extraordinary progress in the past three years. National brand advertising has increased by 106 per cent. Commercial radio’s share of listening has overtaken that of the BBC. The medium’s demographic profile has shifted significantly upmarket, to the point where the proportion of ABC1s in the commercial radio audience now matches the proportion in the population at large.
The reason has much to do with Classic FM, which has delivered a lot of those ABC1s and offers an audience profile akin to Radio 4. By the simple expedient of offering them something they themselves wish to listen to, it has finally driven home the message – that radio advertising works – to a generation of M people (middle-aged, male and middle-class, if not mediocre) who had previously dismissed it as something for the kids or the lower orders.
But the message still gets lost on occasion. Commercial radio has a great advocate in the RAB and its head, Douglas McArthur. But maybe, if it wants to raise its profile still further, it should recruit Janet Street-Porter.