So has Jamie’s School Dinners set a precedent for other campaigning television programmes anxious to change government policy?
In the copycat world of TV production, programme-makers and commissioners are already discussing new reality TV shows with high-profile presenters that will engage viewers in political issues. But – however worthy the aim and popular the cause – should they be allowed to?
Last week, I questioned whether the series complied with Ofcom guidelines and suggested that less praise would have been heaped on the programme had it been shown on Sky One, part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. Newspapers have always been partisan, throwing their weight behind one party or another – and Murdoch’s perceived influence has been controversial.
By contrast, one of television’s great strengths in the UK has been its requirement to be balanced, particularly on matters of public policy and political controversy. Yet here was a Channel 4 programme which on its website urged people to join the Jamie Oliver campaign: “He’s started a massive petition to lobby government, which you can sign on the ‘Feed Me Better’ campaign website.”
The programme showed Oliver passionately urging those involved in school meals – from the education minister and the local council to the catering company and its dinner ladies – to change things. Just before the election was announced, the Government succumbed, accepting a key point of Jamie’s “manifesto” – “increasing the minimum amount of money spent per child per day”.
The BBC now says it doesn’t believe it could have run the programme in that form, even though it runs public health campaigns, such as Fat Nation. BBC head of editorial policy Stephen Whittle says: “I don’t think the BBC could run such a campaign because it is a matter of public policy.
“Our impartiality rules stretch beyond news to all factual programmes and matters of political, industrial or public policy debate. Fat Nation is different, as that was about raising awareness of health and fitness and lifestyle. It was not calling for a change in the law or the reallocation of public funds.”
But Channel 4 – which follows the guidelines overseen by Ofcom – insists its programme was within the rules. Its legal team argues that this is not an area of public controversy, because everyone is in favour of better school dinners and improving children’s diet.
“Our view is that this was a programme focused on food,” says Channel 4 deputy head of legal affairs and compliance Neil Pepin. “Its starting point was Jamie seeing if he could prepare a healthier meal on the very restricted school budget. Since then, of course, it has blown up as a political issue.
“I was very aware of the need to give the [catering] company and the politicians a proper chance to discuss Jamie’s criticisms,” he says. “Scolarest, the catering company, was interviewed at length and so was the former education secretary Charles Clarke.”
Peter Dale, who commissioned the programme for Channel 4, says: “In the best documentaries, you go on a journey and don’t know where you are going to end up – so getting the reactions of all those involved was crucial to the series. What’s so exciting has been the way it connected with so many people – it’s made many of us rethink what is meant by public service broadcasting.”
He says Channel 4 is already working on follow-up ideas – though he accepts that controversial subjects, such as changing the rules on abortion, would be much harder. “The beauty of Jamie’s School Dinners was the simplicity of the issue,” he says.
Even so, some were surprised that the Channel 4 website should so openly urge people to join Oliver’s “campaign to ban the junk and get good, fresh food back in schools”. Even if everyone is in favour of improving children’s diet, the issue of banning “junk” food and drink from schools is clearly one of political controversy.
The website even has a page devoted to “The Campaign”, which suggests that the lobbying came before the programme: “Channel 4’s Jamie’s School Dinners was inspired by Jamie’s new campaign Feed Me Better, which aims to improve Britain’s school meals.”
Pepin draws a clear distinction between the programme and its website. “Websites aren’t regulated by Ofcom” he says. “Quite often we do things there that we couldn’t do on air – for example, crediting all the companies that supplied goods for the Big Brother house.”
Some people regret that. Lady Howe, the former chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, recalled last week that she had wanted the websites of licensed broadcasters to be controlled by Ofcom. She’d lost the argument.
Ofcom has had no complaints about the political aspects of Jamie’s School Dinners, but I’ve asked it for its thoughts on the issue. It’s still thinking. Given that its new Broadcasting Code is at the consultation stage, that may be wise.
Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News