The news: Seven sisters in the new world

So now we know. Richard Eyre thinks that the pushing-6-million viewers of News at Ten are the Horlicks generation. So now we know that Richard Eyre is an arrogant, ageist pip-squeak. What we don't know is whether it's going to work. Speaking as a member of the malt-whisky generation, I think there is a presumption that a man who thinks it's clever to insult the viewers of his flagship programme may not be so clever in other respects. But to have our suspicions in that respect confirmed we shall have to wait. My bet is that he will turn out to be an unimportant arrogant pip- squeak.

It was a stupid and wrong decision, but it is in the past now. What is important is to learn from it. The youthful Mr Eyre has done us a service by highlighting the clash of interests and values that dominates, not just the question of the Channel 3 schedule, but debate about television in general.

Two documents landed on my desk last week throwing this issue in to high relief. One was a supplement to the Economist. Entitled "Technology and Entertainment", it was a paean for the seven giant corporations it sees as predestined to dominate the entertainment industry, and especially for the four American corporations (Time-Warner, Disney, Viacom and News Corp.) as opposed to Canada's Seagram, Japans Sony and Germany's Bertelsmann. Interestingly the BBC, although its revenues are larger than several of those included and its share of news and entertainment production substantially larger, is not even mentioned.

The survey argues, on the basis of (largely self-interested) predictions from stockbrokers and industry insiders and (dubious) historical parallels that digital technology must increase the dominance of these oligopolists. The case is stated without preference or value judgment: like it or not, these corporate behemoths (some of which either did not exist or had scarcely any media interests only a few years ago) are predestined to dominate global entertainment and news, which is to say global culture, ever onwards and upwards.

Two parallels advanced in support of this determinist proposition are the global oil and automobile industries: oddly, since this week one of the major American corporate oil giants is being absorbed by (previously State-owned) BP, and right next door to the media section was an advertising supplement celebrating the take-over of Chrysler, once a predestined master of the automotive universe, by Daimler-Benz.

So it is possible that, ten years from now, the global media culture will be dominated, as the Economist believes, by Time-Warner, Disney, Viacom and News Corp. But given that the present competitive and corporate picture is completely different from that in 1988, it is more likely that the entire structure of world media will be unrecognisable from that promoted by pundits in 1998.

The other document was a paper from the Political Quarterly by Andrew Graham, the economist who is acting master of Balliol College, Oxford. Unlike the Economist, Graham argues that "there is nothing whatsoever inevitable about the form the market will take." Graham welcomes the action of competition in the marketplace, but argues that "the unrestrained market will not produce broadcasting that is desirable." For that, he says. we need a "thoughtfully designed broadcasting policy in which the public and the private and the global and local sectors complement one another."

Having recently had the opportunity to watch the sheer, incredulous horror with which a serried rank of American and Australian graduate students listened to Graham speaking of the need for broadcasting policy, I can imagine the response from the clones of Irwin Stelzer and the rest of the free market lobby.

"Desirable! Desirable to whom? Designed! Designed by whom?" Yet those scornful questions can be answered. The agenda of the new Seven Sisters of global television is set because it is desirable to the executives and (perhaps) the shareholders of these corporations. Their offerings are designed by those executives and the schedulers, planners, producers and editors who carry out their orders.

We are back to the great fact about television and to the great question that arises from that fact. The fact is that television is not just a business like any other. It is a business, but it is also more. It is, in fact, too important to be left to the abstract "Market", or to the various specific markets (for eyeballs, for advertising, for rights, for talent, for technology) through which the "Iron Hand" works its magic.

Television is a business. But it is also the central nervous system of our political and civil societies. There is no reason for it to be subject only to the desires and designs of corporate executives in New York or Los Angeles. The question, then, is: To whose desires and designs should it respond?

The only possible answer in any democracy is that there must be an element of public power and public responsibility, The name for the instrument with which the citizen viewer controls what he is allowed to see is regulation.

The thing is unwelcome to those - the Richard Eyres of this world - who acknowledge responsibility only to the bottom line. The name, consequently, is derided by the flaks, ideologues and toadies who cannot see beyond corporate profit as a criterion for media policy or the lack of it. Private initiative, market competition, are vital for the future of media. But television, like nuclear weapons, is simply too important and too dangerous to be left to commercial interests alone, unrestrained by democratic authority.