The not-so-brave new world of television: Are programme makers cosying up to Number 10, or are they simply bewildered by legislation? Maggie Brown reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN Channel 4 was planning its ambitious campaign earlier this year to get the Government to amend the system under which it pays huge annual sums to ITV, it called in a firm of PR consultants. One of the first things they asked was whether the channel had any controversial programmes in the pipeline. Channel 4's executives replied robustly: of course they did, that is what the station is all about.

But the thrust of the question was as clear as it was worldly-wise. Is it sensible to unleash damning screen attacks on aspects of public policy while you are lobbying government for changes of critical importance to your business?

It was this anxiety - that broadcasters might tone down their investigative journalism and gutsy programming because they are pleading for favours from politicians - that was the core of the keynote lecture given by Greg Dyke, the former head of London Weekend Television, at the Edinburgh Television Festival this weekend.

Mr Dyke's months in the wilderness (he left LWT earlier this year after the hostile takeover by Granada) have given him another view of the system which he did so much to shape during a 15-year career, including a spell as chairman of the ITV Association.

Much of the trouble, in Mr Dyke's view, lies with the 1990 Broadcasting Act, which was so flawed that further legislation is needed to put things right. This means that ITV companies and Channel 4 are caught up in a state of unhealthy dependency, while they campaign for improvements. (Neither is the BBC immune, despite recent Government backing for renewal of its charter: it is still awaiting a decision on the future of its transmitters.)

The list of demands for legislative change is huge. The broadcasting sector faces the introduction of digital television, creating many more channels; a potential Channel 5; and new cross-media ownership policies. In other respects, too, the commercial stakes are high. For example, Carlton and Granada, the two biggest players since their respective takeovers of Central and LWT, own 72 per cent of ITN's shares. This clearly contradicts the intent of the Broadcasting Act.

While Dyke acknowledges the damage done by the Act, he is sharply critical of his successor as chairman of the ITV Association, Leslie Hill, for making ITV's priority this year an improvement in its relationship with the Government. 'That is a dangerous priority for a broadcaster to adopt,' he said.

At the end of Mr Dyke's lecture he said that nowhere more than in broadcasting was eternal vigilance the price of freedom. 'Can we all say we've exercised eternal vigilance? I'm not sure I can.'

Yet Mr Dyke's thought-provoking contribution received a polite but unenthusiastic response. Some television executives believe it is correct from time to time to remind the industry that independence is essential, that government and broadcasters should not mix.

But there are large bands of realists and lobbyists in the ranks who are privately saying that Mr Dyke is nave, that the media business in the volatile Nineties cannot help but interact continuously with government.

Gus MacDonald, chairman of the Edinburgh TV Festival and managing director of Scottish Television, points out that there are very few areas of common interest between the ITV companies when it comes to lobbying government. But where there is common ground, says Mr MacDonald, the ITV Association is right to lobby hard: you could even argue that it has not made its views known very efficiently in the past. More pertinently, he asks, where are the tough programmes supposedly rejected for political reasons?

There is, however, a feeling that the agenda for factual programmes has changed. Death on the Rock, the controversial Thames documentary on the killing of three members of the IRA, might not be made now because priority is given to more tabloid human-interest stories based on sex, crime and violence. These are certainly issues which the viewers lap up.

Despite official scepticism at Mr Dyke's misgivings, it does seem that British television is not at ease with itself. There are few very top executives at Edinburgh, and the BBC producers who have come are privately squirming at Mr Dyke's assertion that the corporation has not been particularly brave of late. In the past two years it postponed key Panorama programmes, most notably Peter Jay's Sliding into Slump, which was due to be transmitted the week the 1992 general election was called. Indeed, there is an argument that says Mr Dyke did not go far enough. Why doesn't ITV spend more time and money on genuine innovation? There is general agreement that the network should be making a few more challenging programmes.

And there is a rich irony in Mr Dyke's position, which became apparent in his final seven-point plea for future reform. Implicit in this was his belief that the audience, which included a number of ITV franchise millionaires, was looking ahead to the election of a Labour government. In other words, he was gearing them up to embark on yet another piece of lobbying to get a new government to correct the Conservatives' flawed legislation.

So is Greg Dyke right? Up to a point. But he is also reflecting the confusion of an industry trying to come to terms with enormous and rapid technological change. No one knows how the expansion of broadcasting and the coming fusion of television, computers and telephone networks will affect consumers, or the industry. It is inconceivable that governments will want to weaken their embrace of the media, because of its uniquely powerful role. But equally, it is unlikely that anyone can draft a regulatory framework to contain the new media empires.