Terence Blacker: It's time someone came to the rescue of Melvyn Bragg

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It has been something of a shock to be reminded that ITV is still a public service broadcaster. For some reason, the idea that the channel responsible for The Jeremy Kyle Show, Golden Balls and Bingo Night Live is providing a service to the public has become difficult to grasp.

This week, the station's grim half-yearly figures have been blamed in part on its obligation to meet Ofcom quotas on news, current affairs, arts, religious and children's programmes. The "nanny-state regulations" of the regulator were, according to Michael Grade, ITV's executive chairman, "Alice in Wonderland" and "20 years out of date".

Normally good at pushing through difficult changes, Grade must surely have seen how absurd and muddling the business of putting out lowest-common-denominator programmes under the tattered banner of public service has become. Religious programmes on ITV have all but disappeared. Children's programmes have been hit by advertising restrictions. Regional output has had its budget slashed.

All that is really left is current affairs and arts – or, put another way, Sir Trevor McDonald and Lord Bragg. There will doubtless be a few vulnerable citizens for whom the reassuring presence of Sir Trevor, uncle to the nation, is psychologically important, but one cannot with any seriousness argue that ITV's single current affairs programme Tonight with Trevor McDonald makes a great contribution to investigative reporting or contemporary debate.

As for Melvyn Bragg, he surely deserves to be rescued from the tired format of The South Bank Show. The arrangement by which ITV fulfils its cultural obligations with one late-night arts profile apparently suits all those involved: Ofcom are kept happy, ITV have one less nanny state regulation to worry about, and Bragg can continue to believe that he is bringing culture to the masses.

But, as far as the viewer is concerned, something has gone wrong. Maybe as a result of budget cuts, or perhaps out of weariness, the South Bank team seems to have become so demoralised that, on some occasions, they have stopped trying. A recent interview with the singer and songwriter Billy Joel saw a good choice of subject thrown away out of sheer idleness. Bragg flew to America and asked his subject a series of bored questions about how each of his by now-ancient hits had been written. Joel did his best, but the programme was little more than a disgracefully lazy compilation.

One problem with arts programming, in fairness, is not unique to ITV. It has become celebrity-obsessed. Just as poor old Bragg is obliged to play the Grand Poobah of culture on ITV, so the BBC offers us Alan Yentob whose programmes are most noticeable for their reverential shots of the presenter at work – walking thoughtfully, nodding brainily or laughing companionably at his interviewee's jokes.

Michael Grade is probably right. Playing the game by Ofcom's rules no longer suits his channel and is a poor exchange for its priority position as the third British TV broadcaster. The plight of ITV is a useful reminder that public service broadcasting loses its point when done unadventurously and with a heavy-footed sense of duty.

I'll never forget you, Joyce...

Some bright spark of a journalist, following up the story of a woman called Bernann McKinney who had her dead pit-bull terrier cloned in South Korea for $25,000, has noticed that there was something familiar about her face. Come to think of it, her surname rang a bell too.

Could it possibly be that Bernann McKinney was, in fact, Joyce McKinney, who, 31 years ago, was the star of the famous "Mormon Sex Slave case". For a while she was one of the most famous women around.

If the two indeed turned out to be the same woman, what a story she would have to tell. A former Miss Wyoming, Joyce McKinney travelled to Britain in 1977 in pursuit of a six foot four, 17-stone Mormon called Kirk Anderson, who had jilted her. With the help of another man and an imitation gun, she kidnapped Anderson and tried unsuccessfully to seduce him. After two days, she took a more direct approach, chained him to a bed and had her way with him. Later arrested for false imprisonment and carrying an imitation firearm, she came up with one of the quotes of the year. "I loved him so much that I would ski naked down Mount Everest with a carnation up my nose if he asked me to," she told the court.

Could the Mormon-lover possibly be the pit-bull cloner? Here is a story that won't go away.

* Forever looking for new, thrilling areas of intimate investigation, the media has discovered that there is something profitably intriguing about illness. While it may not be quite as fascinating as the sex lives of the famous, their diseases provide an excuse for the kind of prurience which takes the form of fake sympathy.

In California, staff at a hospital have been unable to resist nosing through the medical records of famous patients. One administrative assistant found the information concerning Farrah Fawcett Major's cancer so upsetting that she was obliged to sell it to the National Enquirer. Paul Newman was recently on the receiving end of this new brand of medi-porn, and he has been followed by the Duke of Edinburgh. Palace authorities, attempting to fire-fight stories that he is suffering from prostate cancer, turned to the recent spanking case of Max Mosley. The judge's ruling had "made the public interest case clearly," said a spokesman.

Little did Max Mosley know, as he had his hair checked for lice by call-girl/prison guards, that his sado-masochistic games would have a direct effect on the British royal family.


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