TV And The Community

the controversies in the press and in political parties about whether we need a third channel and whether alterations are necessary to the structure of either the BBC or ITV or both have all, directly or by implication, revealed a variety of attitudes towards the basic question: in what manner should television (and other media) communicate with its audience? There are in fact four main attitudes towards communication, and it may be useful at the outset to define and comment upon them.

(a) Authoritarian: Here communications media are seen essentially as part of the whole machinery by which a minority governs a particular society. The media are a channel for the instructions and ideas of the ruling group and they exclude, as a matter of policy, alternative instructions and ideas. Monopoly of the means of communication is a necessary part of this kind of political system, and is supported by censorship and by prosecutions of sources unfavourable to those in power.

(b) Paternalistic: This may adequately be defined as an authoritarian system with a conscience. Whereas the first system justifies its monopolistic position by claiming, quite simply, its right to rule, the paternalistic system defends the same position in terms of the need to educate and enlighten. Such a system will use censorship but will commonly excuse itself on the grounds that certain groups or individuals need to be protected, as a public duty, against certain kinds of ideas or art. As a matter of policy, this kind of system undertakes the regular inculcation of certain values and habits and tastes which it wishes to extend to the society as a whole. Usually it will regard criticism of such values as, at best, muddle-headed and, at worst, as a kind of moral insurrection against a tried and trusted “way of life”. While the authoritarian sees himself as everybody’s natural ruler, the paternalist likes to see himself as everybody’s father—and for this role there cannot be any real competition. Naturally, his conception of his duty as everybody’s father imposes a high seriousness, responsibility and even reverence towards his work.

(c) Commercial: At first, the commercial attito communications is powerfully opposed to both authoritarianism and paternalism, for its asserts the right to offer for sale any kind of work which it believes the public will buy. The preferences of ordinary people thus finds expression in commercial policy to an extent that, by definition, they can not do under older systems. At the same time, however, commercial policy can only be sustained by achieving profits, and it has been common—at recognisable stages in English cultural history—for the profit criterion to rival and then to take over from the earlier assertion of independence. Once this happens, it ceases to be concerned with the offering of any kind of work or idea, as such (which was its advantage over the systems it replaced), but with the offering of any profitable kind of work or idea.

As the amount of capital required to finance and operate modern commercial communication systems increases, two destructive elements develop. First, there is the need for a comparatively quick return on the capital invested, so that the test of the product is not simply what people will buy but what they will buy quickly. As most quick buying is in relation to known, existing tastes, this emphasis can limit or destroy the possibilities of growth or experiment, in which new tastes are learned. Second, the huge amounts of capital required will tend to restrict entry into the communication system to limited groups whose principal, if not only, qualification is that they possess or are in a position to raise this capital; to groups, in fact, which are bound to be unrepresentative in terms of the whole society which they are, presumably, intended to serve. In other words it can, and very often does, happen that this kind of monopoly claimed as a matter of principle by authoritarians and paternalists is achieved as a matter of practice by simple financial pressures by the new kinds of commercial owners. Thus what began as an assertion of independence can become as much the practice of minority control as the two former systems and will in any case lack the seriousness and concern for long term growth which paternal systems have as their virtues.