In the autumn of 1958 the legendary US newsman Edward R Murrow made a now famous speech to a gathering of news and television executives which lambasted the commercial forces damaging broadcasting, and sent shockwaves through the industry:
Our history will be what we make of it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or color, evidence of decadence, escapism and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live…This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box. There is a great and decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.
So fifty years on, what would Murrow make of our television screens? It’s difficult to imagine he would be encouraged by the output of the big three American networks – where longform documentaries such as Murrow’s acclaimed See it Now have long since given way to the programmes of decadence and escapism he was already lamenting in the 1950s. But turn to the UK, where Murrow was based during World War II, and one can’t help but think he would be more encouraged. Much froth does appear on British television, but it does so in tandem with programming which is deliberately used to illuminate, inspire, and battle against intolerance. So while last week saw the launch of the 8th series of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here on ITV, a channel which has been shedding any lingering public service ambitions with alarming alacrity, it also saw the premiere of Morgan Matthew’s profoundly moving documentary The Fallen, a three hour requiem on primetime BBC for the 300 British casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The British doc industry recognizes that for films like The Fallen to continue to exist in today’s television climate is something worth celebrating. On Thursday, the leading lights of the British doc world converged for the Grierson British Documentary Awards, established in honor of Murrow’s contemporary, John Grierson. Nine winners emerged from consistently strong short lists of films and series. Amongst the gong getters was Nick Broomfield, who collected his third Grierson for his drama documentary Battle for Haditha, a Channel 4 commission. His simple remarks echoed the theme of the night from filmmakers to the commissioning editors sitting in their midst: ‘I hope Channel 4 and other broadcasters will carry on pushing the envelope.’ Winner after winner, as well as the judges whose remarks were screened in v-t, warned against the safe commissioning that comes at the expense of documentary innovation. ‘It’s a testimony to broadcasters who are incredibly brave to support people who go on a journey with no particular end,’ said Molly Dineen, who collected an award for her feature length Channel 4 doc Lie of the Land, a journey into the dark heart of Britain’s countryside. ‘I’m grateful, because I know not everyone gets to do it.’
Click here for a full list of winners.