Screen villains?

What image of Britain does our television present abroad? Michael Palin warns that we will lose respect if we continue to churn out an unedifying mix of the bland and the crude

Though broadcasting has an increasingly global reach, it is the voice of individual national cultures that needs to be heard if we are to appreciate and understand the forces that shape the world today. The globalisation of television has provided me with some of the more uncomfortable moments of my travels. Pop videos provide an example. Slick, well-produced and accessible almost anywhere in the world, they have a considerable audience. The images, often wildly and exuberantly sexual, may seem playful and ironic in New York and London, but in many parts of the world they are seen as glimpses of life in the West. Removed from their cultural context, they can send out seriously wrong signals, which make things very unpleasant for women travellers from the West, who are expected to be as available and provocative as their counterparts on the satellite screen.

Though broadcasting has an increasingly global reach, it is the voice of individual national cultures that needs to be heard if we are to appreciate and understand the forces that shape the world today. The globalisation of television has provided me with some of the more uncomfortable moments of my travels. Pop videos provide an example. Slick, well-produced and accessible almost anywhere in the world, they have a considerable audience. The images, often wildly and exuberantly sexual, may seem playful and ironic in New York and London, but in many parts of the world they are seen as glimpses of life in the West. Removed from their cultural context, they can send out seriously wrong signals, which make things very unpleasant for women travellers from the West, who are expected to be as available and provocative as their counterparts on the satellite screen.

This demonstrates two things. One is the power of the television reach, and the other is the responsibility of those who have the resources to exploit it. In John Cleese's film Fierce Creatures, Kevin Kline, as the ultimately unscrupulous TV mogul, argued over the best time to schedule live executions. How outrageous, we all thought, and laughed heartily. Now, as producers seem drawn ever closer to the nastiest aspects of human behaviour, it seems still outrageous but no longer unlikely.

Because I travel a lot, I am particularly mindful of the image of my country abroad, and TV plays a considerable part in promoting that image. As English becomes the lingua franca of communications, the more popular English-language programmes become and the more crucial is the quality of, and responsibility for, what we produce and sell to the world.

There are certain areas in which British television always does well. Sports broadcasting is universally popular. The great national events, mostly involving the Royal Family, may make us look a little Ruritanian, but they are well-presented, often spectacular manifestations of a peculiarly British culture and tradition. For music, like sport, there is a universal appetite. And period-drama, history and natural-history output is of sustained high quality.

What concerns me more is how we present an image of our country when we're not at sports events or pop concerts or waving flags at the Queen. How do we match up to the challenge of showing a country of the present, not the past? How complete a portrait of Britain does our television reflect? There is no doubt that the rest of the world is curious, as the number of asylum-seekers goes to show. What do people want to know about us?

I believe that the best way to win hearts and minds abroad is to continue to invest in programmes that honestly and truthfully address life as it is lived here in Britain. I don't mean life as one great game show, or even the lives of holiday reps or neighbours from hell, but programmes that reflect, for instance, the plurality of our religions, the diverse backgrounds of all our people, the successes and achievements of this busy democracy as well as its problems – unresolved tensions, the poverty of our estates, and the challenges of maintaining a free education and health service. (There are plenty of writers and programme-makers out there who would love the chance to make such subjects interesting.)

If we present an honest face to the world, I think we will gain respect and win enormous interest. Whatever happens, we must avoid television becoming a bland marketing tool. It must ask difficult questions and address difficult issues. We must not let it become an instrument of consensus.

We have a fine tradition of television in this country. We take it seriously and make it well. British television is admired, and it is a lot more vital and lively than most of its counterparts overseas. Indeed, the freedom we give our documentary-makers is seen as a real threat in countries such as China and Libya, whose tolerance of criticism is much lower.

Our reputation for honesty and fearlessness has come about because we have in the past encouraged people to make programmes they believed in. We must guard this reputation zealously, and not allow ourselves to become too cynical, too affected by the postmodern malaise that celebrates the smart and the rude and curls up in embarrassment at the thought of doing something because you think it can make a difference.

There are many areas of our modern life in which television could and should make a difference. Religion has become a very lively issue indeed. Thrown, some would say forced, into action by the events of September 11, television responded with a number of programmes that looked at what Islam meant and the way of life and experience of Muslims in Britain. They were well made, welcome and invaluable. Prejudice feeds on ignorance, and TV, more than cinema, radio or any other medium, is in a position to tackle ignorance head on.

Politics is another area in which TV seems to have taken the line of least resistance. Instead of rising to the challenge of finding ways to make politics interesting, it has merely echoed the prevalent view that taking an interest in how we are governed is boring. This chickening-out does us no credit at all and merely adds to the general ennui.

Britain is still respected – for being obstinate, proud and independent. The more we are seen to be part of a bland global alliance, with style subverting substance, the less we will be respected and the less we will matter. I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that television should strive to be seriously popular and that the Reithian view that television should inform and entertain still means something. To travel a world in which Big Brother means Great Britain would, for me, be the ultimate Orwellian nightmare.

This is an edited version of an essay from 'Television and Beyond – the Next Ten Years', to be published by the ITC today

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