21 MARCH 1969, Page 9

Not all phatic


There is a good deal to be said for the view that some of the very best television takes the form of debate, by which I mean a genuine dialogue in which the viewer feels the tension of opposing minds. This definition forces one to exclude from the category of debate much of the chat we have to watch on the screen, some of which comes under the heading of 'phatic discourse'—a splendid phrase I have discovered in the work of an American sociologist, who uses it to describe words spoken to till a social vacuum but with- out any particular significance of their own. There are, for instance interviews designed to grind out tiny scraps of information which might equally well have been imparted to the viewer directly; there are conversations which are mere exercises in public relations; and there are the bouts of shadow-boxing be- tween politicians and interviewers who, one suspects, will get down to the serious conver- sation in the hospitality room once the pro- gramme is over. When we are presented with dialogue it is unmistakable and compelling.

There was an example last week in Univer- sity Forum. The guest speaker was George Woodcock, who for more than an hour faced an audience of Oxford dons and undergradu- ates. The programme was broadcast live from Rhodes House, where there were none of those demonstrations, amounting to a small riot, which marked the first programme in the series at the University of Essex. I doubt whether this was entirely due to the way in which the audience had been picked—through such notoriously reactionary channels, said one speaker, as the JCRs—for it appeared to in- clude a very fair proportion of the student left. It was much more to be attributed to the way in which George Woodcock handled the _situation.

What w was noticeable (and paradoxical)

about it was that while tempers were kept down the debate remained taut. That this was so was due to the main speaker who, although he disagreed with his interrogators, often strongly, was at no time condescending, never shuffled, and when he allowed himself to be momentarily angry was justly so. It would be going too far to say that he convinced bis critics (it is perhaps in the nature of things that he had no positive supporters), but he held them on two fronts fhe attack from the left was couched in terms of revolutionary fervour; that from the right, in terms of in- difference to the need for legal sanctions to uphold contracts freely negotiated. Mr Wood- cock was not to be shifted from either quarter. He listened. He thought He replied. If he did nothing else he certainly inspired respect, as he expounded his theory of conciliation, his belief that persuasion has the power to bring men to an agreement which will last till the next time—till it breaks down. To these young men and women—and to the viewers—he was prepared to admit that he might be 'a shabby compromiser'; they did not mock his con- fession.

It looks as if someone as skilled in negotia- tion as George Woodcock is going to be needed to sort out the tangle over the televising of

the World Football Cup, to which I referred a couple of weeks ago. The situation now is that the- administrative council of the Euro- pean Broacasting Union has met in London and has declared that it has a valid contract with the Mexican businessman who is hand- ling the rights in the Cup; that no member of the EBU may purchase rights from any other source except the EBU—i.e. not from World Wide Sports, that offshoot of ATV— and that the EBU will take all necessary steps to safeguard the rights of its members. The EBU'S case is based on the fact that last year an oral agreement was reached with the Mexi- can entrepreneur; this the Union believes to be valid in Swiss law. Robin Gill of World Wide Sports and sty has a contract nego- tiated in Mexico with the same gentleman. The ITA (but not, curiously, the independent companies) was represented at the administra- tive council meeting, whose findings are, pre- sumably, morally binding on the members of EBU. They include the Iry companies, in- cluding Arv. A very clever formula will have to be found if face is to be saved all round.