Why we need Ofcom

Without regulators, British TV would go the way of America's.

I grew up watching TV in the 70’s, when the choice where I lived was BBC or Granada. We had a Monday evening family viewing ritual: Opportunity Knocks (a game show hosted by Hughie Green) and World in Action. We children were expected to watch World in Action because it was "important". I had no idea then that it was a classic current affairs show which would go on to run for nearly 40 years, or even what ‘current affairs’ meant, but some of the episodes still stick in my mind to this day. World in Action had a knack of turning quite serious "issues" into watchable telly.

It was only much later, and a World in Action producer myself that I realised what a huge commitment having a year-round team dedicated to such work actually meant: in terms of costs, resources, reputational risk, opportunity costs and so forth. It didn't cross my mind to ponder if this was the right function for a commercial Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) to fulfil. A number of the ITV franchises had regular current affairs strands; the BBC had Panorama and Channel 4’s Dispatches had joined the party, all broadcasting in peak. At the time it felt like we were all competing to prove we were the best guardians of the public interest. It was just the way it was.

I was at Granada when the 1990 Broadcasting Act cleared the way for the ITV franchises to be sold off to the highest bidder. For many academics and media commentators, this signalled the death knell for the serious current affairs television in the UK; in order to recoup the money spent on winning the valuable licenses, commercial PSB’s would cut back on expensive, labour intensive, often low rating programmes such as current affairs, or so the theory went. Paul Jackson, the new director of programmes at Carlton (successful bidder for the Thames franchise) said at the time that it was not television’s job to get people out of prison (referring to World in Action’s miscarriage of justice programmes). It was their job to pursue high ratings, earn revenue and sustain a business.

And so developed the notion that commercial broadcasters must be allowed to dance to a different tune, that weighing them down by obligations to expensive, low rating, revenue-draining commitments smacked of a paternalism and protectionism from another era - and limited their growth and expansion too. It is a view of television as a medium whose success can be measured by ratings, plain and simple. Audiences will gravitate to programmes they like and it’s the job of those running TV to provide them with what they want.

But perhaps surprisingly (and thankfully), it's a narrow view of a powerful medium that's been resisted for over half a century. Television's history is intertwined with an acknowledgment of its power. From its very inception, broadcast was recognised as "having potential power over the public opinion and the life of the nation". So much so, control of the medium remained within the state. Early battles to establish a commercial rival to the BBC are riven with anxieties about standards, quality, impartiality – and a real fear that services run on purely commercial grounds would feel no compulsion to carry the difficult, challenging, expensive stuff. The result was regulated commercial television – the so-called "PSB compact". In return for privileges and discounted access to spectrum, ITV companies would carry public service programmes at the heart of their schedule. This principle has remained broadly intact – a baton passed on from the very first regulator to todays’ super regulator, Ofcom.

Ofcom has the power to insist that the PSB’s together provide "a comprehensive and authoritative coverage of news and current affairs", and that such programmes be of "high quality and deal with both national and international matters". Most content quotas have long been swept away, news and current affairs are the only ones to remain.

I have no doubt that this long standing statutory framework has laid the groundwork for a healthy, well respected, world class environment in which current affairs journalism can thrive. It is no surprise to me that viewers continue to say they value current affairs. Television has wide reach, its journalism is more trusted than other sources and the broadcasting of current affairs can, we presume, contribute to an informed society.

I have no doubt that if the forthcoming Communications Bill dilutes these commitments, or listens to the new breed of "content generators" arguing (like the commercial channels before them) that statutory obligations limit their wriggle room – television and society will be a poorer place. We only have to look to the US for a view of what a fully de-regulated TV market looks like.

Independent TV producers I interviewed for my forthcoming report (pdf) are united in the view that left to their own devices, broadcasters would marginalise current affairs, commercial channels would be less likely to do it at all, and if so, would focus on the softer, less challenging, UK based stories. They describe making current affairs - especially international stories and investigations - as already a struggle.

It’s hard not to conclude that without some level of continuing intervention, current affairs programming would diminish, plurality of supply be reduced and the public interest failed.

This is what happened to Ernie. Photograph: Getty Images

Jacquie Hughes is a journalist and lecturer at Brunel University, and former television producer and commissioning editor.

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis