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Andrew Tettenborn: Big Sister Sharon’s Ofcom takes control of our thought


What is the point of television in the UK?

To give you, the viewer, the best possible independent choice of programmes, mainstream, quirky, or whatever inspires you? Or to act as a distributor of nice jobs on strictly approved criteria, broadcasting material carefully vetted by a quango of the great and the good for representativeness and judged on its acceptability to particular interest groups?

This week David Keighley told how the BBC, as a result of both its internal mindset and external bullying by Ofcom, had wholeheartedly gone for the second option. But, as he hinted, this isn’t the whole story. There are plans to take the process further and apply it by gentle compulsion to all TV broadcasters, courtesy of Ofcom’s CEO Sharon White (about whom see here). By way of background, Ofcom has produced, at the expense of the broadcasters who have to pay it large sums to boss them around, a glossy 33-page report on not only the BBC, but four other large private broadcasters – ITV, Channel 4, Sky and Viacom (ie MTV). It makes depressing reading.

On the face of it, the report is concerned entirely with so-called diversity in employment. Ofcom peremptorily demanded employee details from the five broadcasters, broken down by gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion and age, plus details of any diversity initiatives they practised. It then drew conclusions from the answers it got.

Its reaction was one of PC mandarin’s horror. There weren’t nearly enough diversity initiatives. The BBC, instead of leading the way in diversity, was well behind the pack in the number of quota-friendly diversity boxes it had managed to tick. Worse, some broadcasters had completely failed to provide the data demanded on their workers’ disability, sexual orientation, religion and age (information on which Ofcom, it should be added, had no legal right to insist). On this basis, Ofcom’s recommendations were predictable. First, the government must give it further legal powers to extract from all broadcasters ever more intrusive information about the characteristics of their employees (and their freelancers too). Second, more diversity measures had to be introduced, everywhere, and quickly. Specific diversity targets must be made mandatory; so too a highly-paid senior ‘diversity champion’ in every broadcaster. Third, all recruiting staff should be forced to undertake diversity and ‘unconscious bias’ training. Fourth, special attention had to be paid to employing disabled staff. And if not? Ofcom, revealing an iron fist in a velvet glove, would fine broadcasters large sums or even take steps to revoke their licence.

In other words, Ofcom is demanding not only that the BBC change from benevolent Auntie to starchy Nanny, closely supervised while she gives us what is good for us, but in addition is insisting that private broadcasters engage in employment super-diversity well beyond what general discrimination law demands in order to keep their privileges. This exercise by an agent of the state in micromanaging employment across an entire sector of the arts ought to give us pause. And especially so when we see why it is being undertaken.

To find out, take a look at the Executive Foreword to the report, written by Ms White herself. It starts with a modish mantra: because television can shape and represent our identities and values (no, me neither), it follows that broadcasters must reflect their society. It then adds that audiences demand programmes that authentically portray modern life across the UK, its nations and regions, and that when minority groups fail to get into television this creates a ‘cultural disconnect’. Put bluntly, this exercise isn’t simply about fair employment. It’s aimed at indirectly controlling content, to make it fit into a multicultural metropolitan ideal.

Furthermore, every one of the statements referred to above is, to say the least, tendentious. Broadcasters arguably don’t exist, any more than authors, to reflect society (how boring that would be). They are there to inspire, inform and entertain it; and there is no reason to think their ability to do so depends on anything other than talent and co-operation. Representativeness doesn’t come into it: the broadcasters of the 1960s, snobbish, elitist and unrepresentative, made a pretty good job of entertaining us. And do audiences really expect portrayal of authentic modern life in the UK? Most of it (unlike perhaps that of Ofcom executives) is utterly dreary; that, one suspects, is why Downton Abbey gets bigger audience figures than gritty kitchen-sink dramas, however accurate, about life in Doncaster. And are minority groups really incapable of any ‘cultural connect’ with programmes that aren’t about them, as Ms White rather patronisingly implies? Most TCW readers, I suspect, will have a less uncomplimentary view.

Indeed, what is seriously depressing is that ‘diversity’ in employment on strict quota lines probably leads, if anything, to less diversity in programming: to each channel tamely producing its allotted quantity of material for each selected interest group, being more concerned to tick the right boxes than to generate properly innovative programming. No wonder YouTube and Netflix, driven by raw market forces and unaffected – yet – by the well-meaning nonsense of Ofcom, are doing as well as they are.

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Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn
Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law at a well-known UK university, who also teaches in Europe and elsewhere. In the 2001 General Election he stood as Ukip’s candidate in Bath.

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