Sir Christopher Chataway Part 3: TV Ancient & Modern 

31 October 2005

Our interview with Chris Chataway concludes with his views on modern television

On the whole, I am an admirer of British television news in the current environment,” noted Chataway. However, I think that television documentaries – current affairs documentaries – have become much less credible, and much less reliable as the years have gone by. Because they have had to struggle to maintain their ratings, the effort to try to justify a place in peak time has often meant that documentaries have been really sensationalised.

“In the days when I worked for Panorama, the deputy head of the so-called ‘Talks Department’ was Wyndham Goldie, who was a very, very formidable early pioneer in current affairs broadcasting. She demanded standards that I think have been dropped by most British documentary and current affairs broadcasting today. As you brought your stuff back and the rushes were shown, she would ask really deep, probing questions – ‘They said so and so, but why didn’t you ask them such and such?’ ‘Are there really, (in what ever country you had just been to) no countervailing opinions – is that the general opinion?’ – all the questions and standards that a good newspaper editor would demand of their reporters. Let’s face it, it’s very clear that these are not the editorial standards that are prevailing these days.”

Did Chris Chataway think those standards still prevailed anywhere? “I think, on the whole, you can believe the news bulletins – and that’s saying something. One can argue as to whether, when there is something particularly contentious, like the war in Iraq and so on, whether there is some bias one way or another from reporters on the spot. But, on the whole, the credibility level of ITN, BBC and Sky News its pretty high.”

Looking at the history of commercial television in the UK, and the way in which we now have one enormous conglomerate with a few extra companies on the periphery, as opposed to the original, very firmly regionalised system of commercial television in this country, did Chataway think that consolidation was justifiable in the context of a multi-channel digital broadcasting world, where we have all these extra channels – or was regionalism something he thought was rather lacking and has been lost by modern ITV?

“I think it was pretty inevitable that ITV would consolidate in this way if it was going to be able to compete against the BBC, and against Sky and so on. But I do think there would surely be an opportunity in years to come for a few much more localised television stations. You get very successful television stations in the United States producing really quite a lot of local material, that cater to populations of half a million – and indeed less. You would think that a station catering just to Glasgow or Manchester could survive and flourish.”

In the early days, the independent television companies were obliged to produce public service programming of one sort or another. As the companies became more successful, however, it became less of a burden, so you didn’t have to chase ratings all the time and the contractors could actually afford to produce innovative programming – not only factual coverage, but also a good weekly drama for example, or quality plays, which you really don’t see any more. Did Chataway have any observations on the state of public service broadcasting today versus the early days of commercial television?

“The game has indeed changed, and diversity means that commercially some of the objectives of public service broadcasting are now fulfilled. The original justification for public service broadcasting – as opposed to the press, where you didn’t require ‘public service newspapers’ – was because of the scarcity of outlets. If you had only one or two – or even four – outlets, you didn’t want all of them to be striving for the maximum audience or minorities would never get catered for. With a multichannel world, well there is the History Channel, National Geographic, the Adventure channel and all the rest, so to an extent the requirement for a government to ensure diversity has now lessened.

“But I do think for all its failings, the BBC as an institution shouldn’t change. I think it is fairly unique in the world now and while I do not necessarily think it needs to be quite so large and quite so dominant, I am not entirely persuaded by the argument that you’ll never be able to have a licence fee unless the BBC is getting a huge percent of the audience share and spending most of its time ensuring high ratings. What I do want is a substantial BBC, and one that remains important institution.

“I am quite attracted to the idea of using some part of the licence fee in order to finance excellence that would not be commercial on other channels. I do think that a sort of ‘Arts Council of broadcasting’ has always been quite an attractive idea, and in the multichannel world it becomes even more attractive. I would not want the BBC to be privatised and the entire reduced licence fee used simply to finance ‘public service’ programmes spread around other channels. I do want the BBC to be kept as recognisably the same sort of institution, but the idea of using some of the licence fee in order to produce excellence elsewhere I think is quite attractive.”

The BBC is, of course, in a difficult position, falling between two stools. On the one hand it can be criticised for receiving a large amount of money and using it to produce programming that few people want to watch; while on the other hand if it uses those funds to make programmes that command high ratings it is criticised for producing material that could equally be produced by the commercial sector. What did Chris Chataway think of this argument?

“That has always been its dilemma: I think in general, less of its money should be going to entirely populist stuff which is indistinguishable from what’s produced elsewhere. I think it’s a question of balance: whereas I don’t think the BBC has to strive to get 50% of the audience all the time, I wouldn’t want to see it limited simply to doing a sort of ‘Third Programme’ on the radio and a similar sort of output on television.

Our thanks to Sir Christopher Chataway for granting Transdiffusion this interview.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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