Viacom: a real threat to ITV

The trivial style of US TV could soon be coming to the UK. Anita Roddick says we should protect our standards
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The Independent Online

There is a new threat confronting Britain, but there have been no dossiers, dodgy or not, issued to warn us. It is not an armed threat. It is not about terrorists. It has nothing to do with missiles launchable within 45 minutes by an evildoer in the Middle East. To appreciate the threat, we have to look in the other direction - across the Atlantic, to Times Square, in New York.

There, camouflaged by all the bright lights, is an avaricious darkness that we may soon come to experience. It is Viacom, one of America's most powerful media conglomerates. It is the company behind Paramount, MTV and CBS. It is wealthier even than Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

Mel Karmazin, the former radio ad salesman who runs Viacom, was recently in Britain, talking to the Royal Television Society at its conference in Cambridge. He indicated his interested in buying ITV, whose merger plans have just been waved through by the Government. Karmazin is considered a businessman, but his recent forays into the limelight are hardly apolitical.

His Viacom-owned network CBS was rated the most pro-war news network by a Washington-based conservative media watchdog. They praised it for being even more conservative than Murdoch's Fox News channel. His movie channel, Showtime, commissioned and aired a fawning, two-hour prime-time docudrama, DC 9-11, that portrayed President Bush as the hero of September 11. Critics have lambasted it as pure, over-the-top propaganda.

Karmazin is not exactly known as a model of socially responsible business, either. Recently, he was fiercely vocal in trying to stop the ousting of Richard Grasso, the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. Grasso caused an uproar when he was found to have negotiated a pay package valued at nearly $140m. He was forced out. Karmazin is still on the board.

Women in the UK will want to know that Karmazin is widely recognised as the patron of the radio shock jock Howard Stern. Known for his sexist behaviour, Stern is proud of being an icon of macho insensitivity. Karmazin is proud that he syndicated him nationally and built him into a big name in the media.

Karmazin has also led the US media industry in forcing through new broadcasting regulations that give big companies such as his own the right to grow even bigger. He lobbied the US regulators at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to assure more power to companies that are too powerful already.

When the FCC passed its "reform", the chairman, Michael Powell, the son of the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said that media consolidation was needed because only big media companies could cover wars in the way they did the one in Iraq.

It is moguls such as Karmazin and companies such as Viacom that want nothing more than to bite into the BBC's market share and drive the quality of our already-at-risk good-quality TV offerings down to "all the trivia all the time" American standards.

Behind the Government's war of words with the BBC are serious threats to its licence fee and its independence. Joe Conason, a media commentator for the New York Observer, puts it this way: "This campaign aims to intimidate the BBC's management from broadcasting anything that might offend reactionary sensibilities; but its ultimate goal is the crippling, or even the abolition, of the BBC itself... And while British broadcasting is structurally (and qualitatively) very different from its US counterpart, the conservative agenda in both countries is identical: to stigmatise dissent and to dominate discourse."

While Conason speaks of a conservative agenda, I see a corporate one. As someone who knows something about running a corporation, I know that some business people are guided by socially responsible values and some are not. There is no reason to think that the Viacomese, as they are known to insiders, have any beneficent intentions.

With Karmazin in control of British media brands, who knows? We may pine for Murdoch. Accountability is needed in the private media sector, just as it was at the New York Stock Exchange. Beware of foxes guarding the chickens.

Dame Anita Roddick is a board member of Mediachannel.org, the global media watchdog

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