Brian McNair Writes About – ITV

allmediascotland.com is about to change, in terms of design, functionality and style of editorial. That may lead to some disruption of normal services over the next few weeks, not least because there are holidays to be had. It does mean also the prospect of new voices, from a galaxy of bloggers. So far, Nick Clayton, David Calder, Chris Bell, Craig McGill, Paul Hineman, Shaun Milne and Mark Gorman. Here, BRIAN MCNAIR writes for a second time. You’ll see his biog below. Feel free to become an AMS blogger yourself, by emailing us, here.

Michael Grade’s appeal for ITV to be released from many, if not all, of its public service obligations, backed up by an earlier threat to ‘resile’, or walk away from them altogether, is, at face value, the explicable negotiating stance of a tough media executive playing hard ball with the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom.

Give us what we want, he’s saying, or we’ll stop playing by those nice PSB (public service broadcasting) rules which have governed ITV since 1955 and become just like any other commercial broadcaster – focused on the bottom line.

Do Grade, and ITV, deserve our sympathy, having squandered the channel’s once towering place in British broadcasting by years of bad management and worse programming? Does the organisation which, in its heyday, gave us Coronation Street and the adversarial interviewing style of Robin Day deserve to be bailed out of its worsening financial position? Do we care, and should we?

I think we should, and here’s why. The UK’s broadcasting ecology has, for half a century, been built on a delicate, creative balance between public service and popularity, and a recognition that the two aren’t incompatible.

ITV was established, to widespread moaning about dumbing down, from those who thought that the BBC had a god (or Reith)-given right to force-feed the nation with worthy culture from on high, in order to address and reflect the changing needs of post-war Britain; a country fresh from victory over the Nazis, its working people empowered and growing less deferential by the year.

The paternalistic, top-down BBC, shaped by John Reith, was losing touch with the people as mass market TV emerged. ITV was given the remit to be popular, while still part of the public service broadcasting system. It would be financed by a monopoly of advertising on analogue wavelength, and have a brief to do things differently from the stuffy old BBC.

When Robin Day started asking politicians difficult questions, it was revolutionary. Without Day and his presumption that politicans were there to be scrutinised by TV journalists, rather than buttered up for the benefit of a grateful nation, we wouldn’t have Paxman or Humphrys or, indeed, our own rottweiller, Gordon Brewer.

Coronation Street pioneered the TV soap opera format, in which Britain is an aknowledged world leader. World In Action was, for many, the best televised investigative journalism ever produced. Footballers Wives was, well, just fabulous.

At its best, ITV kept the BBC on its toes in the latter half of the twentieth century, dragging the corporation towards accessability and a degree of healthy populism which it needed if the licence fee was to be politically sustainable in the long term.

The BBC, for its part, as the institutional bulwark of public service broadcasting, embodied the values and programme standards that ITV had to maintain if it wished to maintain its lucrative access to scarce analogue spectrum (as it has, to some extent, done also for Sky more recently – Sky News, for example, cannot behave like its sister, Fox News, in the US, because the BBC-defined UK standard for TV journalism, to which ITV fully signs up and News Corp ignores at its peril, wouldn’t permit it).

Together, and let’s be proud of it, the BBC and ITV delivered the best broadcasting system in the world.

So this public service ‘duopoly’ – one organisation funded from taxation, the other from advertising – had a purpose and a point, which remained valid even as ITV was joined, first by Channel 4 and then Five in the commercial PSB sector.

It remains important today, Ofcom and most observers agree, because pluralism, and the associated competition, continues to be good for British broadcasting. Especially in news, and especially in the nations and regions of the UK.

Would we be happy with just one provider of local TV news in Scotland? At UK level, could we cope without ITN and ITV’s lighter, more human interest-oriented style? And even if we didn’t really give a toss about the answer to those kinds of questions, would it be a healthy situation for one organisation, the BBC, to so dominate broadcast journalism in our country?

Ofcom says not, and I’m inclined to agree. We take press pluralism for granted, especially in Scotland with our rich and diverse print culture. Pluralism in TV