At last we know where culture secretary “Chris” Smith stands on the vexed issue of the televised portrayal of all that is seamy and tawdry in life. He’s for it – and before the watershed, too.
He feels so strongly that he’s planning to strip the BBC governors of their regulatory powers on the grounds that they betrayed their duty of independence by failing to comply with the wishes of an outsider – namely, him. He wanted them to veto the plan of the director general, “Greg” Dyke, to move the Nine O’ Clock News to a later time. The rescheduling, he feared, would reduce the nightly audience for the lies, duplicity, swindling, enmity, back stabbing and ham acting that is the stuff of day-to-day political life.
The row has opened up a sharp divide between those who cleave to the high ideals of public service broadcasting and those who favour a more populist approach. Those in the former camp welcome the governors’ decision – long overdue, according to some – to broadcast unsavoury material only at a late hour, if at all. For their part, the populists agree with the culture secretary that the governors can no longer be trusted to protect the viewers’ interests – which, as the ratings prove, are predominantly of a base nature.
Tory culture spokesman Peter Ainsworth put it succinctly. The change, he said, was “evidence of the BBC’s determination to move news and current affairs further and further into the fringes of the schedules”. And a good thing, too, say those who want to protect children and those of a nervous disposition from the creepy, dank world of political life.
And not just political life. No news broadcast is complete without an item calculated to feed the dark imaginings of the hypochondriacs in our midst. With relish, the BBC regales us with the horrors of cancer of all parts of the body, one for each night of the week, the appalling inadequacies of the NHS and, most dreadful of all, obesity – this last invariably illustrated with slow-motion pictures of immensely fat people in swimming costumes: deeply disturbing images that haunt the imagination long after they have left the screen.
The BBC is concerned that its governors should lose their regulatory powers. A spokesman said: “We believe the public is best served by two regulators, in recognition of the differences between the commercial and public service broadcasting.” This is a point well made. One regulatory body is unlikely to have the subtlety of perception to appreciate the differences between both organisations broadcasting news at the same time.
The affair has wider ramifications still. As a direct consequence of the BBC’s decision to move the broadcasting of very fat and very deceitful people, though not necessarily one and the same people, to an hour when it feels confident that fewer viewers will be upset, the flagship current affairs programme Panorama is being moved from Mondays to Sundays at 10.15pm. As an experiment, it is also to be presented by a leggy Scandinavian beauty with a voice that is said, mysteriously, to melt the elastic in men’s underpants.
One dismayed BBC journalist said the corporation had betrayed the programme by dumping it into the “God slot”. Why that should be a betrayal was not clear. Had Panorama, in its long and illustrious history, acquired a state of ungodliness which was now being betrayed? And is it consistent with God’s divine purpose that men’s knicker elastic should be melting during his slot?
The BBC governors cannot win. According to a panel of advisers on the forthcoming White Paper on communication, they are “too enmeshed in BBC culture to act as credible regulators”. To be thus enmeshed is to be bound into a world of fear, loathing, strong language, sex, violence, cookery, gardening, celebrity quizzes and what social commentator George Walden calls “populist crud”.
It takes a rare body of men and women to rid themselves of such an awful incubus. And yet, when they shows signs of doing that – by rolling the fat people into the shadows and filling God’s slot with healthy Nordic pulchritude – they are stripped of their powers and beset by abuse.
The governors have seen the light and should be encouraged. If, as is to be hoped, the number of people afflicted by TV news falls significantly when it is broadcast at a later time, the way will be open for a still bolder experiment involving moving the Nine o’ Clock News to 2am.
Let’s face it, television news is thin gruel compared to the daily newspaper. Whatever the politician bedazzled by the cameras may say, our democracy would not be torn from its roots were TV news, with its obsessive devotion to the visual, the “live” interview, the soundbite, and the presenter fresh from his latest makeover, be pushed aside.
So it is to be hoped that Sir Christopher Bland and his colleagues stand firm in the face of those who would continue to infect our pre-watershed quality time with the sour effluent of news.