Letter from London: Why British TV is the News

Britain's ongoing struggles with multiple 'gate' scandals and Ofcom reports prompt Carol Nahra to wonder if 2009 is the year of television in the UK.
January 28, 2009

Any outsider arriving in Britain these days might be forgiven thinking that the newest medium out there was something called ‘Television.’ For every day in this brand new year of 2009, the shape that television should take is debated in the media in fundamental ways which belie its lengthy history. But that is the curious nature of the foundation on which Britain has forged its television system.

Public service television is not an easy concept to grasp, nor fund, nor regulate. For while the U.S. famously produces the world’s best dramas and comedies, it has just as famously, to those in the UK paying attention to such things, fundamentally failed to build a system which makes efforts to educate and inform its audience, as well as entertain.

Yet ‘inform, educate and entertain’ remains the mantra at the heart of Britain’s public service system, a remit left to public service broadcasters to fulfill. Once upon a time these included, to one degree or another, all of Britain’s terrestrial broadcasters. But as we hurtle through a rapidly changing broadcasting landscape, and into a digital age which will soon eliminate the free-to-air distinction, politicians and regulators are muddling through a new way forward. ITV, which used to be a leader in current affairs and groundbreaking documentaries, is shedding any pretence of public service ambitions as quickly as it can unlock its regulatory handcuffs. Channel 4 is taking the opposite approach, aiming to remain the strongest provider of public service broadcasting after the BBC – but hoping for a slice of the BBC pie.

Last week’s Ofcom report was a blow to those hopes, effectively eliminating the possibility of significantly ‘topslicing’ the much coveted license fee. Instead the regulator put forth the possibility of a new public service entity to stand opposite the BBC, one which would likely involve a joint venture between Channel 4 and either Five or BBC Worldwide.

Meanwhile the BBC is both overjoyed at the Ofcom report, and in a state of high nerves at the prospect of a misstep which might change its good fortune. It has good reason to worry: the fallout over ‘Sachsgate’ – in which highly paid presenters Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross left a series of humiliating phone messages on the answering machine of aging Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs in a Radio 2 broadcast – has been epic and led to much blood-baying by the packs of the British media which would be quite happy to see the end of the BBC. An apologetic Ross returned to television Friday night after a three-month unpaid suspension, to find his every word analyzed by pundits clearly wanting him to overstep the boundaries once more.

In the absence of a huge Ross gaffe, another BBC story has landed, which continues to eat up column inches and airtime: the broadcaster’s refusal to air a charity appeal for the victims of Gaza, on the grounds that it would lead to accusations of bias. The decision has led to enormous condemnation from almost all fronts, including high level BBC journalists, and led to another very public examination of the broadcaster’s role in today’s society.

The country that loves its official papers need not wait long for the next one: the much-awaited Digital Britain report fronted by Communications Minister Lord Carter is due out any day. Stay tuned….

About The Author