HIS WEEK WILL see a major test of the Government's commitment to "joined-up" government with the publication of two White Papers in two days.
On Monday the government will show how globalisation is impinging more and more on our every day lives and will call for education and information to create active global citizens. Yet on Tuesday. it seems that other parts of the Government may bow to intense commercial pressures by weakening publicservice obligations on broadcasters with the inevitable result that we are likely to see even less about the global world on TV. The big unanswered question is how society can produce active global citizens when the television that most people watch is showing wall-to-wall quiz shows. soap operas and make-over programmes.
As Head of Media at Cafod I am perhaps as aware LIS anyone of the seri .ous decline in non-new s television coverage of international issues. These days a good hour-long documentary about the developing world is such a rarity that I send out an all-users e-mail to Cafod
staff knowing that if they miss it, it could well mean a two-month wait for the next one. According to research by 3WE (the Third World and Environment Project) the number of programmes about developing countries has dropped by 50 per cent across all channels over the .past 10 years. And most of what's left (about 60 per cent) focuses on travel and wildlife.
Hardly a week passes without another reminder that commercial pressures and the battle for ratings are increasingly undermining the public-service ethos of television. Despite all the arguments to the contrary, everyone knows that the battle of the TV evening news was about ratings. According in newspaper reports, the mu of Panorama to the grin eyaiu slot on Sunday k:elling.
lost this flagship series nearly a quarter of its audience. And last week's announcement that the BBC's Head of Religious broadcasting is to retire early in protest at the marginalising of religious programmes comes as little surprise after watching wonderful programmes like Heart of the Matter being pushed further and further into the margins of the schedules before being scrapped altogether.
It is into this already alarming atmosphere that the muchanticipated White Paper on communications will arrive this week. Despite being accused by some commissioning editors of being worthy luddites harking back to a mythical golden age. Cafod is in fact extremely excited about the possibilities of the new communications that will take us into the multi-charinel era. In his letter to Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Cafod director Julian Filo chowski eMphasised this point: C C. ,: I . many 'mgt.. new
I I . • ,s1 and allow people across the world to interact with each other opening up new opportunities for international understanding, solidarity and awareness raising."
The agencies also accept the need for new legislation for a new era. But our real fear is that a further weakening of public-service obligations will see programmes about the developing world, with lower ratings than the average soap opera, being shown even later at night or disappearing completely from mainstream TV onto niche channels where only those who are already interested will have to seek them out.
At the recent Sheffield International Film Festival, the BBC correspondent Fergal Keane chaired a session on the decline in international documentaries on mainstream TV. His first question to the 200 filmmakers. commissioning editors and aid agencies packed into the session was: "Why does it matter?".
lb answer this I suppose Cafod has to first declare an interest. One of our four strategic goals over the next four years is to "build solidarity and global community" amongst the Catholic community in England and Wales. While TV is by no means the only way of informing our audience, I think we have to admit that if programmes on the developing world completely disappear from the channels that most people watch, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve this goal.
A staggering 86 per cent of the British public claim that TV is their primary source of information about the outside world. It really does provide people with a "window on the world".
And there are broader political reasons for ensuring that the public get access to programmes about the outside world. TV is far and away the most powerful modern means of communication and as such has a democratic and cultural importance that is different to one-to-one communication like telephones and the internet. Can we really hold our own politicians to account for policy decisions that impact on the lives of people in the developing world if we never see these issues raised on television? Should we support the current British intervention in Sierra Leone? Do we need a new set of rules governing world trade? Should Tony Blair really be taking the Russian president to the opera weeks after the vicious offensive against Chechnya? It is because of the key role that television plays in our society that Calod and other agencies are calling for the strengthening of regulation for public policy goals in broadcasting — including the information, education and awareness necessary for global citizenship. But we are not the only ones who've been busy lobbying on the White Paper on communications. The government is also under massive pressure from the commercial sector and the media companies to opt for sweeping deregulation and allow the market to deliver what people want. When I challenged recently a senior BBC commissioning editor about declining international coverage, he politely suggested that if I want to watch an hour-long Pilger special, then I'm bound to find it on one of the hundreds of channels that the new digital era will deliver' — maybe on Sky's Discovery or the new Community Channel.
He had missed my point. This is not about people like me finding a niche channel that reflects my minority interest in the developing world. This is about the majority of the British public having access to the kind of programmes that can inform them about the globalising world — which means they have to see it on a mainstream channel at a reasonable time of day.
This commissioning editor's view — which is all too common even at the BBC — is proof that we do need regulation if we are to resist the trend to marginalise international programmes. There is plenty of evidence to show that regulation is crucial. It was the easing of publicservice objectives in the 1990 Broadcasting Act that produced a decade of declining international programming. ITV, Britain's most-watched channel, is now broadcasting 74 per cent less programmes on the developing world than before the 1990 legislation. On the positive side, Channel 4's 56 per cent decline in international programming was halted in 1998 when its remit was revised and coverage of international and global issues was included for the first time. Since then the channel has begun to commission more and more innovative programmes about the developing world, including an excellent series called Un-Reported World and the recent Africa series.
All the research done on unregulated television abroad shows that when you let the free market have its say, you get an increasingly narrow range of drama: soap operas, quiz shows and sports progranunes. As a telly addict and a soap fan, I am not objecting to more choice and the opportunity to catch Coronation Street at a time that suits me. But I also want to make sense of the world I live in and I want other people to be confronted with, challenged by and entertained by the stories and issues that make up people's lives in the developing world.
So Monday and Tuesday are big days for both Cafod and the Government. Both days the government has to tell us whether it's happy to leave crucial issues to the mercy of the free market or to agree with Cafod that the market should be -rigged" to make sure that the poor can also benefit form globalisation and the British viewers can benefit from the digital era. Only with both can we have the society of global citizens that Cafod and the Government would like to see.