Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Ian Burrell: Even Whitehouse would struggle to characterise TV today as filth

Media Studies: Today’s telly scandals concern matters other than bad language, nudity and fornication
  • @iburrell

Radio 4's plans to put Tony Harrison's expletive-filled poem V back on the air have rekindled memories of Mary Whitehouse – who denounced it as a "work of singular nastiness" when it was broadcast by Channel 4 in 1987.

Mrs Whitehouse was the schoolmarm in horn-rimmed spectacles who hectored the British creative industries of the late 20th century over their loose morals. Her slap-round-the-legs reprobation was much sought after, for it guaranteed levels of press interest way beyond the gifts of a still nascent publicity industry.

She set up the Clean Up TV Campaign and the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, whose members were detailed to log down all occasions of sex on the box and dash off letters of complaint.

But though she would be perturbed that Mr Harrison's verse was being celebrated, even Mrs Whitehouse (who died at the fine age of 91 in 2001) would struggle to characterise modern British television as filth.

Today's TV scandals concern matters other than bad language, nudity and fornication. The recent meltdown at the BBC concerned shoddy journalistic standards and the suppression of material of sexual content, rather than its gratuitous broadcast. Channel 4 has been in the dock over claims of racism and bullying. ITV has been heavily fined for phone-in scandals.

A recent study into audience attitudes conducted by the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom found that in 2005 some 36% of respondents believed there was "too much" sex on television and that number had fallen sharply to 25% by last year. The regulator said it was a "significant decrease". Television audiences are notoriously crabby – but some 66% conceded that the industry had levels of sex in programmes "about right".

There have also been substantial falls in concerns about "too much" swearing (55% down to 37%) and violence (56% down to 36%). "The results suggest that over time, attitudes towards the amount of sex, violence and swearing on TV have changed," said Ofcom, "with the proportion of respondents stating 'about the right amount' having steadily increased since 2005 and the proportion stating 'too much' having declined."

No longer does British television crave attention with crass shows such as Eurotrash or crude stunts such as Channel 5's Naked Jungle. Hosted by Keith Chegwin in 2000 that idea managed to provoke only a single complaint but was damned as the worst show of all time in a viewers' poll.

Channel 4 attempted to address modern attitudes to sex when it launched the youth drama Skins in 2007. The seventh series begins in March but it has effectively run its course and will not be recommissioned.

Today's equivalent of Mary Whitehouse is Vivienne Pattison, the director of Mediawatch-UK and a former publicist in the publishing industry.

"I think people are quite grown up about sex and when it's in context we can deal with it," she says, noting that complaints around the current BBC drama Ripper Street have focused on levels of violence and "not that it is set in a brothel".

Is there a new maturity in British television – or is it something else? Crucially important, inevitably, is the internet – and the new proliferation of explicit sexual content. No broadcaster wants to be mistaken for an online porn merchant. "The access that people have to porn on the net has changed things and I think it has left television not knowing how to respond," says Nick Mirsky, the deputy head of factual at Channel 4. "There was a time, 15 years ago, when any programme about sex felt like it was breaking a taboo. Now there are no taboos."

Channels are anxious not to appear grubby and so, in an era when television is able to explore other areas of human existence in minute detail, the most fundamental is at risk of being surrendered to the porn websites. "The net leaves us with a challenge of how we deal with sex," admits Mirsky. Mrs Whitehouse's old ally in cleaning up the screens, the Daily Mail, has similarly redirected its tanks towards the new medium and is campaigning aggressively against internet porn.

Yet while British broadcasters have become more restrained, the once prudish American television industry has been embracing sexual content as if it just discovered the pill. The Sky Atlantic show Girls is a new generation's Sex and the City but with more graphic sex. Another recent American series on Sky, House of Lies, starring Don Cheadle, contained "a butt-load of the sort of sexual activity one can only get away with on pay-cable", as American critic Ken Tucker put it. British television has enthusiastically hosted the two Spartacus series from the American cable network Starz. That show, starring British lead John Hannah, "fetishes violence even more than it depicts sex and nudity, which is often", commented the Boston Herald.

And Homeland, a critically-acclaimed drama and a big winner at the Golden Globes last week, is equally raunchy. Its acquisition by Channel 4 brings kudos and also allows the British network to broadcast trails such as: "Now on 4 tonight Homeland, which contains nudity, sexual scenes and strong language from the very start and throughout". And then broadcast a sex scene seven minutes after the 9pm watershed.

Clearly, some British broadcasters now feel confident about being more risqué if they acquire the content from across the Atlantic. Or maybe it's just that Americans do it better.

The News of the People – a new Sunday read?

It would be ironic if Trinity Mirror ends up championing the legacy of its old arch enemy, the defunct News of the World.

A deal could shortly be concluded to rebrand the Sunday People as the News of the People, in an attempt to remind tabloid readers that the paper remembered for phone-hacking also landed exclusives which could set the agenda for the rest of the news media.

An outside investment team, led by former Sunday Express editor Sue Douglas and former ITV commercial chief Rupert Howell, is ready to spend around £10m for a 51% stake in the People, which is separate from the seven-day Mirror operation under editor-in-chief Lloyd Embley.

For the hard-pressed People this would mean its editorial team of around 40 (plus 20 part-time workers) being increased to 75, a rare occurrence in modern newspapers. "It's something with enormous potential which could be a trigger for putting great journalism and great stories back on the market," says Douglas.

In return, the struggling paper would be expected to reflect the swagger of its old News International adversary. Several former News of the World staff have been sought out as potential recruits.

But the former News of the World and Sun features editor Matt Nixson, who had been expected to be part of the plan, has joined the Daily Mail.

Al-Jazeera reaches for the sky

The tragedy of the hostage crisis in Algeria has offered a new opportunity to Al-Jazeera English at a crucial time in the network's history.

It found a way on to American television this month when the purchase of Al Gore's Current TV gave it an opportunity to circumvent US distributors who were previously reluctant to be seen doing business with the Emir of Qatar.

Al-Jazeera English was named News Channel of the Year at last year's Royal Television Awards for its Arab Spring coverage. Last week's events demonstrate how the Arab world will continue to be at the centre of global news and AJE was the first major news organisation to convey news of the fated Algerian helicopter attack on the In Amenas gas plant.

In London, one of AJE's four global hubs, the network's status is set to be given a lift with a studio presence inside The Shard, pictured, the 87-storey London skyscraper built with funding from the Qatar royal family. It would put the station's presenters about 120m higher up than Jeff Randall and his BSkyB colleagues in The Gherkin.

Twitter: @iburrell