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British Documentary: An Endangered Species?

By Julian Petley

Three people wearing winter jackets pose in front of a brick wall sprayed with graffiti. From 'Living On The Edge', a documentary where Julian Petley examines the controversy surrounding the Broadcasting Bill.

Last month (i.e., April) the National Film Theatre in London ran a season featuring some of the best documentaries produced by British television in the Eighties. The animating spirit of the season, however, was as much valedictory as celebratory. Its title was "Goodbye To All This?"

Concern about the future of the British television documentary is inextricably bound up with profound worries about the future prospects of British television as a whole. The cause of all this angst is the Broadcasting Bill which is at present passing through its various Parliamentary stages.

Government media policy in the Eighties has been driven by the desire to expand the role of the market in the media, and the Broadcasting Bill removes whole swathes of public regulation which were previously embodied in the 1981 Broadcasting Act. These applied primarily to the Independent Television Companies, who are responsible for the ITV network in the UK and also play a key role in the funding and running of Channel 4. The Bill appears to leave the BBC unscathed, at least for the moment, but, as we shall see, it threatens to create a broadcasting ecology in which unwelcome changes may be forced on the BBC for brute economic reasons. The Bill also establishes a laissez-faire regime for the expansion of commercially funded cable, satellite and other electronic media services rather than placing them within the hitherto carefully nurtured framework of public service broadcasting. Furthermore, by introducing a fifth television channel, and changing the nature of the relationship between Channel 4 and the ITV network, it increases the number of services competing for advertising revenue. This, the advertisers hope, will lower the prices which TV companies charge for advertising slots. Critics, however, fear that these changes will simply place broadcasters at the mercy of advertisers, who will increasingly dictate the nature and content of the schedules.

Opinion in Britain is sharply divided over the likely consequences of the Bill. According to the White Paper on which the Bill is based, 'the Government's aim is to open doors so that individuals can choose for themselves from a much wider range of programs and types of broadcasting...In a rapidly changing environment, the existing framework for broadcasting in the UK must change too. But change is desirable as well as inevitable. Through it the individual can exercise choice from a greater range and variety of services. The growth of choice means that a rigid regulatory structure neither can nor should be perpetuated.' On the other hand, Stephen Barnett of the Broadcasting Research Unit argues forcibly that 'unregulated competition as applied to the commercial world is inappropriate for broadcasting, and plainly results in a diet of television programs inconsistent with what viewers want to see. Competition is no more than a battle for the largest audience to suit advertisers. It diminishes the range of programs on offer; stifles creative, imaginative and experimental drama; frustrates investigative journalism and documentaries on important contemporary issues; swamps any attempt to satisfy minorities with programs directed at homogeneous majorities ; militates against quality production in every area of programming except light entertainment ; and could ultimately undermine an essential feature of every democracy—a guaranteed source of impartial and untrivialized news and information. Ultimately, it is the advertiser who sets the programming agenda rather than the viewer or program maker.' (Broadcasting: Silting Up the Channels, in Glasnost in Britain?, Norman Buchan and Tricia Sumner, eds.)

Many people, both outside Britain and within it, make the mistake of thinking that the BBC is the sole representative of the public service broadcasting tradition in this country. However, as currently regulated by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), both ITV and C4 are equally bound by public service principle. Thus, for example, the 1981 Broadcasting Act lays down that it shall be the duty of the IBA: '(a) to provide the television and local sound broadcasting services as a public service for disseminating information, education and entertainment; (b) to ensure that the programs broadcast by the Authority in each area maintain a high general standard in all respects, and in particular in respect of their content and quality, and a proper balance and wide range in their subject matter, having regard to programs as a whole and also to the day of the week on which, and the time of day at which, the programs are broadcast.' Or, to put it in a nutshell, ITV companies may not fill up prime time with the kinds of programs which achieve the highest ratings and push the more demanding fare out to the margins. Companies who failed to live up to these requirements ran the risk of losing their franchise (a form of license to broadcast) when it next came up for renewal. It was this system which ensured the presence of documentaries and other forms of 'serious' programs in prominent positions in the ITV schedules.

Under the new system, however, the franchises are to be auctioned off to the highest bidder (who will have to pass some kind of 'quality test,' the nature of which is still extremely nebulous), and the IBA is to be replaced by the Independent Television Commission—a 'light touch ' regulatory body which will have considerably less wide ranging powers over programming and scheduling than did the IBA. Under the Bill, C4 will still retain its special remit 'to cater for minority interests and provide educational programming in a broad sense,' as the White Paper puts it. However, as in the case of the BBC, it remains to be seen whether the Channel will be able simply to carry on as before in a radically changed broadcasting environment.

Within the overall category of documentary, the kind of program thought to be most at threat in the new ecology is that dealing with current affairs, either in series formats such as Thames' This Week, Yorkshire's First Tuesday, and Granada's World of Action, or one-offs such as John Pilger's Cambodia Year Ten, Charles Stewart's Seeds of Despair, and Mike Grigsby's Living on the Edge, all of which were made for Central. Documentaries of an 'investigative ' nature, i.e., those which require the greatest resources and usually raise official hackles, are seen to be particularly at risk. Once the greatest threat to programs such as these was straightforward censorship by the IBA, but we now seem to be fast approaching a situation in which it is commercial pressure that will inhibit program makers rather than the dead hand of the censor. As Mike Poole presciently noted in the 1985 Edinburgh Television Festival magazine, "The real threats to a pluralistic television system will stem as much from the commercial restructuring of the communications system in general as from any politically motivated desire to gag." Certainly Ray Fitzwalter, for years the key figure behind World In Action, would seem to agree with this analysis as far as serious television journalism goes. As he puts it, "The big ITV companies are very much concerned about having to bid too much to try to win the franchise in 1992; they know they've got to ward off very heavy predators who've virtually announced that they're coming for them, and they're defending a position that looks very difficult financially. The temptation in this situation is—and the two London ITV companies have already shown plenty of signs of this—to abandon minority programming, and by that I mean quite big minorities, six to seven million, to get rid of religion, arts, children's' programs, and in general a lot of factual programs. We're talking here about things which are  popular—but not popular enough."

In the short term, Fitzwalter feels that programs like World in Action are safe at Granada. It should also be pointed out that Granada found both the guts and the resources to put out the remarkable drama documentary in April, Who Bombed Birmingham?, which not only argued that the wrong people were jailed for the Birmingham pub bombings but actually named the men who, it alleged, were really responsible. (In fact, much of the program was based on research carried out over the years by World in Action journalists.) How­ ever, Fitzwalter also sounds a warning note: "Most IlV boardrooms are dominated by people who care prima­ rily about return. Others are interested in the shareholders' return. Others are thinking : 'How many years have we got? How can we depress the production costs? What can we get away with in terms of minimum depression for maximum return in the years coming up to the franchise bid?'"

There are other voices in British television which echo Fitzwalter 's gloomy analysis of the future for serious documentary journalism. For example, John Pilger, who states that "the biggest threat is now external—a Government determined to sell off the ITV system to the highest bidder. But there's also a serious internal threat too, namely that broadcasters and TV executives will pre-empt the situation and start to let everything go downhill." Or Joan Shenton, a producer of investigative medical documentaries which have frequently incurred the wrath of the powerful medical lobby, who says that "because of the changing climate of television, documentaries are no longer seen as part of the flagship of the ITV companies. There's much more concern with getting popular ideas on quickly between now and 1992, when everything's going to be sold off." And Thames' program director David Elstein states, "I don't see much change between now and 1992, but after that there will not be much journalism at all because of a combination of costs, commercial considerations and the increased use of independents (i.e., small, independent production companies). Not many of them could stand up to the sort of pressure we've been subjected to."

This last remark is a reference to the incredible controversy last year over the This Week program Death On The Rock, which had the temerity to question the 'official version' of the SAS killings in Gibraltar. This incurred the wrath not only of the Government, but also of their vociferous allies in the press—most notably the Sunday Times which ran a disgraceful smear campaign against the program. In the end Thames had to spend £500,000 defending itself in an enquiry which its detractors dismissed out of hand without even bothering to read! This was the clearest example of yet another threat to the serious, investigative TV documentary in this country—an extraordinarily hostile and intolerant political climate, one more befitting an old-style Eastern European state than a supposedly mature and self-confident Western democracy. After a decade which has seen increasingly brazen attempts by the Government and its client press (aptly christened the 'Hallelujah Chorus') to intimidate and bludgeon broadcasters into silence or acquiescence over such sensitive subjects as Northern Ireland, the Falklands/Malvines, 'national security' and the American bombing of Libya, it would not be altogether surprising if some companies simply shied away from documentaries on 'sensitive' issues. As Pilger puts it, "The main problem today for an investigative journalist is just getting the program made, and then actually getting it on. Behind all the questions like 'will it interest the viewers? ' and 'should we be doing this now?' is the unexpressed fear 'will it make waves?'"

It should also be pointed out that the Broadcasting Bill brings a new statutory watchdog—the Broadcasting Standards Council—into exis­tence, and introduces the criminal law into broadcasting for the first time in the matter of obscenity and public order. As Liz Forgan, the director of programs at C4 pointed out in The Guardian, March 26, it is now likely to take eons to get even slightly controversial programs transmitted : "In the new age of broadcasting where fewer and fewer program makers are protected by the security of a permanent institution around them, this kind of time is expensive. Who is going to try to get difficult programs on the air if you have to go through an assault course before you even start?"

Faced with these various problems, the serious documentary-maker or current affairs journalist has several options (apart, that is, from looking for another job altogether). For example, he or she can swim with the economic tide and try to make programs which are both extremely popular and raise important issues. This has led to what is known as 'infotainment' in the States and as 'tabloid tv' in Britain. As Ray Fitzwalter puts it, "What you do is to have a narrow band target—you do short reports with relatively little depth which concentrate on cars, consumer subjects, fashion, investigations into lighter, appealing things. They may be quite decent investigations, but you usually know these types of programs by what they won't do. Or the way they've sometimes done it in the States is to run a one-hour show with a tough story in the middle. I once saw them making a program which deeply questioned President Reagan's policy on the abortion issue, but that was preceded by an item on leather clothes and followed by one on cooking! If your raison d'etre is above all else to get the ratings to satisfy the advertiser, then that 's one way of doing it."

In the UK the debate over 'tabloid tv' has tended to focus on the extremely popular—not to say populist—BBC series with Esther Rantzen's That's Life, which manages to include items on both talking dogs and child abuse. And last year the nv company London Weekend Television entered the fray when it dropped the heavyweight Weekend World current affairs slot in favor of the more tabloid Eyewitness. According to Jane Hewland, LWT's controller of current affairs, "We can all make sanctimonious programs about the Channel Tunnel, but most people go home and worry about their children or families. Human interest journalism is just as legitimate as anything else." In her view, the artificial protection given by the IBA to heavyweight documentary and current affairs programs has worked against viewers ' interests "because they do not have to succeed or fail with an audience, their makers are not sensitive to what the audience wants or needs. I think protection has weakened current affairs because of the complacency it induces." (Quoted in The Independent, January 11, 1989.) According to the same newspaper's media editor Maggie Brown, "The episode raises the question of whether ITV... can be trusted to take current affairs seriously in the long term, as it expands its creative energies on plans to attract more viewers, appease advertisers, and draw up battle orders to compete with the satellite television antics of Rupert Murdoch and British Satellite Broadcasting."

Another option facing documentary and other program makers in this increasingly competitive environment is to look for co-production deals. As Paul Hamann, editor of BBC 1 single documentaries (and producer of the mega-controversial Edge of the Union program in the Real Lives documentary series) points out: "It is much more part of our job now as editors of documentary programs to make producers sales-oriented—to try to encourage them to think in terms of international sales rather than just domestic interest. The cozy days of documentary production are gone." (Quoted in Television Business International, April 1990.) The problem here, of course, is that co-production can lead to soft, anonymous, innocuous programs of a Disneyesque 'wonderful world of nature' variety. As John Willis, now commissioning editor for factual programs at Channel 4 but previously at Yorkshire, notes, "More co-productions lead to an increasing tendency towards international subjects - especially for series where costs are high—and the amount of indigenous documentary production i.e., UK documentaries about the UK, or US documentaries about the US is decreasing."

As another alternative, our hypothetical documentary maker could turn towards the BBC. As Steven Barnett points out in the piece quoted earlier, "It has been said that we will always have the BBC. Its reassuring presence, available to the whole population with its license fee revenue safeguarded, should guarantee an independent voice in serious current affairs and news programming while commercial channels compete in the production of lighter material." But as he goes on to show, this is, of course, an illusion. As the fate of PBS in the States demonstrates, a public broadcaster limited to an output of only heavyweight and worthy programming soon becomes marginalized, and a vicious circle of low audiences, low funding and impoverished program ming soon sets in. (Significantly, PBS in the States relies heavily on precisely the kind of 'quality' British programs which are most highly at risk from the Broadcasting Bill.)

According to Giles Oakley, a producer in the BBC's Community Program Unit, which is responsible to 'access' documentaries in the pioneering Open Space slot, "Although at the moment the BBC is still protected, minority programs are likely to suffer unless they can deliver large audiences. When the broadcasting environment gets more competitive, and if there's pressure to increase the license fee, then the BBC will have to justify the license fee by keeping audiences high. Open Space is cheap, but not as cheap as studio discussion, and it can get quite big audiences of around two million—but that's very small compared to Eastenders or Neighbors. "

Of course, with the proliferation of commercial channels the requirement for those with televisions to pay the license fee to the BBC at all may be questioned. As the Home Secretary said in 1988, "As choice multiplies and the average viewer has more and more channels to choose from, it will become less and less defensible that he should have to pay a compulsory license fee to the BBC." The current solution to this problem seems to be to suggest that the BBC should eventually move towards a subscription­ based service. However, such a course of action would deprive those unwilling or unable to pay the subscription of the only non-commercial voice in broadcasting, and also cause the BBC to put commercial considerations uppermost as it sought to maximize its subscription base. Again, the outlook for serious documentaries and current affairs programs would not be rosy. (And as I write I have the latest edition of Broadcast, the main trade magazine, beside me. Its headline? 'BBC to Axe Hundreds of Jobs at Television Centre.')

In this article I have tried to outline some of the likely effects of the current changes in British broadcasting on documentary and current affairs programs. Of course, much of what I have said could be applied equally to other forms of high-cost program s which don 't necessarily attract the largest audiences—certain forms of TV drama for instance. How­ ever, I would argue that it is the documentaries added ability to raise difficult and uncomfortable questions for the Establishment that puts it particularly at risk in the new broadcasting ecology. The Broadcasting Bill threatens to turn the carefully regulated television system into something resembling the largely unregulated British press, and may well enable the current press barons to enthrone themselves as television moguls as well. As anybody will know who has encountered the British press, such a situation would simply spell the end of serious journalism and the documentary as it has come to be understood. Quite apart from advertisers' demands for safe, predictable pap, proprietors such as Murdoch would no more dream of doing a Death On The Rock than of assassinating Mrs. Thatcher. Remember, this is the country in which many newspapers found the Spycatcher affair too 'boring' to bother with, and where two of our leading playwrights found the political bias of the papers so overwhelming that they wrote a play for The National Theater about the press and called it... Pravda! It is sometimes said that if Watergate had happened in Britain the papers couldn't have reported it because the courts would have stopped them. The sad fact is, however, that the story would never have got that far, because no newspaper proprietor would want to show the Government in such a bad light—as long as it was a Tory one of course.

Julian Petley is a regular contributor to Sight and Sound, The Guardian, and Broadcast magazine. He teaches communications at University of London Goldsmith College and at Brunel University, and is on the editorial board and a founding member of the British Journalism Review.