Listen to the preacherman

He gave us Anne, Nick and Roland Rat and now he's criticising broadcasting standards? Serena Mackesy experiences Bruce Gyngell
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The Independent Online
Friday night, in a church hall in Marylebone, and the National Viewers and Listeners' Association (or "National VALA" as their courageous acronym runs) are handing out their annual awards. This is not your average boozy media event: tea and sandwiches and a sartorial style owing more to Lord Cardigan than Mr Armani.

NVALA is the watchdog body set up by Mary Whitehouse to keep an eye on the nation's programming. Recipients of their awards have included Cliff Richard, Frank Bough, Tomorrow's World, Jim'll Fix It, Songs of Praise, Crimewatch, Highway, Record Breakers and Challenge Anneka. This year's winners are Great Ormond Street, Pride and Prejudice and Goldwyn Associates' The Business: Tomorrow's Television. Presenting are Diane-Louise Jordan, former Blue Peter girl now fronting Songs of Praise, and the man who is the current darling of the new moralists and has been described by NVALA's Chairman, The Revd Graham Stevens as "a television director who has taken action to show that he is concerned about working to good broadcasting standards".

Step forward Bruce Gyngell, MD of Yorkshire/Tyne Tees. Gyngell, a dapper 67-year-old Australian, has entered the good books of the NVALA by pulling programmes and providing soundbites that pierce the heart of Middle England. Last year, the sex shows Carnal Knowledge, The Good Sex Guide and God's Gift bit the dust. In January, YTT replaced Hollywood Lovers with reruns of Whicker's World.

These events were given an extra fillip by Gyngell's notable skills at publicity. His remark at the Royal Television Society that "so-called entertainment which once could only be found in the seedy cellars and basements of Soho clip-joints is paraded on mainstream television as if it were respectable" became one of the most quoted of last year.

"What," he added, "are we doing to our sensibilities and moral values and, more importantly, to those of our children, when day after day we broadcast an unremitting diet of violence, extremes of sexuality and negative behaviour?"

Comments worthy of Mrs Whitehouse.

Last Friday brought more of the same. "The programmes that are the most popular on television are the ones that do stick to some family values," he said. "I believe that in the mass broadcast media people should expect never to be embarrassed and that they should be able to watch a programme with their families and be able to enjoy it."

Bruce Gyngell is an anomaly among moral crusaders. The NVALA may have clutched him to their hearts, but he has a long and noble history of lowering our broadcasting standards. He is, after all, the man who rescued TV-am by importing Anne, Nick and Roland Rat.

Gyngell is a skilled businessman who has read the market well throughout his career. The first man - back in 1956 - to appear on Australian television, he turned TV-am's ratings and (when they lost their franchise) took Kerry Packer's Nine Network to pole position during his spell down-under between 1992 and 1995. In his first six months at YTT profits soared from pounds 300,000 to pounds 7.4m.

He has had incarnations as a darling before. His somewhat Murdochian management style, which resulted in the TV-am strike of 1988 and the declawing of the production unions, endeared him to the Thatcherites. He's still at it: soon after he replaced John Fairley at Yorkshire, droves of middle- ranking executives fell on their swords. When Emmerdale went to three episodes a week and cast members pushed for pay rises, his response was "we cannot allow anyone to hold us to ransom" and suggested that no character was indispensable.

As the Tories have espoused family values, so has Bruce. Watch Gyngell, and you get clues about the mood of the country. His famed New Age beliefs fit in nicely, too, and have come increasingly to the fore during the Nineties. His (second) wife, writing last year, claimed that when they met "he told me that by the time he was 60 he planned to have left the television industry and would be living in a Hindu retreat". The ashram urge seems to have been dampened by having two sons, but macrobiotics, trampolining and consciousness-raising are still high on the agenda.

The moralism is perhaps less far-ranging than the NVALA assume. "It's very hard to say what should and shouldn't be on television," he said, "because I don't actually feel that strongly about it. I mean, if somebody wants to go and buy a pornographic video, I'm not against them doing that." He is also less embarrassable than they are: he admitted, for instance, that some of the BBC's near-the-knuckle Video Diaries are "quite good". "I think it's very interesting to be aware of other people. I remember going to an actualisation thing in San Francisco. Getting people to stand up and talk about their problems and who they were was very good, because you saw the similarities between your own and others' situations. It's very good for understanding people." There are, one feels, certain people the NVALA has no desire to understand.

He's also anti-regulation: "Self-censorship," he says, "is infinitely preferable to censorship." And get this: "There's nothing on television that can hurt a child if the child is watching with a parent who can put it into a cultural context... The problem is that in many cases television's been left as a babysitter." Many of Friday's audience seemed particularly concerned about the embarrassment of sex coming on when they were with the kids. Gyngell may have just delivered a speech about the importance of families and the erosion of values, but there is a liberal lurking inside. "I'm not setting out," he says,"to be a moral crusader." Maybe not. But he knows what the punters like