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Mile's Media Monitor

By The Drum, Administrator

September 8, 2005 | 6 min read

I write this partly as a father of a fifteen year-old who not only watches too much television (well, too much, according to this fretful parent) but also watches little other than the likes of Big Brother, X Factor and Friends. No doubt, the former director-general of the BBC, John Birt, would disapprove.

The now Lord Birt gave the main speech - the MacTaggart Lecture - at this year’s Edinburgh International Television Festival. It was a speech greeted with dismay, not least because of a lack of policy recommendations - which led to Birt later saying he was unable to provide any in his capacity as a special advisor to the Prime Minister.

And anyway, continued Birt, there is a bigger fish to fry than, for instance, what future role for the TV licence fee. For Birt, the big issue is public service broadcasting. ‘Public service broadcasting over the next ten years is in very serious danger, greater danger than over the last 70 - 80 years and it’s not being discussed,” he said during a post-MacTaggart de-brief.

The received wisdom is that, with more and more households switching to digital TV and its plethora of channels, it will become harder and harder - as audiences fragment across those channels - to justify the spending on PSB programmes.

Already, broadcasting regulators, Ofcom, have said to Scottish TV and Grampian TV they can reduce, to less than five, the number of non-news hours of broadcasting they have to make every week.

News is your classic piece of public service broadcasting and it’s expensive to make. Albeit much cheaper to make, religious programming is also classic PSB. But after that, the definition begins to blur. What exactly is PSB? And why the presumption that it is worthy and dull and therefore no match to the types of programmes being watched by my daughter?

Within the industry, it has become almost a glib assumption: ‘digital switchover’ (ie an end to there being just the five analogue channels of BBC’s ONE and TWO, plus ITV1, Channel 4 and Five) spells disaster for PSB.

Birt himself hardly helps the debate by being less than entirely clear in what he defines PSB to be. On the one hand, it is the opportunity for scholars and authors to set out challenging ideas.

On the other hand, “public service broadcasting would serve the nation better if it shifted the balance of its political journalism towards depth of analysis; towards insight and substance; towards honest, patient inquiry - if it focused less on the fevered preoccupations of the Westminster village; and rather more on better informing a mature democracy.”

But then again, he has no problems with Changing Rooms being described as PSB - on the grounds it has liberated the interior decorating aspirations of the nation.

By that measure, maybe X Factor is also PSB, simply because it seeks to make performers out of all of us - and that surely must be a laudable ambition.

Similarly, where to place the lawless town/boozed-up Britain/joyrider-type programme? An argument could be made that they seek to inform about the world we live in - one of thuggery, violence and vulgarity.

But the truth is that such programmes tend to be less analytical and more voyeuristic in style.

And where to place the risible Graham Norton vehicle on Monday night’s, The Bigger Picture, on BBC ONE? With an abject lack of chemistry among its guests, it seeks to cast a humorous eye over the news stories of the day.

It sounds like PSB with a comical twist. But on Monday there, it threw up a caption that not only used the F-word but the C-word also - it was neither clever nor funny.

Dear Lord Birt, do tell us: is bad taste a factor when judging the PSB value of a programme?

Talking of news at Scottish TV, the structure of the station’s newsroom is poised to be revamped, with the creation of a management tier comprising an editor, news programmes; a newsgathering editor; and a news productions operations manager.

The first will be responsible for Scotland Today and all news bulletins, will lead the production team, and be responsible for staffing and budgetary management, and also programme formats and style.

The second will manage reporters and correspondents and be responsible for news planning.

And the third will manage all resources associated with news programmes and drive efficiency and flexibility of resource provision.

And the result will be existing senior producers having to apply for those jobs at the risk of losing out.

On the one hand, there is the chance of increased flexibility and forward planning within the newsroom - where, currently, there is said to be not enough. And there will be also the chance to recruit fresh faces. But, on the other, there is likely to be redundancy and staff will be fearful the whole exercise is no more than a precursor of more widespread cutbacks.

Finally, a word of caution emerging from the reporting of the devastating Hurricane Katrina. And the word is ‘rape’.

It would be naive to think that, under such terrible circumstances, there won’t be a rogue element seeking to exploit the tragedy to befall others.

But in the news reporting, allegations of people being raped have taken on an almost mythical status. There won’t be a single one of us whose reading of the tragedy will not list a seeming descent into barbarity as one of the defining features of these last few days in New Orleans.

The allegations have been made a remarkable number of times. And with each mention, the increased risk of a shift in public perception.

Perhaps we should stop to consider to what extent the allegation is being used as propaganda - to deflect criticism of the authorities’ handling of the situation.

Just how many times does the R-word require to be mentioned before the poor (mainly black) people fighting for their lives move from being deserving of help to undeserving?

Mike Wilson is a director of the media website,


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