The naked truth about taste and television

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The Independent Online

I'm too young to tsk tsk. Besides, if I'd wanted a career in tsking, I'd have applied for a job with a different sort of newspaper. So I was alarmed, last week, to catch myself in a tsk that would have done credit to Sue Lee-Sarler, or whatever that appalling woman columnist is called.

It was the television personality Carol Vorderman who brought on this unwanted attack of sibilance. You'll recall that Ms Vorderman, member of Mensa and star of countless programmes, dismissed Shakespeare as boring. She had been taking part in a celebrity quiz and - unable to place Sir Toby Belch - defended herself against a charge of woeful ignorance by attacking the Bard himself. It was WS's fault, apparently, for writing so many plays that Carol didn't enjoy.

Boring. Henry V - boring. The Comedy of Errors - boring. Malvolio, Macbeth, Shylock, Iago, Falstaff and Hal? Boring. And this from the woman who has been presenting Countdown every weekday for 15 years. Immediately, I thought of my father, brought up in the East End by illiterate parents, failed the 11-plus, left school at 14, taught himself German, Russian, Mongolian (don't ask), read Goethe in the original, developed passions for opera and pictorial art, and got his first formal qualification - an Oxford doctorate - at the age of 50. And here was a youngish middle-class woman, who'd had all the educational advantages that he'd lacked, lazily and contemptuously dismissing Shakespeare as boring! She should be deported, and her place taken by a dozen Somali immigrants who might actually aspire to better themselves.

Then, yesterday, just as I was looking forward to the opening of the Tate Modern and recovering my optimism about the future of British culture, up popped the Independent Television Commission to tell the world that it was considering relaxing its rules on television advertising. The ITC is recommending that all kinds of things that cannot now be advertised on our screens should soon be eligible. The list includes hair loss clinics, psychotherapists, private dicks, escort agencies, religions, "top-shelf" porno mags and lots more.

Some of you, reading this list, will agree with the ITC that such categories should not be banned. This is, after all, AD2000, and the rules were largely framed back in 1953, when Everest was first being conquered and Stalin was hardly cold. All these categories (and many, many more) advertise on the internet without hindrance, and it would be repressive and restrictive to continue with the present regulations just for telly.

But isn't it strict regulation that has protected the viewer? Because of that strict regulation, an appearance on television has usually meant a guarantee of quality, or - at least - lack of direct harm. We trust television far more than we trust, say, newspapers. The BBC Producer's Guidelines are longer than War and Peace (a dull book by a dead Russian, Carol). ITN News's impartiality is covered by regulation, as the BBC News is by the BBC's Charter. So with television advertising, isn't there a comforting sense that - whatever else it may do - the 30-second interlude will not sell you crap, tell you lies, offend you, or make unwarranted claims?

Don't worry, says the Commission, in an echo from Casablanca, "The fundamental principles of viewer protection will be as stringently applied." They're not going to let snake-oil salesmen come on to the screens and sell us miracle cures for cancer and warts, nor will there be, "scantily clad women running around between children's shows". So that's another blow against breast-feeding. Standards will not slip, it's just a bit of modernisation, so stop tsking.

"Top-shelf magazines", for instance, will only be advertised "late at night in appropriate settings". Would an appropriate setting, say, for Hustler have been last night's Channel 4 junction between a steamy screen version of Anna Karenina and Walter: The Secret Life of a Victorian Pornographer? Escort agencies might also be allowed to advertise for the first time. The man from the ITC explained that they should be unbanned because there was "no reason to presume that what they're offering is illegal". No? And what exactly does the ITC think escort agencies offer? Ford Escorts? When a visiting businessman calls Executive Lovelies and requests Samantha, a busty graduate with excellent manners, he generally has more than conversation on his mind.

Some medical treatments might now be permitted to sell themselves to viewers. We could be treated to cures for baldness, recipes for regularity, methods for dealing with alcoholism, counselling for sexual problems, clinics to irrigate your colon, clinics to wash that old, encrusted money out of your pockets. The millennial Freuds can pay for 15 seconds before Frazier and tell you where to go if you're feeling Oedipal (boring play by ancient Greek, Carol).

And the rules will be relaxed about product endorsements from celebrities and newsreaders. The latter, however, will only be able to sell products where there is a "clear distinction" between their role as purveyor of truth and their part as a human billboard. Thus I imagine that Huw Edwards would be discouraged from appearing behind a desk in a suit and tie and spinning a line. Instead he'd be filmed in his trunks on a beach, saying, "I'm not endorsing Viagra because I read the news. I'm endorsing it because it's great for men with willy problems."

But what about the allowing of the advertising of mumbo jumbo? The ITC wishes to loosen up the category of "occult" advertising (currently banned) and permit advertising of "innocuous" practices, such as astrology. But here's a problem. Astrology is only innocuous if you don't believe it. Imagine the dangers if credulous viewers tried to lead their lives according to Russell Grant's predictions!

If spiritual products are to be sold on television, how then can the ITC vet them for their accuracy? Is the woman from the commission going to go out and about with a trained vicar and a scientist to test the efficacy of an advertised exorciser? Will those who have had near-death experiences be consulted on the type of afterlife they glimpsed, so we can choose between one paradise and another?

I am not convinced. I hear the creaky sound of the flood-gates opening. And I half suspect that this is the ITC helping the ITV companies to boost their ratings by getting sexier outfits to advertise their dubious wares on the small screen. The problem is that all these standards I'm talking about were long ago deserted by the programmes themselves. We've had rashes of weirdy shows (one fronted by Carol herself). Tits are everywhere. And Keith Chegwin is about to appear naked on Channel 5. Why should adverts suffer constraints that the shows do not?

In the end I repose my faith in the people. We're grown-up enough to evaluate what's rubbish and what's a genuine contribution to our well-being. Still, there is one great caveat that I would suggest, and that I am recommending to the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, when he comes to consider the ITC's proposals. If celebrities and newsreaders take big money to sell us products and services, then they can only do so if they have used the stuff themselves. No virile Huw Edwards (as I take him to be) selling us Viagra, and no Carol Vorderman banging on about brains.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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