Harnessing pixel power

Television Under the Tories
February 19, 1999

In Peter Goodwin's book, the spotlight inevitably falls on Margaret Thatcher. It is logical enough, therefore, that she should be featured prominently on the cover - but it might be questioned whether the publishers were wise to choose quite such a strikingly grotesque caricature of her (based on the model used in the Spitting Image television series). There could be a danger that the casual bookshop browser will get the impression from the garish presentation that the publication is heavily biased and more concerned with polemics than facts. That would be a pity, because one of the virtues of this interesting book is the absence of bile and the balanced marshalling of relevant information.

The former prime minister naturally emerges in the text as someone intent on keeping a firm hand on broadcasting, as on most other things. But she seems to have had less than her usual success in getting her own way, thanks, perhaps, to the restraining influence of Willie Whitelaw and other long-serving ministers, who did not relish the imposition of advertising on the BBC and recognised the potentially dire consequences of attempting to auction the ITV franchises.

It may have been Thatcher's disenchantment with arguments behind the scenes that resulted in her government's inability to project a clear idea of their intentions for the future of television and radio. Or, as the book suggests, it may be that the replacement of the "public service" by the "market" ethos was the outcome, in about equal measures, of both specific television policy and Tory policy in general.

"There was no single, even remotely coherent plan of action which guided Tory policy from the beginning of Margaret Thatcher's administration to the end of John Major's," Goodwin writes. "Quite the opposite. Over these 18 years, Tory television policy lurched from one 'project' of reform to another."

There were spurts of enthusiasm for particular initiatives, particularly those that offered potential advantages for overseas trade. The vision of a highly cabled, satellite-supported society, for example, generated the sort of passionate excitement, at least in government circles, that suggested a second industrial revolution was in prospect. But the public took matters more casually, declining to subscribe en masse to the technology until the price dropped. While elements of that caution remain today, the communications revolution is at last fully in evidence.

Don Harker was formerly director of public affairs, Granada Television.

Television Under the Tories: Broadcasting Policy 1979-97

Author - Peter Goodwin
ISBN - 0 85 170 613 4 and 614 2
Publisher - BFI
Price - £35.00 and £13.99
Pages - 186

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