Who needs books when we could be watching Cheryl Cole?

TV has spoken; the printed word has had its day.

You might think that it's impossible, as the great British public is made up of such a range of personalities, to generalise about what the "man on the street" likes. But there are people out there who specialise in doing just that. They are researchers, demographics experts and think-tank members. They monitor your reactions in minute detail. They provide ammunition to your grandad, who claims that nobody "has a real job any more". And they report back to the authorities about what you want. At the beginning of another year of television commissioning, I am hearing their findings in the novel ways in which executives are rejecting projects. Some are truly alarming.

Did you know that you're not interested in books? At least, not if you own a TV. You can't be into both. Over the past few weeks, I've been in two meetings about television proposals on the subject of books. In both, the executives were sceptical about the appeal of literature. According to their research, they said, books are a forbidding subject. Not very fun. Not the sort of thing you'd want to know about when you could be looking at images of Cheryl Cole, reading magazine articles about Cheryl Cole or thinking about Cheryl Cole - which is what they reckon the public is keen on. (Cheryl Cole has written a book, we countered. The commissioner's eyes lit up briefly.)

One of the TV gurus even described the idea of books as "a bit 20th-century". I'd never felt so old. I don't know about you, but I was quite keen on the 20th century. Computers, for example, are rather 20th-century. Besides, books have been around for a lot longer than a century - longer, as I was tempted to remark, than television - but there you go. TV has spoken; the printed word has had its day.

Those who "green light" TV shows, films and so on are notorious for their irrational decision-making. There is a story in the industry about a writer in the 1990s who was trying to get a psychological drama commissioned. Every avenue seemed to be blocked. When Jurassic Park came out, however, the writer got a call from an excited Hollywood mogul. "We're gonna make your movie!" he said. "We're gonna make it . . . with dinosaurs!"

This is an extreme (and possibly apocryphal) example - but not as extreme as you might imagine. The imperative to be "zeitgeisty" and "ahead of the curve" boils down to an endless process of watching what others are doing and trying to do the same thing. The "what we're looking for" briefs sent out by the major channels can be summarised thus: "We're on the lookout for The Office meets Little Britain meets Friends, with elements of Doctor Who, just to really cover our bases. Oh, and make sure someone famous is in it."

Then, they receive a script that miraculously achieves all of those things - but it's too late, because someone at head office saw Black Swan last night and they've rewritten the brief to say: "It would be great if it was about ballet, too."

Can the commissioners be blamed for making wild generalisations about "the public", though, when the public has such a short attention span? It used to be said that a new television programme had three series to prove itself. This has gone down to one. With the advent of web forums, a single episode can make or break a show.

Today, thanks to Twitter, everyone is not only a critic, but a hasty one. The virtual axe can be wielded less than five minutes in to a programme's debut, as some hipster's 140-character review - "This is shit, turning over" - receives 20,000 retweets. Before long, there'll be a website that dismisses shows before they have even been thought up, sparing everyone the tiresome business of making them.

Keep on dancing

It's because of all this that high-ranking TV officials with their jobs at stake look everywhere they can for easily digestible advice on what "we" are interested in. And it's also why everyone in television is bound by a set of committee-devised rules that are impossible to find out unless you try to break one of them.

Books are to be avoided. A programme is not worth making unless viewers can interact with it on Facebook. If you have two presenters, one must be male and the other female, or the show will look "too blokey". (Also, the girl must be pretty, though the man can be more geeky-looking.) No one under the age of 25 watches documentaries. Nearly all programmes must involve dancing. And, most importantly, if someone has made a successful programme that shows any of these rules to be nonsense, then forget the rule book and just copy what they did, using a slightly different name.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.