Shriver says British television is guilty of 'patronising' viewers

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The Orange Prize-winning author Lionel Shriver has called on British television to stop patronising its audience with endless coverage of high-profile cases such as the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.

In a speech to the Edinburgh International Television Festival, the author of We Need To Talk About Kevin coined the phrase "hyper-narrative" to describe stories whose significance is over-inflated by the media, including the OJ Simpson trial, the scandals surrounding Michael Jackson and Paris Hilton's imprisonment for drink driving.

Shriver warned that the focus on celebrities provided an "Orwellian distraction" from more important issues. Her attack followed criticism of television standards by Jeremy Paxman earlier in the festival.

Television is fascinated by these subjects not because they are of real social impact but because they provide a good story, maintained Shriver. The Paris Hilton saga was, she said, "celebrity chick lit".

"The biggest mistake contemporary television makes is to patronise viewers. Your viewers are smarter, more sophisticated and hungrier for real information than you might think," she said.

Focusing on the five UK terrestrial channels - BBC 1 and 2, ITV 1, Channel 4 and Five - she complained that the quality was in decline. An American now living in Britain, she said that many downmarket trends in British television came from the US. Despite the blanket coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, it was a good thing that so far no documentaries had been made about the case, Ms Shriver said.

"The McCanns have so far declined to co-operate with producers on a documentary. Doubtless some of those opportunistic documentaries would have insinuated that the parents were responsible."

Expressing sympathy for Robert Murat, the only official suspect in the McCann case, she said: "His life has been completely ruined and his reputation will never be the same.

"Responding to the desire for a good story ends up distorting the real-life story. I don't assume television producers are scheming to distract the proles from what's going on in Afghanistan but these stories consume airtime that is disproportionate to their social significance."

She compared the situation to the real Big Brother which, in the novel 1984, broadcast fraudulent news that you could not turn off.

Growing up in the US, Ms Shriver admired classic British programmes on Public Service Broadcasting including The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Monty Python, Yes Minister and Blackadder.

But in the past 10 years, she believes British television has become more similar to US TV.

She warned: "Do not underestimate your audience." She said that they deserve better than How to Look Good Naked and How Clean Is Your House?

Also at the festival, the Panorama reporter John Sweeney suggested that the BBC should axe one of its digital channels instead of cutting current affairs.

Sweeney said: "It would be better to close down BBC 3 or BBC 4 than cut current affairs again. Stop cutting current affairs, it is bad for the soul."