Jeremy Warner's Outlook: Don't knock it. 'Big Brother' row looks like ending up as another triumph for Channel 4

Why Barclays is banking on India
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Channel 4 has been almost universally condemned for allowing racist taunts to be aired on prime-time television through its flagship Big Brother reality programme. In so doing, it is said to have ruinously devalued the brand and put the company's entire future at risk.

I can't agree. Indeed, were this not too Machiavellian an idea even for promotionally obsessed media folk, I'd think the whole thing was planned from start to finish as a giant, and as it has turned out, unarguably successful, publicity stunt. Jade Goody's crassly offensive remarks have succeeded in putting what had previously been a tired and fast-fading format back at the very centre of public debate and interest.

What's more, they have publicised some deeply unsavoury aspects of contemporary Britain in a manner which might actually end up doing some good. What are the critics suggesting? That we should sweep the sort of pig- ignorant prejudice that Jade stands for under the carpet and pretend it doesn't exist? By publicising her foul-mouthed take on the world, Big Brother seems to be having a genuinely cathartic effect on the nation.

This will especially be the case if as now seems quite likely Shilpa Shetty, the Bollywood star at the centre of the row, ends up winning. What now looks to be a disaster for Britain's public image around the world may end up being a triumph in Anglo-Indian relations. Nor can I share the view that what's happened is bad for Channel 4. True enough, it has lost a sponsor, Carphone Warehouse, and the proceeds of tonight's vote, instead of swelling the company's own bank account, will now go to charity. Yet these are small prices to pay for the publicity won.

The whole purpose of media is to draw the crowd and get the public talking. Generating controversy is part of that game. Any free-to-air broadcaster which isn't constantly in the public eye is going to struggle to survive.

You only need to look at the example of ITV to see how inability to excite makes programming irrelevant. Failure to connect with the public is a large part of what's gone wrong at ITV. We may disapprove, but nobody could accuse Big Brother of not making headlines. I wouldn't normally watch Big Brother, but I'm not so high-minded as to miss the story that has captured the nation's imagination. Like millions of others, I was glued to the TV, glass of wine in hand, for last night's big eviction.

All that Big Brother has done is apply one of the oldest tricks in the media book - attempt to turn heads by deliberately setting out to shock. Its creators could scarcely be more pleased with the latest results. To them, it doesn't matter whether it is Jade or Shilpa who goes. Either way, they'll have sold more ads.

If the vulgarity of Big Brother has helped Channel 4 succeed with its core purpose of winning audiences, what of the damage that Government condemnation might do to the channel's continued position as a publicly owned organisation? Even in this regard, I would suggest, Big Brother has only accelerated a process which in any case was heading towards eventual privatisation. The present funding structure is both unsustainable and unjustifiable.

Channel 4 pays nothing for its spectrum and it is also allowed to reinvest all its revenues back into programming. As with the BBC, the effect is to create a tension between the channel's public service broadcasting obligations and its commercial instincts.

Just as the BBC needs to be in the business of popular entertainment to justify a continuation of the licence fee, Channel 4 has to produce programmes of broad appeal that pull in lots of advertising revenue if it is to fund the minority arts, news and ethnic programming its PSB obligations require. As it is, Andy Duncan, the chief executive, sees investment in minority programming as "vulnerable" under the present funding structure.

Commercial rivals complain that Channel 4 enjoys an unduly favourable position, but it is not nearly as favourable as that of the BBC. The free spectrum it enjoys is a rapidly wasting asset in an age of multi-channel, digital TV. The BBC gets free spectrum too, together with £4bn of taxpayers' money. That hasn't stopped similar controversies and popular programming which in many respects is just as inane as Big Brother.

If the Government wants Channel 4 to be fully public service in its approach, it needs to find another way of funding the company. Advertisers wouldn't support the concept on anything like the present scale. If on the other hand, it wants to privatise for a decent price, it will have to drop the minority remit. Ofcom, the communications regulator, is conducting a review of Channel 4's funding. The Big Brother story will have concentrated minds wonderfully.

Why Barclays is banking on India

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, is said to be incandescent with rage over the way the Big Brother controversy has upstaged his visit to India. He'd wanted to talk about serious matters - trade, globalisation, deregulation - but instead ended up having to urge Britons from the other side of the world to vote Jade out of the House. What a come-down.

Yesterday, he was in Mumbai for a round-table discussion on banking. It's hard to believe, I know, but for some reason the Indian nation seems to be rather more gripped by Shilpa Shetty's immediate future as an occupant of the Big Brother household than it is with the long-term future of its own banking industry. In that respect, at least, the bond between our two countries remains as strong as ever.

Yet for banks around the world, deregulation of the Indian banking market is one of the hottest subjects around. On his drive into Mumbai, Mr Brown might have noticed that there are vast billboard advertisements for Barclays Bank all over the place. For most Indians, this must be a deeply confusing exercise in brand building, as for the moment, it is virtually impossible to bank with Barclays.

Barclays is already relatively big in wholesale banking in India, but in retail banking it is non-existent, as are all other British banks outside Standard Chartered. Yet the potential for growth is vast. Only 20 per cent of a population of more than a billion have a bank account, and most of these are with hopelessly inefficient, state-owned, regional banks. Mortgage and credit markets are still in their infancy in terms of development. Foreign banks are on the whole welcome to set up in India, but to take retail deposits it is mandatory to have a physical branch network, and licences to establish a branch are given out only sparingly. Barclays, for instance, still has only three branches - just one of them in Mumbai.

All these barriers to entry are meant to be swept away in 2009 when, under pressure from the World Trade Organisation, India has agreed to deregulate its banking market. In practice, few expect Big Bang to be quite so early. The politicians say one thing, the regulator acts much more slowly. But the assumption has to be that eventually it will be a free- for-all for foreign banks in India.

The brand-building being undertaken by Barclays is about preparing for that moment. Life for the state banks - with ageing infrastructure, ancient IT and, because they are paid public sector salaries, poor-quality managers - will become extremely awkward. Most of them are desperately seeking foreign partners. Any due diligence is likely to make the potential buyer's hair stand on end. Even so, some outsiders will attempt to buy. Big balance sheets and access to lots of cheap retail deposits will make it hard to resist.

The coming banking revolution is likely to be one of the big drivers of change in Indian society and the economy over the years ahead. By expanding credit and improving productivity, foreign capital will play a major role in this process. Mr Brown can only reflect on what a shame it is that ordinary people don't seem to find these seismic changes nearly as interesting as racist abuse in the Big Brother household. Ah, the frustrations of intellect.

j.warner@independent.co.uk

Comments