Roger Bolton On Broadcasting

It's easy to ask questions. Would we like it if we had to give answers?
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The Independent Online

I'm worried. I'm going soft. And not just around the middle. I am beginning to feel distressingly sympathetic to politicians and increasingly irritated by the journalists who interview them. Do all ageing hacks get this way?

Take last week's photograph of John Prescott playing croquet at Dorneywood. It commanded the front pages and made a freelance photographer a mint. But why shouldn't a cabinet minister take a break, particularly if he is a workaholic, like Prescott? And why not play croquet? It's a vigorous game, and I'd rather the deputy PM was hitting a ball than punching a bystander.

Are we still so class-obsessed that we insist that Labour ministers should only play darts? Do we want to return to a time when a prime minister such as Harold Wilson drank whisky and smoked a cigar in private but switched to a pipe and a pint in Huyton Labour Club? There are many things to charge John Prescott with, but wielding a mallet is not one of them.

The worrying softness in this once hard-bitten hack has been building up for some time. I first noticed it over the Iraq war, when those journalists who gave Western leaders a hard time for not intervening to protect the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs gave them a hard time when they did intervene in the country.

And of course, journalists did not have to choose from the unpalatable options available. Leave Saddam be and let his murderous regime continue to torture and maim, and try to get its nuclear and chemical weapons programmes back on track? Wait, probably for ever, for the UN Security Council to support military action? (Do we really think China and Pakistan would authorise such action? Look at the way they are blocking intervention in Darfur.) Increase sanctions, knowing them to be riddled with corruption and causing real suffering to the Iraqi people?

I'm glad I didn't have to chose from that list, and know that in deciding to invade I would, in effect, be sentencing members of our armed forces to death. It is a dreadful responsibility.

We journalists scrutinise and criticise politicians for the decisions they take, and we should, but we should also be honest about the frequently lousy options available and the likely consequences of not taking a decision at all.

Consider the question of Iran's nuclear programme. The focus of our attention is on possible American military action, but have we journalists paid sufficient attention to the other options available?

They all look pretty grim to me, and the possibility of a theocratic regime - committed to wiping Israel off the map, having missiles that can easily reach Tel Aviv - gaining nuclear warheads is a pretty uninviting one. How would you feel about this if you were an Israeli?

I like Healey's Law, which the former Chancellor of the Exchequer defined as: "If you are in a hole, stop digging." But it doesn't help to get you out of the hole.

It's so much easier to give a politician a hard time over the decision he or she has taken and then pop down to hospitality for a drink and a gossip while they go back to their red boxes, five hours' sleep and the attentions of the tabloid press who think they are about to take a day off.

Believe me, this is not an application for a job in the Downing Street press office, but the nagging concerns of someone who thinks that anyone who wants to be a politician nowadays is a very peculiar being, and that we are in danger of getting the politicians we deserve.

I'm rather worried that parts of this article sound as if they could have been lifted from the writings of John (now Lord) Birt and Peter Jay. That would never do. Those with extremely long memories will remember the Birt-Jay thesis, which argued, very roughly, that the real bias in the media was brought about by the absence of context. It was much derided at the time, though, to be fair, efforts have been made since then to provide more of that context. It is still worth reading.

It's so much easier to play the man or the country than the ball. You don't have to agonise too much if you work on the principle that whatever Thatcher, Major, Blair or Bush, the US or the UK governments are for, you are against. It saves time, and thought.

Context is all the more necessary if film-makers such as Ken Loach are to be given the freedom, as of course they should be, to make very personal films about still raw history, such as his Palme d'Or winner The Wind that Shakes the Barley.

Much of the film details the atrocities carried out by the Black and Tans - British soldiers recruited to fight Republicans in the Irish Civil War. Some newspaper columnists have expressed outrage that such a view should be subsidised by the British Film Council. Others applauded what is obviously a fine film.

What concerns me is that somewhere in the British broadcast media, probably on the BBC, there should be a fair and balanced history of the period that would confirm that atrocities were carried out by the Black and Tans, but would place them in the context of the ruthless assassination campaign carried out by Michael Collins' team of killers. This culminated in Bloody Sunday in 1920, when Collins attempted to annihilate the British espionage system in Dublin. This involved shooting a large number of unarmed men, some in their beds.

I stand to be corrected, but I can't think of a television series about Ireland since that by Robert Kee and Jeremy Isaacs in the early 1980s. Most television commissioners appear to regard Irish history as a turn-off.

Peter Taylor has, of course, made some brilliant series for the BBC about the Troubles in Northern Ireland post-1968, but I can remember nothing about those terrible, tragic, over-romanticised conflicts in the rest of Ireland in the first half of the 20th century. Another series is certainly needed.

We journalists should be a little less certain about things, a little more modest. We have much to be modest about.

Banished to the bedroom by TV-mad teenagers

These are difficult times to be the parent of teenagers. I have fought the good fight to keep television out of the bedroom and Big Brother off the two sets downstairs, but it is exam time and they've got to have a break. In our house, the tension is palpable, with A-levels and GCSEs being sat this summer.

The usual arguments about pinching each others' clothes, squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube, using all the shampoo and hot water and borrowing the car have gone up in volume by several decibels. How can I deny them a few moments of relaxation in front of the television?

But the temptation strewn before them! Not just BB but X Factor, Lost, The OC, Deal or No Deal, let alone the regular doses of Home and Away and Neighbours. Oh, and The Line of Beauty, which I was banned from seeing. The explicit gay sex scenes would have been too embarrassing for me, apparently. They have commandeered both televisions and the video recorders, and I'm writing this in bed.

In vain did I try to get them to watch BBC4's Every Prime Minister Needs a Willie, though the title did amuse.

And there is still Wimbledon to come. Have mercy.

Roger Bolton is the chairman of Flame Television and presents Feedback and Sunday on Radio 4

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