Today Radio 4, tomorrow the world

One woman's fight with BBC managers spawned a pressure group with powerful friends

The people have had their say and the politicians have had to listen. In broadcasting, however, it doesn't quite work like that, which is why we have pressure groups. But who are they? Does the pressure they exert change anything? Do broadcasters pay them any attention?

The people have had their say and the politicians have had to listen. In broadcasting, however, it doesn't quite work like that, which is why we have pressure groups. But who are they? Does the pressure they exert change anything? Do broadcasters pay them any attention?

It is a curious fact that the chairman of the BBC has just delivered a keynote speech to the conference of a pressure group with fewer than 2,000 members that is run from the backroom of a suburban home in Kent by a septuagenarian freelance writer. Jocelyn Hay founded the Voice of the Listener and Viewer in 1983 to fight a single campaign. The BBC was pondering the conversion of Radio 4 into a dedicated news and current affairs network. To hear favourites such as The Afternoon Play Middle England would have to re-tune radio sets on which the dials had not moved since the demise of the Home Service.

Hay fought, won, and got a taste for lobbying. Senior BBC sources say she is good at it. One says, "Jocelyn has the ear of the Secretary of State. If she phones and says she wants a chat she will be invited into the DCMS [Department for Culture, Media and Sport] for a cup of tea. There are not that many people who have that level of clout."

Past VLV conferences have been addressed by Greg Dyke, Gavyn Davies, John Birt and Sir Christopher Bland. The recent event at which Michael Grade spoke also featured Mark Damazer, the controller of Radio 4, and the Roly Keating, controller of BBC2. The BBC source explains: "It is very easy to persuade top executives to attend VLV events. They get listened to. Going to see the VLV means visiting critical friends. They raise the questions the BBC needs to hear without vitriol or rancour."

There is another reason. Although the VLV's active membership is tiny the BBC's senior managers regard it as the only organisation that speaks from the licence-payer's perspective while offering passionate support for public service broadcasting. A senior insider explains: "The VLV is the voice of our articulate, middle-class, heartland loyalists. They believe in the vision of the BBC but they watch the detail like a hawk."

That leads to accusations that the VLV is a fawning stooge, wowed by its capacity to attract important BBC people and willing to say nothing to offend them. Some critics regard it as the liberal equivalent of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (NVLA), set up in 1965 to hold back the tide of modernity by that other suburban female powerhouse, Mary Whitehouse. A BBC manager says, "Whitehouse was charismatic and she gave a voice to a lot of people who felt they were not being listened to. Jocelyn Hay is attractive and charismatic. The difference is that she is intelligent, she is not a rentaquote and she can do business at the top table. Mediawatch [the successor to the NVLA] can't do that."

Mediawatch - who were at the forefront of the protests against the TV broadcast of Jerry Springer - The Opera, holds its AGM later this month, at which the anti-Springer ex-Radio 3 producer Anthony Pitt will speak.

For her part, Hay does not object to being called supportive. "I think there is tremendous support for the BBC in the country. People value it even more post-Hutton. It is independent. It does stand up to government. It is trying to serve the needs and meet the interests of 60 million people. I think it does it very well." But she also admits that "I can't think of anything we have criticised the BBC for, not anything specific, but we do sometimes criticise them and they listen."

Is the VLV useful, or just a comfort blanket that lets top BBC personnel meet tame licence-payers? Philip Schlesinger, director of the Media Research Institute at Stirling University, says: "VLV has very carefully and assiduously cultivated people of influence. It works within a broadly establishment orbit. But debate about broadcasting in the UK is usually very limited. If you go to most conferences you see the same faces and the cost of getting your foot in the door is enormous. VLV has a certain use as a sounding board."

Jocelyn Hay endorses that. "The normal viewer and listener cannot afford to attend media conferences. They cost £500 a day. We admit the public. Michael Grade does not know what questions he will be asked. He will not have a BBC stooge to protect him." Hay and the BBC insist that the VLV is representative, but there is eccentricity in the BBC's fondness for using it as a platform for debate and interaction.

The BBC receives more than 1 million letters, calls and email comments a year. They are all evidence of popular opinion. More than 30,000 visitors tour Television Centre. Each is asked to offer a view about the service the BBC provides. On specific projects - from the launch of new channels to charter review - focus groups are recruited for in-depth questioning. A research company is currently employed to identify opinion-formers among specific population groups.

The VLV is, as much as anything, a tribute to one woman's passion and dedication. Like Mary Whitehouse's NVLA, it may lose influence when Jocelyn Hay retires.

THE LOBBYISTS

Voice of the Listener and Viewer- Founded in 1983 by chairman Jocelyn Hay. Priorities are "to safeguard the BBC's ability to provide impartial news and current affairs and to maintain its unique patronage of drama, live music and the arts". Annual fee: £14.50 ( www.vlv.org.uk).

Mediawatch-uk - Successor to the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association of Mary Whitehouse (pictured). Provides "independent and principled opinion and research on harm and offence issues in the media," and cares deeply about violence, bad language, sexual content and censorship. Annual subscription: £15 ( www.mediawatchuk.org).

Archers Anarchists - Fan club for listeners to The Archers. Insist that The Archers is a real-life documentary and that words such as "script, cast and actor" have no place in discussion of this Radio 4 favourite. Permits no photographic representation of Archers institutions or villagers. Claims responsibility for radio's first pornographic calendar. Annual subscription: £11. ( www.archersanarchists.co.uk).

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