Anyone craving a fixed certainty in this shifting and restless world need look no further than the Independent Television Commission (ITC).
Amid a maelstrom of change destined to engulf us in satellite, cable and digital multichannel televised rubbish – on such a scale as to make the Tower of Babel seem a monoglot squeak – the ITC clings to the wreckage of public service broadcasting. And even as it drowns, it shouts defiance.
There was something heroic in its determination to prevent the ITV companies from delaying the start of News at Ten for 15 minutes on one day, only to make room for an extended episode of Cracker. The ITC’s reaction to the proposed change in ITV’s schedule was variously described as “furious”, “livid” and, that old favourite, “incandescent with rage”. There was talk of threats, swinging fines and – dreadful to contemplate – revocation of licence.
What could have ignited such incandescence? Ostensibly, it was the flagrant manner in which the ITV companies intended to breach the licence agreement, which requires them to screen 30 minutes of international news in peak time. Since peak time is held to evaporate at 10.30pm precisely, half of News at Ten was destined to be etherised into inferior time. That was more than the ITC could bear.
It seems, however, that what made livid rage pound and throb in the tormented breast owed more to wounded amour propre than concern for the precise observation of rules. No one had taken the trouble to ask the ITC for permission to shift News at Ten by 15 minutes, thus creating the offence lÃÂ¨se-quango.
As storms in teacups go, this barely lapped into the saucer. The ITC stamped its little foot and the ITV companies came obediently to heel. But the episode served to underline the extraordinary durability of some fallacies.
Chief among them is the belief that News at Ten is somehow special, significant or even sacred. It is none of these. Rather it is a 30-minute collection of illustrated snippets. The late James Cameron rejoiced in the fact that the Greek for newspaper is ephemerosa, a word that adequately conveys the importance of the craft to which he devoted his life. The achievement of TV is to take the ephemeral and coat it with the superficial.
A second fallacy is that the 9pm watershed serves any useful purpose. As with most of the patrician regulations governing broadcasting, the dividing line was drawn in another age, so distant as to seem almost prehistoric.
The idea, I think, was to set a time beyond which responsible parents would no longer permit their children to view. At 9pm TV shed its playsuit and rummaged in the wardrobe for adult garments. It could emerge in top hat and tails, fishnets and basque or a blood-soaked shroud. (More recently, Channel 4 has set a fashion for tight rubberwear and body piercing.) Whatever came out of the cupboard after the watershed was not for children’s eyes.
The reality is that children watch TV at all hours, sometimes viewing videos whose power to entertain is measured in units of disembowelment, decapitation, mutilation and eye gouging.
The episode of Cracker that caused the fuss begins, we are told, with a “particularly brutal rape scene”. In Britain today there are as many children as adults who could pass a connoisseur’s judgement on the particularity and brutality of this rape, awarding it marks out of ten. In any case, the very notion of responsible parenthood is antique when simple judgement and good taste would rule out 90 per cent of TV as unwatchable, an edict as impractical as it would be tyrannical.
A further fallacy is that, in a nation that boasts The Sun as its favourite newspaper, there is any meaningful distinction to be made between children and adults.
But the biggest fallacy of all is that broadcasting can still be controlled and governed. The technological revolution is on the verge of achieving what it always promised: a multiplicity of channels so great and diverse that TV becomes akin to publishing. Ninety per cent of the output will be complete tosh, just as it is today. But when tosh descends in a Niagara rather than a trickle there is no regulatory body on earth that can mop it up. It is better to face the fact that the Reithian dream of TV being an agent for the elevation of the human spirit was always hollow nonsense.
It is, however, just possible that behind the News at Ten furore there is a hidden agenda. No one knows the extent to which quangos communicate with each other, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the Nutrition Task Force might find itself in conference with the ITC. I have not seen a single episode of Cracker – and do not intend to start now – but it has not escaped my indifferent eye that the principal character is extraordinarily fat. As such, he is in clear breach of the Government’s obesity code, and setting a bad example.
The Department of Health makes no secret of its plan to render obesity as offensive as rape. Making life awkward for Cracker could just be the start.