When do neutral broadcasters become political mouthpieces?

The big topic at the Edinburgh TV festival is ‘policy placement’. If broadcasters are supposed to be unbiased, how far can they go in airing campaigning shows such as Jamie’s School Dinners?

On Friday, at the Edinburgh Television Festival, TV producers, policy advisers and politicians will debate whether broadcasters are getting too close to government in their choice of subjects for TV shows.

In a session called “In Bed with Tony and Gordon”, they will discuss “policy placement”, debating how far TV programmes can, and should, be used to change social policy. We’ve had shows that set out to save buildings, affect town planning and change what our children eat. The producers are asking: “What dangers are inherent in this brave new world, as government policy and TV production become more aligned?” and “How easy is it to do a Jamie?”.

One of those taking part will be Robert Thirkell, executive producer of Jamie’s School Dinners, which first came under scrutiny in this column earlier this year. The Channel 4 series was widely praised for persuading ministers to boost the budget for school meal ingredients, but it also set a powerful precedent for other programmes with popular presenters to try and change government policy.

I asked whether there would have been such applause if a show on a Murdoch-owned channel had changed the government’s mind in the run-up to a general election, as Jamie Oliver’s did. I revealed that the BBC’s head of editorial policy thought it could not have been shown by the corporation, which has to be impartial on public policy and controversy.

Channel 4 does too, and I reported its arguments that the series complied with Ofcom’s rules, even though its website urged people to “join Jamie’s campaign”, which involved a petition to Downing Street and lobbying MPs.

Since then, the issue of political and social impartiality has developed rapidly, which is why it is being discussed in Edinburgh. The BBC has come under fire for its coverage of Live8 and the Make Poverty History campaign. Ofcom is considering whether commercial TV channels were right to run the Make Poverty History commercials, voiced by Liam Neeson and featuring celebrities clicking their fingers.

The Daily Mail reported in June: “The BBC was accused of pandering to Downing Street yesterday by dedicating a week of programmes to African poverty. Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News, said the Corporation was veering dangerously close to peddling government propaganda with programmes such as the Richard Curtis drama The Girl in the Café.” Addressing the House of Lords Select Committee on the BBC’s Charter, Boulton said: “Africa is an agenda being pushed by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.”

The following week, The Daily Telegraph accused the Corporation of “cosying up” to Number Ten, claiming “viewers watching Live8 could have been forgiven for thinking it had been organised by the BBC, not Bob Geldof.”

It has since emerged that some of these concerns were shared by the BBC’s governors. In the BBC’s annual report last month, they criticised the special New Year edition of the Vicar of Dibley, in which Dawn French’s character Geraldine endorsed the Make Poverty History campaign and encouraged all the characters to put on white armbands.

Like The Girl in the Café, this programme was written by Richard Curtis, who with Bob Geldof spearheaded the fight to push world poverty to the centre of the political stage.

Within days of the programme, French and a posse of female vicars were photographed outside Number Ten, lobbying the government at the launch of the campaign – just as Oliver was a few months later.

Perhaps because the Dibley episode was broadcast during the Christmas holidays, no complaints were received by the BBC or Ofcom, but six months later the BBC’s governors said the programme “contained a clear Make Poverty History campaigning message”. They said they had been alerted to the problem by BBC managers and “noted the particular challenges surrounding impartiality in genres other than News and Current Affairs”. They asked managers to address any concerns before future repeats of the programme.

Partly as a result, the BBC bent over backwards to ensure that in its news and current affairs programmes this summer it aired fully the public debate over Live8 and Make Poverty History. Most of the emotive films screened during the Live8 concerts were not shown by the BBC, nor did it air the “click” commercials. It rejects the claim that its coverage was “serving the Government, not the public”.

In fact, criticism of the BBC output was very muted – Live8 itself became so big that it was embraced by pretty much all the media and politicians and there were no formal complaints to the BBC or Ofcom.

Nor did Ofcom receive complaints about the impartiality of Jamie’s School Dinners, though it acknowledged it raised issues that needed examining. It has now confirmed it agrees with Channel 4’s view that the programme broke no rules.

But as “policy placement” grows, it won’t be the last time regulators have to decide where to draw the line.v

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