Beware, Granada, this watchdog has sharp fangs

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To the cynical eye, the Independent Television Commission's decision to fine Granada half a million pounds for product-plugging on This Morning looks more than a little quixotic. What next, you wonder - swearboxes in whorehouses? It isn't just th at Granada is an avowedly commercial channel, dedicated to the principle that programmes exist to make money (and dedicated with unholy zeal under its current management), but also that This Morning would simply be unrecognisable without that endless par ade ofpeople with products to promote: actresses in a new play; authors with a new book; comedians with a new video; chat to deliver and units to shift. It rather looks as if the ITC has entered the Augean stables and started whitewashing the dung.

But the cynical eye is not always right. There may even be cause for cautious celebration in the fact that one of television's money factories has been obliged to apply some elementary quality control. This week, far too late, Granada advertised for a Compliance Officer, but being compliant did not come easy to them. Granada had repeated warnings about its breaches of the Commission's code on sponsorship and either ignored them or forgot them.

One explanation for this expensive mistake has it that Granada's financial "efficiency" translated into ill-trained researchers on short-term contracts so the programme could have no collective memory or conscience. This is not a good thing at any time but is particularly dangerous with live broadcasts.

Others would argue that inadvertence had nothing to do with it, that when the fine came through Granada probably did not know what had hit it. For years, television companies have accustomed themselves to ignoring the strictures of the regulatory bodies with impunity (outside of franchise renewal season, at least). All of a sudden they discover to their shock that one of the aged watchdogs has been fitted with dentures, and intends to use them.

But does the chairman Sir George Russell know what he has started? For one thing the distinction between this "clear breach of regulations" and much of what appears on our screens every day is not immediately apparent. There may well be a difference between Victor Kiam flogging his new line of jewellery and, say, Jilly Cooper flogging her latest book, but it's not one I would care to define. Besides, almost all print magazines engage in exactly such special promotions without obviously defrauding their readers. This Morning is television's equivalent of a woman's magazine; so if some overworked researcher failed to understand the rules of the game, you cannot entirely blame him for the confusion.

But there are much larger implications to the ITC's decision. It is the regulatory body's duty to act as the general guardian of "quality", a task that is far more fraught than enforcing a written code of conduct. Earlier this year the ITC issued its review of ITV's performance in the previous year, a report that contained specific criticism of the Carlton programme, Hollywood Women.

"Glib and superficial" were the words it used, a subjective judgement which in my subjective view was right on the button. Carlton's response to this unusually severe naming of names? It commissioned the same producer to deliver Hollywood Kids - Hollywood Vice and Hollywood Men are in the pipeline.

But what would happen if the ITC were actually to fine Carlton for its obstinate persistence in error? Hollywood Women had very good audience figures, so I suspect Carlton would first of all reach for its calculator to see if it paid to be bad. After that the company might mount a campaign to resist the interference of an unelected quango in editorial matters, a campaign in which it would discover some unlikely allies. I would be happy if Hollywood Kids disappeared to Siberian television and never cameback, but how "compliant" do we want television companies to be when it comes to investigative documentaries and news-gathering? How do we prevent a vocal minority from exerting real power over what the rest of us watch? When 23 viewers complained aboutthe televised version of Lady Chatterley's Lover, Lady Howe, the Chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council, described the response as a "huge furore".

The BBC is not exempt from these considerations either. The regulation market is chronically oversupplied at present, with no fewer than three bodies undertaking to maintain broadcasting standards. The idea that the ITC should act as sole regulator is now very much in the air (mooted by Michael Grade at the Edinburgh Television Festival earlier this year and now finding increasing support among ITV companies).

This vivid demonstration that it can enforce its findings must count in the ITC's favour. It is an advantage that the BBC has only reinforced by going to law after an unfavourable finding by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission earlier this year. (It joined a queue of other television companies doing the same.)

But if the ITC were to have its jurisdiction enlarged and it continued to be as high-minded about product plugging, then the BBC would need to put its house in order, fast. Its own Producer's Guidelines, reissued last year, state unequivocally that "programmes should never give the impression that they are endorsing any product, service or company", but the reality seldom bears that out.

Even that self-imposed restriction did not prevent the broadcast of a shockingly anodyne film last December about the Really Useful Company's Sunset Boulevard - a film that was actually produced by the Really Useful Picture Company. Shots of airline logos (even, in last year's Birds of a Feather Christmas special, a cameo appearance by Richard Branson) are increasingly common and arouse interesting speculation about the quid pro quos involved. To be fair, this is no easy matter for the BBC to regulate. Its obligation to take programmes from independent production companies makes it virtually impossible for it consistently to obey its own conscience in this matter.

That fact only emphasises the complexities of regulation, which the ITC's sharp smack at Granada has done little to resolve. There is always a danger, when you apply the letter of the law, that you will find out that the law doesn't make much sense.