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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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