By CHRISTOPHER BOOKER 'Au,' remarked the senior BBC executive enigmati- cally, 'but it will all be better after the election.'
1.e Just what would be better and in what way, he didn't exactly specify. But there
First, there was the jiggery-pokery over the renewal of the ITV con- tracts. By any sane and reasonable criterion, there are at least two commercial television com- panies that should not only have their licences confiscated in perpetuity, but should be made to give back every penny they have screwed out of a gullible nation. Furthermore, there is at least one new company, itching for a contract, burst- ing with new ideas and good intentions, the awarding of a licence to which could do nothing but good for the whole atmosphere of commer- cial TV. But what does the wily Lord Hill do? He doesn't just bring down a storm of criticism on his head by leaving things quite as they are; he leaves things fundamentally as they are and at the same time carefully gives the headline writers something else to chew on by appointing a whole new bunch of nannies, including Sir Harold Evans of all people, to keep an even closer watch on ITV programmes and make sure they don't do anything naughty. The recipe for better programmes is not, I hasten to bore Lord Hill by °reiterating, to set up a committee to comment on them after they've been broadcast.
But TV nannies, as the Economist pointed out last week, are not Only resurgent in the ITA. Last week's Commons debate on the BBC was in every sense a masterpiece of self-revela- tion. For those who missed the details of the discussion, here—with. a few honourable excep- tions, such as Mr. Donald Chapman's fine assault on Gauleiter Glock—is a summary of he average speech made in the debate:
Before I go on to wider aspects of this de- bate, I would just like to say a few words about a certain so-called satirical programme which I shan't name. [Laughter.] I thought that in many ways this programme was excellent, although in certain respects it was blasphemous, lavatorial and totally repugnant to any stan- dards of decency. 1 was therefore delighted when the BBC took it off. Now, I would just like to say that although I hardly ever get an opportunity to see television, I gather that Mr. Carleton Greene is doing a fine job. How- ever, we must look much more carefully into the potentiality of television for education. As to the possibility of televising the proceedings of this House—[hear, hear]—I think we must con- sider the technical problems of this very care- fully before making up our minds. I would just like to close by saying that we in this House have a very special responsibility for representing the point of view of the public in regard to the BBC, and although we hardly ever have time to actually watch the pro- grammes the BBC must be prepared to consider our views on them.
And to this end, Mr. Bevins then wound up the debate' by promising the House that 'in cer- tain respects, the BBC should be put under the same obligations as the ITA. On balance and quality of subject-matter, good taste and decency, the reporting of news fully and impartially and on the proper proportions of British pro- grammes, I think it would be in accord with the general view of the .House that we should issue a prescribing memorandum incorporating these obligations.'
In short, those of us who had been gently kidding ourselves that the spirit of the old Fourteen-Day Rule was long since dead, had better start thinking again. Just because of one programme—TW3—which, contrary to some impressions, is never coming back—there has been a general belief that television comment is becoming much freer. As Peregrine Worsthorne put it in the Sunday Telegraph, political pro- grammes are now 'much more akin to the leader pages-of newspapers than to their news columns.'
Of course, in some senses—in that inter- viewers can get away, on occasions, with 'hostile' questions, for instance—this is true. But tele- vision is no more able to get away with the sus- tained presentation of a 'partisan' point of view than it has ever been, even if it is nothing more than a recitation of harsh facts, as the censor- ship of World in Action's programme on defence showed all too clearly. Gallery by-election 'specials' still, it seems, have to employ a balanced battery of long-winded politicians to ensure that comment on the result is impartial (with the one exception of the Kinross result— which, coming in the morning, was presumably too early for the politicians. Instead we were rewarded with an extremely concise and to-the- point discussion between Ian Trethowan and Robert Mackenzie which was notably free from any ridiculous attempt at 'balance'). And now we learn that Gallery and Tonight are coming off during the election period—i.e., are being forced
`I don't think it's the original.'
to abdicate their proper role at just the time when it would seem most justified.
What, in short, is at stake is the right of tele- vision to operate as an independent mirror of the life of the nation—rather than as a mouth- piece for the politicians. And the irony of the conflict is that, in attempting to shackle and twist television into simply an extension of their own estate, the politicians are in fact cutting their own throats.
The proof of this pudding lies in the one series of broadcasts that are presumably every- thing the politicians desire—the Party Political Broadcasts. The most primitive, naive, indffectual, boring series of television programmes on the air.
Everyone, except the denizens of Smith Square, knows that Party Politicals, as so far practised in this country, are absolute death. The politicians haven't even learned the simplest lessons about the way in which television makes friends and influences people. Absolute death Number One, of course, is the Straight Talk to Camera by Party Leader. Absolutely no one is going to be convinced of anything by watching a quarter of an hour of George Brown ex- pounding Labour Party policy full face except that George Brown is a very boring man with large eyebrows.
Absolute Death Number Two is a rigged 'interview' between journalist and Party Leader. No one is convinced for a minute. Number Three is a symposium, like the Liberals, poor dears, tried at the last election, with a lot of bright young faces saying their set party piece as if it was (a) sincere and (b) impromptu. Again, no one is convinced for a minute, or listens either. Absolute Death Number Four are Visual Aids—as anyone who, at the last election, watched Sir Donald Kaberry wander- ing round a series of huge blocks representing the amount spent each year by the ratepayers of Leeds on municipal drainage will willingly testify.
The fact remains that the one quality which does convince people on television, and the one quality which, so far, no Party Political Broad- cast has ever succeeded in catching is a spirit of objectivity. No Party Political Broadcast was ever as effective for the Labour Party as Robin Day and Robert Mackenzie's supposedly 'hostile' interview with Mr. Wilson at the time of Sir Alec's accession. Only with this feeling of 'objectivity,' however spurious it may in fact be, comes the viewer-interest that could make politi- cal broadcasts at all effective.
There is just a chance, at the moment, that the Party Politicals at the next election may show an improvement. For both the Labour Party and the Liberals are, in their dim committee-minded way, realising that the style of presentation in such a programme does far, far more for the party image than any amount of careful and untelegenic pleading. There is just a chance, in short, that borrowing a leaf from the Weirld in Action book, they may go after fast-moving programmes with lots of film clips and two- sentence interviews that leave an image in the viewers' minds of style, efficiency and interest.
But in the long term, the politicians can only really gain by leaving television to get on with its job of making them interesting by showing them as they are—in action in the House of Commons, at party conferences, by dramatising current issues, rather than always having to fog them with 'balance.' The way they're going on at the moment, they can only go on looking boring and silly. Leave television alone—give it even more freedom of reportage—and both voters and politicians will benefit alike.