The New Statesman Essay - Beyond Madonna's bed

Lies and cynicism on TV matter more than sex and swearing

In TV you never know what's going to come back and bite you. I was controller of BBC2 for two and a half years. I spent days fretting over drama decisions that involved millions of pounds. I agonised over horribly complex editorial dilemmas. But the thing that bit me in the end was the sheepdogs. Yes, I'm the man who decided to cancel One Man and His Dog.

I'd taken a rather hard-hearted look at the programme's performance and falling profile. What I completely failed to realise was that, while people might not have wanted actually to watch the programme any more, they still wanted it to be there, a kind of vote of confidence in the countryside and its way of life. Getting rid of it somehow connected with all the other attacks on country life - mad cow disease, GM crops, the campaign to ban hunting.

It was an interesting mistake because it illustrated the complexity of the values and expectations people bring to the media. To many, the mass media are a kind of Pandora's box - an endless source of troubles, an evil whose benefits are far outweighed by its faults. These people sometimes seem gripped by a kind of millennial dread; a sense that the daylight of real values and real beliefs is failing, leaving a twilight of neon, jangling noise, the world of the video and the Walkman and the PlayStation: raucous, solipsistic, aimless. Somewhere in the middle of this world, they see a TV winking: Baywatch, Chicken Tonight, Jerry Springer, Baywatch in German, a blank screen, John Wayne, three dead bodies in Bosnia, "Sex with Fat People".

There's a moral criticism of broadcasting that you can read - between the lines at least - in newspapers almost every day. The presumption is that all of us inside broadcasting are constantly thinking up dastardly new ways to sink below fundamental standards of decency. There's a folk-memory, especially among Conservatives, of TV as a kind of Leninist vanguard of the permissive society: Play for Today, Dennis Potter, and so on. The truth is that the shock troops of the permissive media came from more traditional outlets: books (Lady Chatterley), the theatre (Hair, Oh Calcutta!) and the movies. TV and radio tended to bring up the rear.

Yet while the mass media didn't lead the revolution, they did make it ubiquitous. And there are plenty of people who have never forgiven or forgotten. A picture of what TV people were like - A A Gill of the Sunday Times calls us the Tristrams - grew up: creative, irresponsible, desperate to jump on the latest bandwagon, politically correct, dismissive of traditional values. There is some truth in all this. TV producers do tend to be young. TV channels have sometimes run roughshod over the sensibilities of audiences, especially older audiences. TV can be a creature of fashion.

And yet television in Britain has always had a deep vein of responsibility, too. We have less violence - and less extreme violence - on our screens than in any other TV market in the developed world. Our news programmes are more trusted for accuracy and impartiality than in comparable countries.

We also maintain the "watershed", the commitment that programmes shown before nine at night will be suitable for children to watch with their parents. To me, this is an example of a mature relationship between broadcasters and their audience. Because society changes, there's always a debate about what's acceptable, but within a framework of broad agreement about value. Specific editorial judgements may change, the principles don't. Very little sex is shown before nine o'clock (even our documentary series The Human Body, an educational piece if ever there was one, was edited for the watershed), but it's certainly more widely talked about than it would have been 30 years ago. Violence is little changed. Language can be stronger than in the past but it's more tightly controlled today than, say, five years ago and is still relatively mild. Words like "bastard" and "bitch" are very rare. "Crap" can sometimes be considered acceptable, "shit" not.

But for some this is self-serving nonsense. They believe that standards are absolute, not relative. They believe that it's a fundamental duty of broadcasters to uphold these standards, as a matter of practical public good. They believe many people aren't well placed to make sound viewing and listening judgements for themselves. If they're not protected, they'll be depraved.

The only people who ever admit to being corrupted by TV themselves are defendants in criminal trials: "It wasn't my fault, guv, I got the idea from that Crimewatch programme." In pretty well every other case, it turns out that the complainant is anxious on someone else's behalf. That's even true of small children. If you ask eight-year-old boys in focus groups about their attitude to violence in the programmes they watch, they tell you that it's fine for them: they're used to it, they know it's not real. Their worry, their big worry, is their younger brothers.

The high-water mark of this critique of broadcasting was the creation of the Broadcasting Standards Commission under the last government. Here was a body of the great and good, empowered to follow up complaints from the public. It doesn't sound like a bad idea, but I think the BSC demonstrates almost everything that is wrong with the way we look at morality and the media.

What are these "broadcasting standards"? They're not creative standards. Or educational standards. Or journalistic standards. Or even, in any broad sense, moral standards. These are standards of taste and decency, or better - to use the word that often appears in the BSC's adjudications - standards of appropriateness.

Was it appropriate, for instance, in Confessions, for a contributor to tell an apparently true story of how they'd accidentally sucked the family's pet budgerigar into their Hoover? A few viewers complained. The BBC's defence was that, since the budgie had chosen to leave its cage and walk across the carpet at the time, it had brought its fate upon itself. The BSC deliberated long and hard and decided that the bird was innocent, and we weren't.

When we showed In Bed With Madonna, only one person complained, and then only on a second showing. The complaint was about the language used. As it happens, we now get more complaints if we cut strong language or explicit material in post-watershed feature films than if we leave it in - and some viewers complain about cuts even when the film is shown exactly as it was in the cinema. In Bed With Madonna contained the word "motherfucker". (The word occurs much more frequently in Boyz N the Hood, whose two-hour running time would have to be cut to about two-and-a-half minutes if it were removed.) The BSC upheld the complaint. "Motherfucker" is a horrible word - and I don't think any sensible person would rejoice if it became a fixture of the pub, let alone the playground. The BSC's chair, Lady Howe, and her colleagues seem to take the heroic view that we can still stop it crossing the Atlantic, and they are keeping anxious watch rather as people used to watch for the Colorado beetle at ports and airports.

But it's utterly futile. First, total media consumption is beyond any official body's power to control. The word "motherfucker" has streamed into Britain in feature films, in rap songs, in magazines, on the Internet. As it happens, you hardly ever hear it said over here; it sounds oddly twee in a British accent. But you can't stop people hearing it in some of their media consumption. You have to rely instead on their values, their upbringing, their sense of themselves, not to want to add it to their vocabulary. The moral battle, like all moral battles, will be won or lost on the demand not the supply side.

Second, the days when the great and the good could dictate what everyone else should see and hear are over. When spectrum and channels were highly limited in both radio and television, a high degree of control, and paternalism, was possible. Not any more.

This doesn't mean that anything goes. Where there is an overwhelming public consensus - on child pornography, for example - broadcasters have a clear duty to reflect it. But there are many issues where consensus has broken down. As well as strong language, these include soft-core pornography or "erotica" as it's now rather ridiculously called. It's not something the BBC is ever going to offer and it's probably still regarded with disapproval by the majority. But the consensus to ban it from open sale has gone. An open society is open precisely because it allows things that many of its citizens think are foolish, worthless or even disgusting.

So I think the BSC is doomed to follow the Lord Chamberlain into oblivion. But there must be something more. Broadcasting pervades people's lives. It's one of the main ways in which society sees itself, learns about itself and the rest of the world, contemplates its past, debates its future. I believe broadcasting can and should be an active force for good.

I would pick out three points for a positive moral agenda that goes beyond the endless wrangling about objectionable content. First, broadcasters should guarantee a source of truthfulness in public life. Broadcasting was charged from the start with being above party and sectional interest. Independence took time to grow and it still sometimes comes under fire, but it's now a cultural fact of life in Britain. The journalism that flows from it - practised pretty universally by the BBC, ITN, Channel 4, Sky News and so on - is widely trusted and, because of that trust, supports the democratic process and the national debate. But truth-telling is about more than that. It's about reflecting society honestly back to itself in every kind of programme - and that includes long-running drama series such as EastEnders. It's about creative integrity: the duty of individual creative talents to be true to themselves and their abilities; and the duty of broadcasters to give them the space to be so.

Most people inside broadcasting thought truth-telling was so firmly embedded within our professional disciplines that it hardly needed to be talked about. The events of the past year or so - from the exposure of fabrication on Carlton TV's The Connection through the use of fake guests on Vanessa to the allegations about a Channel 4 documentary on guns - have changed that. Indeed, the TV fakes have left some wondering if we're facing a moral crisis. John Whiston, the director of programmes at Yorkshire Television, said: "The journalistic morality that I and my generation grew up with has been eroded. There's a feeling out there that if it works on TV then that's fine." Yet I meet dozens of young journalists and programme-makers who in some areas - fair-dealing with the public, avoidance of stereotyping, sensitivity to racism and sexism - are probably more responsible than earlier generations. If there is an ethical crisis affecting our programme-makers, it just isn't good enough to single out the youngest, least experienced members of the team for criticism. We have to ask: what kind of moral climate do they come into when they arrive at a particular programme or a given television company? What are they rewarded and praised most for? Probity or results?

Some people will say that it doesn't matter. The verdict of Matthew Parris, Times columnist and former BSC member, is simply: "TV is all entertaining crap." In other words, it's all lies, it's just for fun. Others would say that we're living in an age which, from world leaders down, no longer values truth for its own sake.

Both arguments take a debased view of the public as well as of the media. If you believe instead that public life is an arena in which truth and falsehood battle it out, then it's all the more important that broadcasters take an old-fashioned, pernickety, unforgiving view of the truth. There are other important values, but truth is the foundation of the whole edifice. If we lose that, we lose everything.

My second principle is to treat other people and other views of the world as you would want yourself and your view to be treated. This is about fair-mindedness and respect, about tolerance of the unfashionable as well as the fashionable. At the heart of it is a presumption of goodwill on the part of all those you feature and report upon, unless and until events prove otherwise.

This principle is under as much attack as the principle of truth-telling. In the newspapers at least, almost no political utterance or policy initiative is considered at face value - as if it were simply a well-intentioned effort to improve society. Instead everything is analysed for evidence of some ulterior motive: personal power or aggrandisement, or the despatch of political enemies.

Character has become an issue in political debate on both sides of the Atlantic; but this is character defined as character-flaw. Cases like that of Jonathan Aitken seem to point to some general truth: that all politicians are liars and hypocrites at heart. But the most the case proves is that Aitken is a liar and a hypocrite. Most of the MPs, ministers and members of Congress I've come across over the years have struck me as rather honest and well-intentioned. To say that publicly nowadays is to sound like a bit of a dope or, worse, a stooge. Yet, as one American politician said recently, extreme cynicism is itself a form of naivety. If you remove altruism and the possibility of good intentions from your analysis of other people's behaviour, you impoverish your understanding of them. It makes for poorer, not richer, politics and journalism.

I believe that programmes such as Today, Newsnight and Question Time allow issues to be discussed in a fair-minded, unprejudiced atmosphere, despite the robust questioning. But treating others as you would want to be treated yourself also implies a concern for the human dignity of those you depict. Modern humour - in programmes from Have I Got News For You to the recent The League of Gentlemen - can be both grotesque and savage. Nothing new about that, and nothing wrong; from Aristophanes on, much of the best and most truthful comedy has had a cruel edge to it.

More worrying is the emergence of trash TV - particularly talk shows like Jerry Springer's - which has acquired a kind of chic. This really is television as freak show, preposterous and ugly. A public taste for a kind of Grand Guignol parody of human folly is growing. It will require a considerable effort of will by commissioners and producers to resist it. Certainly, when I see an ad nestling in the Guardian asking anyone who thinks they may be suffering from sex addiction to get in touch at once with a BBC programme, it gives me pause. Maybe it's a serious programme, maybe I'm being stuffy, but I can't help thinking: is this really what the licence fee is for?

My third principle is the role of broadcasting in bridge-building. TV and radio open people's eyes to the wider world; it's impossible to imagine the present widespread concern for the developing world or for the people in Kosovo without the broadcast media. But by bridge-building I also mean broadcasting's ability to make connections at a deeper level: its ability, for instance, to unite people around events of common significance. These include not just great national events like elections or the World Cup, but programmes that strike a common chord: The Goon Show, Morecambe and Wise, Men Behaving Badly, The Archers, EastEnders. At a more profound level, broadcasting can also hope to build bridges between different classes, regions and ethnic groups. At its best, in programmes such as Comic Relief or Video Nation, one can still have a sense of the sprawling modern world shrinking back down into a community of recognisably human scale.

The BBC's guidelines to its producers run to some 300 pages, but I think the values that underpin them are contained in those three thoughts. The goal, if you like, is to use the extraordinary power of broadcasting not just to enrich individual lives with information, knowledge and entertainment, but to support and strengthen civil society as a whole.

Compared to that goal, the traditional moral critique of TV and radio is a pretty malnourished thing. I believe that enough people inside broadcasting believe in the principles and the goal for us to crack some of the real moral challenges we face - challenges such as fakery and cynicism. In a way, you can see broadcasting as Pandora's box, constantly throwing out problems and dilemmas. But when I look at it, I also see what Pandora saw: hope.

The writer, until recently controller of BBC2, is now director of BBC national and regional broadcasting. This article is based on his 1999 St Thomas More lecture, given at the Catholic Chaplaincy, Oxford