Don't kill American trash TV, manure nourishes rare blooms

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A CAUTIONARY tale first of all. Some time in the late Seventies the Dutch government decided that it would be a good idea to support native talent. A guaranteed purchase arrangement was instituted for Dutch artists - a practical way of ensuring that government patronage was not diverted into gin or Afghan Gold, at least not until some creative labour had been undertaken.

If the artist made the work, the government pledged to act as a purchaser of last resort, should others fail to recognise its merit. Removed from the philistine vagaries of the market, Dutch artists would be freed to do their best work. Unfortunately, the Dutch soon found themselves with an art mountain - warehouses of mediocre canvases which no one else would buy or indeed even pay to look at. Only if they have since used them as filler material in a land reclamation scheme could this well-intentioned programme be said to have expanded Holland's standing in the world.

I am reminded of this exemplary lesson in unintended consequences by our report today that Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, is minded to be a little more vigilant about implementing EC quota requirements with regard to imported television programmes (meaning, to all intents and purposes, American television programmes).

As it happens there's no great alarm here - most terrestrial broadcasters comfortably exceed the requirement that more than half of all transmissions should be of European origin and, while cable and satellite channels don't, many of those are moving in the right direction. This is entirely desirable as long as it is voluntary, but there are strong arguments to suggest that the current relaxed policy is by far the most sensible (the directive has a spacious loophole in the words "where practicable and by appropriate means").

There are three broad lines of attack against any stringently imposed cultural quota: the patriotic, the practical and the philosophical. The first may sound rather paradoxical. After all, what could be more patriotic than an attempt to defend the national genius against the stealthy, almost undetectable corruptions of transatlantic culture?

To listen to some people you would think that American programming was a kind of cultural carbon monoxide - before you know it British culture has slipped into unconsciousness in front of the set, a coma from which it will never recover. But it just isn't British to take such steps; for one thing we've always had a miscegenated, mongrel culture, whether it looked to the Mediterranean past with the classics or to more recent transatlantic influences. It isn't British - it's French. It smacks of petty Gallic bookkeeping which counts how many English pop-songs have been played on Radio Clermont-Ferrand and then sends in les culture flics to enforce a 24-hour Johnny Halliday festival. And we all know how effective such policing has been in turning France into a power on the international music scene.

The practical objection comes in two parts. First, that it just isn't easy to enforce such cultural dirigisme in an age of satellite and cable broadcasts. Already Sky television has demonstrated that it can use the best quality American products to secure the sort of steady allegiance that terrestrial channels enjoy through simple inertia (my own resolution to cancel a cable subscription has repeatedly been foiled by the knowledge that at 7pm every weekday, should I need it, I can get a hit of Homer Simpson). Second, I think we should inspect closely claims that we would lose only the trashier elements of American programming under a strictly applied system. If we fill the resulting hole in the schedules with top- quality European products, then it will be the more expensive buy-ins that go. If, on the other hand, British stations are to meet the quota with cheap, low-quality programmes, there seems little point to the initiative.

The philosophical reason is that there is no more point to a bureaucratically managed culture than in a tract of rainforest run as if it were a municipal park. Cultural resurgence and vitality occur in unpredictable ways and, besides, rare blooms are often nourished by manure. The French offer another telling example here, this time an admirable one. Probably the most influential French cultural export in the second half of this century has been French New Wave film - a disparate group of directors who, for a time at least, made the idea of the art film and French cinema virtually synonymous. The energy and freshness of their vision affected other film-makers in all kinds of ways. That influence can still be seen in the best of American cinema, which had its own genius reflected back to it in a way it could never have recognised. But that explosion of talent grew out of a contempt for the domestic French film industry and a passion for the most disregarded products of Hollywood B-movies which would have been the very first victims of a quota system.

If you want a British example, that's easy too - the explosion of British bands in the Sixties drew their inspiration almost entirely from American music, reshaping it so that it couldn't be anything but British, and triumphantly took it back to where it had come from.

In short, a national culture that needs legislation to stay alive isn't worth having. There are many things governments can and should do to make it easier for British talent to compete. They can examine tax breaks and investment incentives. They should address the stranglehold of the big American companies on the distribution system for films. But a quota system is intrinsically flawed - it diminishes the competition artificially, and that can only enfeeble a culture, not invigorate it.