Broadcasters can’t afford to ignore social responsibility

On the day the Independent Television Commission announced new ITV licences, cutting pounds 90 million from the cash handed annually to the Treasury, I attended a handily-timed media reception hosted by Gordon Brown.

On the day the Independent Television Commission announced new ITV

licences, cutting pounds 90 million from the cash handed annually to the

Treasury, I attended a handily-timed media reception hosted by Gordon

Brown.



The Chancellor had not yet caught up with the smallish dent in revenue

the ITC was about to cause him, but he had far more than money on his

mind. Instead he spoke fervently about his belief in improving society

by fusing the energy and skills of business people with charitable

bodies.



The event was a key media example of what he meant, the start of a new

Visions competition to select 25 film makers to direct minute-long

campaigning infomercials about pressing social issues. These films are

guaranteed prime broadcasting airtime and can draw on support from

leading agencies.



Gordon Brown spoke of the way Cathy Come Home, Tony Garnett’s TV film of

the 1960s highlighted the treatment of homeless families of his

generation, and how charities could seize the opportunity to bring about

reforms, by using TV to reach a wide audience. The key force in bridging

the gap was the Media Trust charity which hopes to use the digital

explosion to start a Community Channel next year.



If you had asked me which was the most suitable partner for such an

altruistic proposal, I would have said Channel 4. As a new Zenith Media

study shows, it is by far the richest UK broadcaster, making a profit

per employee of pounds 192,000 per year. Wrong. Fledgling Channel 5 is

the broadcasting partner. The exercise tempers its raucous image, and it

also underlines the shrewdness of CEO David Elstein, who is working with

the political grain of the times.



The event left me thinking about the social purpose of broadcasting. ITV

in particular should beware. In past weeks it’s been given two

opportunities to revise its schedules by removing news and, probably,

hard-hitting documentaries to the periphery, and to move forward through

the ITC’s new deal to a more rational licencing scheme. While the ITC

has not been particularly generous, it is offering a degree of security

by linking 75 per cent of the annual payments to fluctuating advertising

income. In other words, payments go down in bad years.



Carlton’s first director of programmes said that ITV in the 1990s did

not exist to get people out of jail (a dig at Granada World in Action’s

pursuit of injustice). But that lack of gritty campaigning programmes

may be a weakness.



The BBC, meanwhile, detects from its soundings a desire for programmes

reinforcing a sense of community. Its new restatement of basic

principles published this week also underlines its essential public

service nature.



But all broadcasters must tend to their image and obligations, beyond a

pure mechanical compliance with a licence.



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