Impression that matters?
rr HE power of television exerts itself more through an image of character and quality than through the force of argument. This assessment came last week from Fr. Agnellus Andrew, 0.F.M., assistant to the BBC's head of religious broadcasting, when he spoke at Church House, Westminster, to the International Union for the Protection of Public Morality.
It was a week in which a number of Catholic spokesmen joined with clergy of other denominations in platform discussions to defend moral principles. (Cardinal Godfrey's address was reported last week).
The effects of television are immeasurably great, said Fr. Agnellus, " but not perhaps in the way you think." He referred to his famous TV discussion with a number of journalists who could not accept the
Christian faith. Each time Fr. Agnellus tried to answer a question, someone else cut in with a new point, and he "spent the half hour vainly trying to chase
hares all running in different directions."
Fr. Agnellus complained afterwards to the Producer, who replied that few of the television audience would have remembered arguments, even if there had been time to develop them fully.
"What would remain very clearly in their minds was a deposit of character and quality, or lack of it. A priest was not unwilling to tackle some of the brightest minds in contemporary journalism. He was able to establish contact with their minds or was unable. His approach and his arguments sounded reasonable or valid-or the contrary.
"He seemed to understand their point of view-or was quite unable to. He seemed to have humanity and understanding-or he lacked it completely."
The Producer felt that "this deposit would he altogether truthful and the net result should have been to establish in the minds of viewers the impression that the Church's attitude was reasonable and sound. and that the clergy were in touch with the minds of those outside, But the achieving of this effect would depend on the ability and quality of the people concerned."
Fie Agnellus went on to speak to his Church House audience of the semi-hypnotic power in the TV screen. "Some people settle down and let the thing drip over them, hardly conscious, making no reaction and exercising no powers or discrimination ". he continued.
"This is less than human. There is an obligation on the listener and viewer to make a choice for himself and for his family. The switch is not used often enough. But this obligation does not take responsibility away from the television authorities."
Censorship of TV programmes was rejected by Fr. Agnellus as impracticable. and Dr, Norman St, John-Stevas felt that the principle was unaeceptahle in a liberal society. The price of a free press was some had papers: and similarly with television.
In fact, he added, no extra lecislative intervention is necessary. The BBC is an independent public service corporation, free from commercial pressures to pander to a mass market. Independent Television is subject to commercial pressures, hut the 1TA has been set up as a public watchdog to ensure a proper balance between entertainment and cultural programmes.
It is also charged with a statutory duty to prevent programmes being shown that are offensive to public decency. If the ITA exercised these powers. they should be perfectly adequate.