Off We Go 

6 July 2017

Originally contributed to the Daily Mail of 20 September 1955

Come Thursday night, the B.B.C. monopoly is over, and an era of broadcasting that has lasted for nearly 30 years is behind us. Only a very silly person on the I.T.V. side of the fence would be jaunty about this. It is in truth a big moment in the national life.

Television, this titan of communication between man and man, this surging, sweeping power, rationed and controlled for us before, is in our hands. It is not something to laugh about.

Now since so much of the old debate about the broadcasting monopoly was bound up with moral values, I had better begin by hoisting my own little pennant of opinion.

I believe in independent television in Britain — because I believe in independence, because I believe in television, and because I believe in Britain.

I believe in independence. It still beats me how it was that so many people of liberal mind were prepared to defend a broadcasting monopoly. True, our monopoly always behaved pleasantly, quite often memorably, quite often courageously, conducting itself as the enlightened and thoughtful servant of a free community, and producing what were almost certainly the best sound broadcasting programmes in the world. But the simple fact remains that any monopoly was inconsistent with the British way of life.

Of course, people often get themselves muddled about this. We do not any longer, taking our freedom so much for granted, sufficiently refresh our vision by asking what it is we do really believe in. If we did we would see that it is laughable that free men and women should be forbidden to touch or use or express themselves in television unless they are prepared to join and accept the decisions of any monopoly, however angelic.

Ask yourself, if still in doubt, what the position would be if we organised the press as we have until now organised television. There would be a Press Corporation, and it would be run by ten or so Press Governors appointed by the Government.

This corporation would own every newspaper, appoint every editor, employ every journalist. But that was exactly the situation brought about by the Conservative Government’s nationalisation of broadcasting in 1926 and dissolved by another Conservative Government 28 years later.

But what was wrong was not that the B.B.C. was allowed to produce programmes. What was profoundly wrong was that no one else was allowed to. This is the blemish in our life which the Television Act removed.

Apart from this matter of principle, it is so obvious already that there are immense and enlivening practical advantages in the dissolution of any monopoly.

The simplest advantage — and the one that matters most to most people — is that they will have two programmes from which to choose, and so life becomes more fun—more entertaining, more varied, more stimulating. Just look how a flood of new talent, new ability, and new ideas has been released by the new opportunities.

I never had any patience with the people who said the new programmes would be bad themselves, and also make the B.B.C. bad, because the two programmes would put too great a strain on the nation’s talent.

In the nature of things, a monopoly leaves an immense amount of talent unused. It is television on one cylinder. Now you can begin to hear the others firing.

I believe in television. Now here comes some stern stuff, and those who prefer may therefore drop off for a paragraph or two.

The great civilising force in the history of mankind is communication. No communication, no civilisation. Communication works at two levels — the intellectual, where knowledge and ideas are circulated through the community, and the emotional, where sympathetic feeling for others is generated.

Modem scientific knowledge is the offspring of the first, and democracy, which is the politics of mutual sympathy, is the offspring of the second. These two have made us our fair world, and for the final defeat of poverty and suffering, hatred, and suspicion we depend on them.

Television is a terrific force in both.

Pat Weaver, the able and engaging president of N.B.C., the American television network, and the philosopher of American TV, put the point well in his recent appearance in a B.B.C. programme, when he said that Mr. Nehru, who would otherwise be as remote as Genghis Khan, would now be greeted as a friendly figure in any street in any town in the United States. So India is brought within the range of fellow feeling.

The B.B.C. has often done a beautiful job of this kind with the Aidan Crawley and Christopher Mayhew programmes, and with Press Conference, where, for example, Mr. Norman Manley’s interview brought the West Indies at one stroke within the range of our sympathetic understanding. And as for TV as a spreader of ideas — well, it doesn’t need saying.

I believe in the sense and the standards of the British people. (All readers may now rejoin me.) I never shared the anxiety of those who plainly felt that the British people could not be trusted to choose their own television programmes for fear they would degrade themselves, and that therefore their television fare must be provided for them by a Government-appointed board. Where does that argument stop? Perhaps they should not be allowed to choose their Governments either.

Now for three quick footnotes: (1) The I.T.A. is not a censor, nor just a referee to see that the Television Act is respected. That would be a poverty-stricken account of the I.T.A. The I.T.A.’s job is the introduction and shaping of the institutions of free TV in Britain. It is the architect of the greatest institutional change in British life since the rise of the modem Press.

(2) This new communication rests on engineers. It was very moving at Croydon last Friday night during the test run of the Associated-Rediffusion programmes, to see the physically separate teams of engineers — the I.T.A.’s at Croydon, A.-R.’s at Wembley and the Granville, the G.P.O.’s at the Museum city terminal working together in delicate and precise trust, though they are men who would pass one another in the street without recognition.

(3) Now that the I.T.A. has broken the ice and the thaw of the one-programme-whether-you-like-it-or-not system has begun, there will certainly be a third programme not so far away. The first step now, though, as the I.T.A. sees it, is to provide the I.T.A. with enough channels to bring it up to equality with the B.B.C. Both the B.B.C. and the I.T.A. could technically begin a second programme in 1957 — but which one will be given the channels to do so depends on a Government decision. And that decision — I would guess — will rest on the viewers’ decision.

About the author

Sir Robert Fraser (1904-1985) was born in Australia, emigrating to the United Kingdom in 1927. He was a writer at the Daily Herald and stood, unsuccessfully, for parliament as a Labour candidate in 1935. He joined the Ministry of Information upon the outbreak of World War II, and rose to become Director-General of its successor, the Central Office of Information. He was the personal choice of the ITA’s chairman, Sir Kenneth Clark, to become the first Director-General of the Authority in 1954 and remained in post until retirement in 1970. He received an OBE in 1944 and was knighted in 1949, both for his services to government communications.

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