Watching with Tessa

This week, the Culture Secretary will launch a national debate on the future of the BBC. Ian Burrell discovers how she is tuning in to the realities of modern broadcasting
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The Independent Online

Just 10 months after Tessa Jowell called for a "viewers' revolt" over the growth of reality shows on British television, she has become a committed fan of the genre. "I watched four episodes and many hours of I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, she says, having last year given the show the cold-shoulder, and publicly dismissed its "has-been celebrities".

She was also an obsessive watcher of another reality hit, ITV's talent quest Pop Idol, which she says she found "gripping". Jowell devotes Friday nights to Channel 4, and spends most of the weekend with her radio tuned in to the BBC. She is anxious to be seen as a lover of broadcasting. Trained as a psychiatric worker, and rooted in the world of social services, Jowell, 56, lists her favourite recreations as "gardening, reading, music, Italy".

For nearly three years, she has been Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and media executives haven't always been convinced of her devotion to their industry. But, like no other minister in recent times, Tessa Jowell is responsible for shaping the future of British broadcasting - rewriting communications laws, reforming the BBC, and overseeing the evolution of multi-channel television. It has been an awkward year. Jowell, who would so love to be everybody's friend in the media village, was caught in the crossfire between Downing Street and Broadcasting House, before - as a Blair loyalist - she headed for the Government trenches and began firing off shots at the Beeb herself.

Now she is back on the BBC charm offensive. "You can have our media, and particularly our newspapers, with all their undifferentiated news reporting and editorial comment, in a neat blend because you have the BBC," she gushes. "When people turn on the BBC, they trust what they hear and trust what they see." Really? Even after Hutton?

"The post-Hutton figures showed that trust in the BBC suffered," she says, changing tone. "It's important that trust is recovered, and I'm confident that the BBC will do that because the BBC is a much bigger organisation than the part of the operation that made the very grave mistakes that were the focus of Lord Hutton's inquiry."

The Culture Secretary is conducting the biggest-ever debate on the BBC's future. On Thursday, she flies to Belfast for the start of a high-profile national tour to assess what the public wants from the corporation. She will have to confront BBC supporters as the face of a government that drove it to the worst crisis in its history. "What I hope to say to people is that the BBC doesn't belong to us, it doesn't belong to the institution, it belongs to you," she says.

Jowell is anxious that the debate is not dominated by the chattering of "meejah" types, and is sending out thousands of her charter-review leaflets in the downmarket Take A Break magazine. "It has a very high readership of people who are unemployed and people in low-income jobs," she says. "The BBC belongs to them as well."

In deciding the destiny of the BBC, Jowell must have a clear understanding of what constitutes public-service broadcasting (the programmes that the BBC and, to a lesser degree, ITV, Channel 4 and Five are required to provide). She says that Sky News could qualify as PSB, as could many soaps. "I would say that those episodes of EastEnders that tackle difficult issues of child abuse, drug taking, teenage pregnancy, and so forth, are actually - when they do it responsibly - providing an important public service," she says. Even reality shows can fulfil a public-service remit, she believes. "I could certainly see that a reality-TV show that explored some particular aspect of human behaviour could be argued for as public-service broadcasting, with an interest that extends beyond profits and high ratings," she says.

Tessa Jowell's daily broadcasting intake is heavily influenced by her condition as a "news junkie". "I always listen to the Today programme; I always watch Breakfast with Frost, Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Newsnight; I always listen to The World This Weekend; I have Radio 4 on all morning on Saturdays, and turn it on whenever I'm in the car," she blurts. Interestingly, she considers the marginalisation of BBC current-affairs programmes such as Panorama, and the axing of Correspondent as "not an issue" for her, but for the BBC. Her Sunday mornings are devoted to Five Live. Ignoring I'm a Celebrity... last year was "not a militant abstinence", she says. "It was simply that I wasn't at home to watch it."

That a Secretary of State might have more pressing things to do than watch reality television seems reasonable. Except that it is a rather more charitable view of the genre than she took last year. "If they weren't mostly - save their blushes - has-been celebrities, there might be more interest," she told the Financial Times, saying that she had not watched an episode of I'm A Celebrity.... "If we saw many more programming hours being taken over by reality TV, I hope that you'd begin to see a viewers' revolt."

Both I'm a Celebrity... and Pop Idol had their critics, but were widely admired within the industry as well as by the public, and quickly spawned imitations. Jowell's new-found appreciation of the shows could be an attempt to be populist - or a sign that she is at last getting in tune with the telly business.

She loved the BBC4 drama The Alan Clark Diaries (but doesn't know that it has finished), and BBC1's State of Play. Michael Portillo (whatever his BBC ambitions) might be pleased to learn that she enjoyed his televised experience as a single parent on Merseyside. Friday nights are for Channel 4. She watches Friends with her children, and is a fan of Sex And The City, from which show Jowell most resembles Miranda, and has the professional interests of Charlotte but is concerned about the fate of the sex siren Samantha. The minister's greatest TV dislikes are Chris Tarrant's Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, Ann Robinson's The Weakest Link, BBC2's Celebrity Mastermind (which featured her Cabinet colleague David Blunkett), and other such "boring" game shows.

When Jowell appeared at a Royal Television Society convention in Cambridge in September 2001, television executives were shocked that she appeared hopelessly out of her depth at a question- and-answer session. One described her efforts as "embarrassing".

Since then, however, she has slowly got to grips with her complex subject matter, and Tessa, the social worker from Dulwich, did impress the telly folk with her performance at a recent convention in Oxford. Perhaps that's why she liked Pop Idol. "It's the sheer doggedness and aspiration and ambition of these kids, who are prepared to withstand this brutal criticism but still go on," she says.

Those wishing to have their say on the BBC's future should visit the dedicated website: www.bbccharterreview.org.uk

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