Let’s add this to the resources – a transcript of Jeremy Paxman’s speech to the Annual International Television Festival.
You’d expect him to ask incisive questions – that’s his job. And he does, this time directing them to his own profession. They are not the sort of questions that he should have to ask more than once. For example:
‘Is there something rotten in the state of television, some systemic sickness, that renders it inherently dishonest?’
'What is television for?'
The questions hang in the air. Who should answer them? Step forward Channel 4 Chief, Andy Duncan who claimed two years ago that we can trust television. In the wake of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s criticism of television, his speech included the interesting claim that:
Big Brother winners are all role models in their way … because in the final analysis viewers choose people whose values they identify with and admire.
That’s a bit like Rupert Murdoch’s claim in an earlier MacTaggart Lecture that public service equals meeting market demand:
Anybody who, within the law of the land, provides a service which the public wants at a price it can afford is providing a public service.*
What does ITV Head, Michael Grade think? I’ve already referred to his recent speech to the Royal Television Society on precisely this question of honest television. He reminded delegates of their responsibility to maintain the trust of viewers, precisely because of the medium’s potential to betray that trust:
Television is an intimate, narrative medium. Its programmes - both fact and fiction - tell stories that inform and shape people’s knowledge and their views of the world around them.
How about BBC Director General, Mark Thompson? He is now requiring every programme maker to take part in training sessions on trust. He countered suggestions that this is an over-reaction in last Friday’s Guardian but also made a distinction between trusting the news and trusting the hype:
we find ourselves wrestling with the aftermath, not of an intricate piece of investigative journalism, but of a competition the first prize of which was a hoodie last worn by Sharon Osbourne's dog. Not of a serious editorial error in the actual BBC programme about the Queen - but of an error in a publicity tape.
What is at stake here is not public trust in a particular broadcasting organisation, but in television itself as a product and a professional practice – and not just TV journalism but all forms of television. Without wishing to repeat my argument that television is inherently an illusion and artificial construction of reality, it does pain me to admit that there may be some merit in Rupert Murdoch’s slightly rhetorical point:
For 50 years British television has operated on the assumption that the people could not be trusted to watch what they wanted to watch, so that it had to be controlled by like-minded people who knew what was good for us.*
Perhaps the best way for broadcasters to win back public trust is to trust the public.
But I would add this as a rider. Murdoch sees the free market as the mechanism to achieve this, rather than a ‘narrow élite, which controls British television’. Unfortunately this argument confuses popularity with quality, i.e. if ratings are high the programme must be good! Yeah right.
Instead I would make this plea to the industry: trust the public, yes, but also please credit us with some intelligence!’
* ‘Freedom in Publishing’, James McTaggart Memorial Lecture, London: News Corporation Ltd., 1989, p.4
trust Jeremy Paxman McTaggart Lecture Andy Duncan Channel 4
Big Brother Rupert Murdoch Michael Grade ITV Mark Thompson BBC public service broadcasting broadcast journalism