THE PEOPLE'S PORN-BROKER; interview
Dawn Airey, director of `programmes' at Channel 5, embodies the spirit of New Britain: ostensibly a concerned modernist, she has a ruthlessly commercial heart. Will Self tries to get on her wavelength
Sunday 19 September 1999
" - Savage, wasn't it?"
"I'll tell you what it was Dawn," I hunker forward, elbows on blond wood, hands cupping regulation Covent Garden espresso. "You see, I actually quite liked Beckett in the flesh, but when I got home and listened to the tape over and over again, and discovered that what she'd said to me amounted to precisely nothing: nothing of herself, nothing substantive about politics ... well, I was incredibly annoyed and angry."
"I expect you'll feel the same way about me when you listen to the tape over and over again."
Well, no, Dawn, I didn't feel the same way about you, because you aren't a cabinet minister - you're a television executive. We don't look to TV execs for ethical wisdom or social policy; indeed, it's not quite clear to me why we look to them at all, and not simply over their shoulders to the goggle box they service. It's only since the launch of Channel 4 in the early Eighties that the big cheeses in TV have gained any kind of notoriety at all; arguably the salience of the Grades, Birts, Yentobs and Jacksons is a function of the need for competing broadcast networks to extend their branding through their organisational hierarchy and into their very personnel.
Airey, 38, is a judo black belt whose self-confessed love affair with television had her applying for trainee positions after university. She cut her teeth researching, then programme planning at Central, before vaulting over to commissioning at ITV Network Centre. From there she abseiled to Channel 4 as Arts and Entertainment Controller. And it was while she was bivouacking at C4, that Greg Dyke, the Channel 5 expedition leader, selected her for his assault on the summit of commercial television.
She's currently Programme Director at Channel 5 - and as such is, according to Management Today, the 49th most important woman in Britain - but my hunch is that once the station is firmly established, she'll jump ship. This is a woman who has ambitions to be the boss. Last year she was courted by Elisabeth Murdoch to join Sky. In a factitious piece for the Times on her PA, published in July, Airey said: "I was offered a senior job at Sky recently, there were several reasons why I turned it down, but one was because Elspeth" (the PA) "didn't want to commute to Osterley."
At the same time as these human resources problems were bothering Airey, she was dispatched to Harvard to undergo an elite business course which has groomed such stratospheric telly talents as Dyke. He said of this course that a third of the intake "see the light" and leave their jobs, and a further third leave their partners. It's now a year on from the course and Airey and her partner of 19 years have, indeed, recently split. "There was no one else involved on either side, and insofar as these things can be, it was wholly amicable." We mull over the possible impact of the job - she regularly works 15 hours a day - on the relationship; and although she acknowledges that her partner "probably thinks it should take a degree of responsibility", she says that really "we just acknowledged that we'd grown apart".
We're sitting at a round, blond-wood conference table, and to my left, on a rack of tasteful shelving, there are suspended five televisions tuned to five different channels. There are quite a lot of Channel 5 logos posted around the place. Outside the window London's West End roars in a muted sort of a way; and through the glass walls on the opposite side of the office I can see Elspeth and various other 5 employees toiling away. The whole atmosphere is so entirely sui generis that I wouldn't be at all surprised if a little Channel 5 logo actually appeared in the corner of my visual field and remained there despite the most frantic rubbing.
Airey is a smallish, slight, vaguely mannish woman, with a brownish un- hairdo. Here face encapsulates overtones of vole in its rodentine benignity. She's wearing a white, long-sleeved T-shirt-style blouse, with silvery piping at the neck and cuffs. She has on silver jewellery - necklace, bangles - which is inlaid with blue, semi-precious stones and looks vaguely ethnic. I think she has on dark trousers, but frankly her legs are off- screen as far as I'm concerned, tucked under the newscaster's table. She talks with the slightly suppressed, rounded vowels of a Northern woman (she was born in Preston, but raised mostly in the South-West), and holds herself canted forward from the waist, hands loosely clasped. When she chuckles - which she does with reasonable frequency - it has a gendered burr to it: "Her-her-her-huh."
One acerbic telly exec I know said of her: "She's a man really. I mean - she looks like a dyke - "
" - But she isn't."
"Right - she isn't. But she's done this whole number of like being a man. She does all that talking about sport, and how the drive to work was. I've never seen her in a skirt. It's like some decision that she's made."
Another, equally rebarbative, scion of the celestial square had this to say of Airey: "The thing is she's never actually made a programme. She's a stats woman. She sets great store by research - she hasn't anything original to contribute in terms of her own agenda, she's tinkering with a product in order to sell more of it. Pure and simple."
And indeed, to me, Airey plaints in remorseless business-speak of how she is "producing a product which is ruthlessly and aggressively commercial for our shareholders". This is trumpeted time and again, as if such a shibboleth of capitalism were, in and of itself, a justification for all life, all endeavour. In terms of C5 Chief Executive David Elstein's stated audience targets (5 per cent nationally), Airey and her colleagues are almost succeeding. In the year to January the channel increased its audience share to 4.6 per cent, and looks set to achieve Elstein's goal fairly soon. But this hasn't been accomplished without the egregious programming of low-grade sensationalist tat, emotionally voyeuristic drivel, and pornographic schlock. Oh, and a lot of worthwhile gardening and home-improvement programmes.
C5 has received various admonitions from the Broadcasting Standards Commission, including a singular statement damning it for "peddling sex for the sake of sex". It is widely seen to have fallen short of Lord Hollick's vision of providing a "quality service"; although whether this will be viewed by the Independent Television Commission as constituting a breach of its overall remit remains to be seen.
My hunch is that C5 will squeak through on all fronts - for a time. Media analysts point out that while pushing BSC programme codes to the limit may attract audiences in the short term, it does nothing to engender long-term loyalty. And loyalty - in these days of television Balkanisation, as the digital, satellite and cable stations maraud from steppes - is everything. The axe (wielded by Airey herself) is still whistling around the ears of Family Affairs, the C5 soap opera which makes Emmerdale look like La Comedie Humaine. And as for the much vaunted Channel 5 News, with its odour-eater-down-her-pants presenter Kirsty Young, this has suffered alarming plunges in viewing figures as it gets yanked around the six o'clock slot. The real ratings for the channel have consistently been found in football coverage and feature films.
Well, while it may be immensely shrewd to be able to buy in these things with a budget of just pounds 110m (a fraction of the other terrestrial networks), it hardly makes you Lord Reith. Airey sees herself - apparently - as something of a maverick; not an "organisation" woman. I was led to expect someone forthright and outspoken, who wouldn't be afraid to mince her words when it came to justifying programmes like UK Raw, in which a dwarf lifts weights with his penis, another man eats live locusts, and a third shoves lit Roman candles up his arse.
"We're a very intellectual team," Airey says to me of her pairing with Elstein (styled - by some - "the most intelligent man in television", presumably on the grounds of his gaining a first-class degree from Cambridge at the age of 19). I don't doubt that Airey may have some intelligence lurking somewhere inside her, but she seems to have got on the wrong end of the last couple of year's programming. Or, as the acerbic exec put it to me: "If she's so intelligent, why does she spend her whole time thinking about something so stupid?"
She speaks of the channel having "honesty and directness" and not "mediating with our subject matter". I find it hard to imagine how a slice of commercially- sponsored ultra pap like the Pepsi Chart Show could be further mediated by anything, save a voice-over intoning: "And now! Brought to you with no expense whatsoever...!" But Airey says: "I'm neutral about politics, I don't think it really matters." She also opines: "I don't bring my personal morality into the office." But pressed into closer consideration of where this leaves any ambit for ethics in life at all, she retreats into cod futurology: "I think people are getting more hedonistic and concerned about themselves and themselves only." And: "I think the Internet can be a great leveller." Doh!
When asked about the pornography she screens (or "adult programming" as she likes to call it - although what could conceivably be more childish than tossing yourself off in front of baby-oiled slappers dry-humping each other?), the following exchange ensues:
WS: When do you think pornography does start to degrade people?
DA: When it's exploitative.
WS: How do you know when it's exploitative?
DA: Well, I think that's a very, very interesting question, and actually the next series of Sex and Shopping is actually about exploitation, and it's asking that question: who is exploiting who? Is it actually the people making the films exploiting the women, or is it actually the women exploiting the men?
WS: Well which is it?
DA: I actually think it's almost a symbiotic relationship because both parties are getting something out of it.
I'm afraid I found this level of debate scarcely worth engaging with. But Airey is, despite a need to defend her chosen job which renders her intellectually redundant, well worth inquiring into. For she represents, to my mind, all sorts of emerging trends in Blairite society, trends which will soon come to dominate Britain. Airey is very much a Blair babe. She tells me she has always voted Lib-Dem except for "the last time".
Airey's quintessentially Blairite in the following ways: although educated at Girton College, Cambridge she regards herself as an "outsider". She actually adored Cambridge and is clearly an institutional person par excellence; she has that unnerving way which people who loved their time at college have, of talking about it as if they're still there. Still cycling over the Bridge of Sighs with a scarf slung around her neck and the poems of W B Yeats in the basket on the handlebars. Yeuch. She was an executive of both the Union and the JCR, and the Captain of tennis. Her pals were "easygoing and eclectic" - she remains "close friends" with 10 of them, four of whom are "in the industry".
This is highly Blair, this vermiculation of traditional institutional structures by the upwardly-boring provincial bourgeoisie. Equally Blairite is all of Airey's allegedly "value-free" discussion - of work, politics, the media, sex - which consists of nothing so much as values and norms. But most Blairite of all is Airey's avowed childlessness. Her remarks on this are worth quoting at length, because, to give her credit where credit is due, it's unusual to hear any woman talk about this issue with such frankness:
WS: Do you think you'll ever have kids?
WS: Definitely not?
WS: Any particular reason for that?
DA: Ahm ... well, actually it's all sorts of reasons. It links into maturity. If you're going to have kids it's the ultimate responsibility and I don't feel responsible enough. Not because I don't like kids, not because I made a conscious decision: career or kids, if I wanted kids I'd have kids and a career. I just haven't felt the need to reproduce myself. That isn't to say my hormones mightn't suddenly go crazy and I'll want a child.
This isn't really a piece concerned with psychoanalytic probing, but when she went on to say: "From quite an early age I thought it pretty unlikely that I'd become a mum." I couldn't forbear from asking her about her own relationship with her mother. She said "Huh!" significantly, and then conceded that it was fair to say that it "wasn't great". In truth, Airey's family, as defined by her, was "totally dysfunctional", and she hasn't remained close to any of them. Now, this may be quite unlike the observable facts about the home life of our own dear Leader, but I do think there are significant parallels here. For, while Airey is content to receive a substantial six-figure salary for peddling porn to an ageing viewer base of social classes C2, D and E, she herself remains aloof; her aesthetics along with her ethics safely in the closet. Is it stretching speculation too far to analogise Airey's never-to-be-born children and the Blair Government's never-to-be-taken responsibility for genuine redistribution of wealth?
The idea that Airey considers C5 to be her "child", I find highly dubious. It's more, that like the Labour leadership, she feels - though does not articulate, even to herself - an innate superiority to the people her channel/government caters for.
While there's no need to descend to intellectual snobbery here, there was something unsatisfying, even worrying, about the way that she slid first into vagueness on the issue of broadcasters' responsibilities, - "are we reflecting or fuelling these situations? It's not a simple answer" - and, latterly, into statistics - "we've done a survey".
Indeed, as my acerbic friend observed, Airey sets great store by audience surveys, or "qualitative research" as she terms it. The ultimate justification for her programming policies seems to come from this "trend monitoring in thousands of Channel 5 homes with lists of questions. On the issue of sex especially we ask exhaustive questions." And the answers lead Airey and her colleagues to an understanding of exactly how much "adult programming" and at what time in the schedule, the viewers can bear. Needless to say - what they'll bear, they're given.
Substitute "policy" for "programme", and "focus group" for "survey" and it all sounds a bit like Blairism. Also Blair-like was Airey's willingness to be a Murdoch poodle. It was stunning to hear a responsible British broadcaster defend Murdoch's inroads into China on the basis that: "If people don't like what broadcasters are doing it's up to their governments to act as regulators." Hmm, if you're a Chinese citizen and object to Fox TV, I suppose you can always watch a television set atop a wall in Tiananmen Square.
Still, I don't imagine for a second that this is all there is to Dawn Airey. Like a lot of consummate institutional people I suspect she's more than capable of recutting her cloth to suit the occasion. I dare say if the position of controller of BBC2 became vacant we might well see an Airey who spends her spare time shelling quails' eggs to the sound of Debussy. Nor is her work at C5 entirely without merit. And nor is she an unattractive or unlikeable person. I admired her honesty about her difficult family, her avowed childlessness, and the demise of her relationship. But at core there seems a vacuity, an "indifference" - to use her own ascription - about Airey. And while there may be something interesting in observing an intelligent woman struggle relentlessly to deliver a product which is ruthlessly and aggressively commercial, it's no more edifying than watching a dwarf lift weights with his penis. 1
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