Special of the week; Issue 1-70 "Transatlantic Forum"
The British Broadcasting Corporation in collaboration with the national educational radio network presents transatlantic forum in this edition of the communications industry. The speakers are in Washington commissioner Nicholas Johnson of the Federal Communications Commission and in London David Dimbleby television broadcaster and the election of the observer. The program is introduced in London by Comella editor of The Weekly magazine. The listener. Over the past few years the communications industries cooled which involves television radio the press has become one of the largest and most influential sectors of business in Western society in the same time. Improved technology allows the media to spread their message further than ever before. But in the United States and increasingly in Western Europe to ownership and control in the
industry has passed into fewer hands. With Johnson to one extent has this contraction in ownership affected the range of views expressed in the press and on television in America. The point is not that all dissenting views are squashed. I think rather the point is that the predominant impact upon the information and opinion that the American people receive is provided by. Here are a couple wire services the Associated Press and United Press which most of the newspapers and radio stations throughout the country. And then the networks ABC CBS and NBC principally get their leads from the New York Times and The Wire services but which also provide a predominant amount of this information in opinion. I think basic to our concern is the awareness of the crucial importance of free and open communication in any
country in the world the people simply must have the right to communicate to themselves as to matters of great importance and the risk of course is that as more and more of the decisions and societies throughout the world are made not by government but rather by big business by large corporations. That big business interests will have the opportunity and may fall prey to the temptation to use it to manipulate the information which comes to the people in ways that serve their own economic interests but may not at all serve the interests of the larger population. The point is quite often expressed in this country is by way of suggesting that the few hands of the rampant individuals now that's different from the kind of
giant corporations all control that you are talking about. The very fact of the corporation is big and complex is a kind of democracy in itself isn't it a sentimental feeling. I knew that I had I had viewed it neither as a benefit nor as a sentimental feeling but rather opening up the possibility that a large corporation expend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars on advertising programs on public relations efforts of one kind or another will simply view its mass media subsidiary its newspapers or its broadcasting properties or magazines or whatnot as an extension of its advertising public relations political action activities that is the danger. Well I would very much agree with this. I think this picture also applies to the United Kingdom. I would disagree with the chairman that the picture here is one of rampant individuals.
The picture here really is developing in the same direction as it is in the United States which is the growth of multimedia concerns that a large company is increasingly swallowing smaller ones and approaching the status of monopolies. Communications of various sorts newspapers and television. But further diversify into all sorts of commercial and industrial and financial holdings until just as Commissioner Johnson has been describing. You have a situation in which communications the interest of newspapers and television may play a relatively small pox. When this great corporation is making the decision about where to invest what part of its empire to close down that we base it in Britain it seems to me we don't for a start it's not true as the chairman said introducing the program that the communications have been concentrated in fewer hands in the field certainly of television and radio if anything the number of people involved is increasing as the amount of television broadcasting getting out of commercial television the actual number of people involved in taking
decisions is becoming more widespread than it was when you know everything on the BBC. That's one point I think which is is different the second thing is that on this question of. Companies and corporations manipulating issues you've got to remember that there's a great difference again in Britain in America and I've worked with the CBS Corporation and still do. The man who pays for the program is the advertiser. And basically he can interfere where he likes on any issue he likes in the in the field of current affairs. Entertainment doesn't matter what he can put his oar in and say well I'm not going to back the program if that's what's going to be said. It's better here again because that doesn't happen you don't buy a program you buy a gap between programs and I'm not suggesting for a moment that everything is fine in Britain but I think certainly it's a great deal better. And I'm you know I actually agree with this than the situation in the States. Well I would agree with that that it is better but it is only better because we are further behind the same route. But I think there is no doctor
told there we didn't have sponsored television programs. Nonetheless we do have a situation of very large companies which are becoming Lancia. We do have a situation in which the commercial purely commercial interests of the companies is affecting program content. Whenever there is a downturn in the economy or the imposition of a new Libya by the government on independent television for example the result is immediately the withdrawal of money from programs in order to save investment. This we already have quite bitter experience off. I think that when you say Mr Dimbleby that. More people are engaged in this field. It's a sort of bellows effect as the industry gathers way. I mean that's Independent Television has created a competition to the BBC. Then of course it's true that more people are involved. But I don't think this is the real picture the real picture is one. Once the industry is established and has gained it's what you might call it's not scale.
Then you do get very rapidly this progressive concentration of power into a few very large concerns. Let's turn to the concepts of public service broadcasting which is embodied in the BBC in which many people in America would certainly want to fight shy of wouldn't they as the way to do things in the area of television and radio. David Dimbleby I think has something to say about that. What I think is interesting about the BBC and the way it operates and there are certainly great disadvantages to the way it operates I wouldn't deny that. It does have one thing which it seems to me is useful and can help people like myself who are trying to workers as communicators of one sort or another and that is that the great thing they cannot do which anybody in business can do is to kill an idea or kill a program because it's not going to make money. They can find sophisticated ways of killing things and it can be in terms of the people who watch it or the number of people who listen. And alas where increasingly with controls over budgets getting into this area but at
least you have this first freedom that the man can use as a reason for not doing the program the way you wanted or not putting out the sort of program you want. The fact that audiences as a whole won't watch or people won't pay money to watch those programs. The result is that the BBC does a great deal more of the sort of current affairs in political broadcasting that I'm involved in. Then you get the question of how well it serves in that role if it takes on the role of political broadcasting how well does it serve. And I think this is a much much more difficult point in the one that no doubt Mr. Johnson people in the states are very concerned with because it's almost impossible to explain to what extent the BBC is independent of the government whether it really is independent whether it is independent on some things or not on others which I think is the case that we we have quite a good record on tough political issues on a straight political issue which is being debated in parliament. We have quite a good record for going out and talking about it and not listening to politicians who say this is a sensitive subject you mustn't talk about it. What does happen and I think this is the danger of the state
system is that the people within the bureaucracy of the BBC are listening all the time and have their you know close to the ground of politics and. So to speak. Getting the drift of the way people are feeling or the way people are thinking about how subjects should be handled all politics should be talked about. And I think this is the dangerous area because being a bureaucracy you get great lurches in one direction or another you get a kind of lore handed down to you a tendency which permeates this hoe and it's an enormous organization so that you suddenly find yourself not able to do things quite the way you wanted. And the reason can't be put down to a minister calling up the head of the BBC and telling him stop that guy or stop doing this whatever it is. But just a sort of distillation of the whole mass of people's opinions and a lot of people wanting basically just to have the bureaucracy. I've always thought I must say the virtues of privileges are easy to overrate for example David Dimbleby said that they had this special freedom to go
against audience preference in various fields now it's clear that they do have this. You've only got to look at the programs they put out in various places to see what this can mean on the other hand since the advent of commercial television in this country this has very radically changed. I don't think that the friends of the BBC elsewhere in the world are fully alive I think through the consequences of the new situation that's come in. That's to say you can't afford to fail very drastically in the charts. If there is an outfit that is competing with you in the same manner now in the last free communications group has been very critical I think of many of the things done in this country and many of the arrangements made in communications in this country. You haven't had too many kind words said so far about the BBC and yet some people would think that the BBC really to be a kind of exemplar of at least part of what you were arguing for. Well I would agree very much with what you've just been saying. I think there is a tendency when you have a competing private
industry television network and a public network for them to come to resemble each other more and more. My own view is that the antithesis between completely private or pick a publicly owned is probably a false one which is going to get us in this country into severe trouble. The West German setup is not a bad one and worth looking at. This is a setup in which there is no strictly private broadcasting and television atoll. What there is is a variety of different forms of public corporation which. Pay for their own way on advertising which are run by a series of councils local bodies which incorporate representatives of political sectional religious interests and have a general oversight over what's done. This is a system which works fairly well pays for itself on advertising revenue. It does unfortunately at times susceptible to political pressure. But that's not an understatement I mean
surely many of the appointments in the media and Jimmy a made for political reasons explicitly some of them. But television in Germany particularly television and television about current affairs has a way of making it's of winning that sort of battle. There are occasional political appointments and more frequently political firings by people who've made programmes which are not liked. But I have noticed that a programme whose head is cut off invariably after a few months grows to more which in turn have to be axed. Mr Johnson I think it's fair to say that you have a friendly view of the BBC. How would you view. The present states examples of countries in this field. Well I'm very concerned about the kind of commercial pressure that exists on an institution like the BBC as you gentlemen have been discussing.
The problem one of the major problems with commercial broadcasting it seems to me is that not that it used so much as propaganda although it may be. Or that the user actually censored from it although they may be and are from time to time but that its product tends to be a blend. We sometimes refer to television as tasteless gruel. In this country pap that the opportunity for innovation for the unusual the new program idea that the new creative talent the unpopular point of view tends to be stifled. There is in fact no majority to program to there only a collection of minorities if you're going to reach them in a way that makes a difference. And the kind of pressure that I see being applied to the BBC and the excellent standard that it is set for broadcasting around the world now for many many years is the very thing that that you
describe. We're trying to go about this the opposite way in the United States and a little fill in here might be of interest. We started with commercial broadcasting and we added what we call educational broadcasting to that. It has languished over the years without much money. Within the last year or so we've established something called the Public Broadcasting Corporation which is our effort to create something similar to the BBC although it doesn't have much in the way of money which rather handicaps its activities. It's expanding however and the telephone company now provides a interconnection of sorts between educational television stations a national educational radio is picking up in this country. But the problem here is that the pressures are for a lack of innovation and creativity and controversy. If anything even more severe in what we call educational broadcasting than commercial
broadcasting. Because by and large the same kind of people are are running the show through boards of directors and the educational stations are simply economically weaker. But surely Mr. Johnson if I could just interrupt a second I mean it's more than that isn't it. PBL and educational television the States was seen as the great white hope of all the creative talents and energy in the American industry. It got started and it got some money and two or three very good people went over to it. But the results have been very disappointing and the programs and the style and the manner in which they've done been done in fact been a sort of parody of what the commercial networks have been doing in those fields it's not the integration of a trade. Quite so. For example the PBL so-called Public Broadcasting laboratory which was a weekly Sunday evening television show of two hours which was put out on many educational television stations throughout the
country began a couple years ago with a takeoff on commercials subjecting them to some amusement and ridicule. And this lasted one program. Yeah in pressure from some direction result of their being taken off. Many people felt that was really the best part of PBL and it suddenly disappeared. Now whether that came as a result of direct pressure on PBL from the board that was controlling its programming or whether it came from pressure from the educational television affiliates through the boards of directors of those stations. I don't know how you will rise to situations in that convent then. I mean you'll be commissioner. Well the Federal Communications Commission does not take a very active role in programme content as such we are prohibited by our Constitution in the first amendment from anything that would come close to government censorship programming and there is
an express provision in our communications act to the same effect but if we detect an instance of possible abuse for corporate advantage. We would at least investigate that. We recently investigated this past year or so. The Democratic National Convention in Chicago and some charges of network news staging in those instances. Surely the major problem then I mean there's certainly one problem which is of the control of the network but the other problem basically in the communications business is using these massive television and radio hookups and link ups and television with three or four channels in your country a dozen channels in every home finding a way of making it relevant and interesting and different and varied within any of these setups I mean the problem faces the BBC I think just as much as it faces CBS and we have the same kinds of bureaucratic pressures to do certain things I said before that we're inclined to lurch what happens is that you get a period when we innovate and
then people feel that we should draw our homes in for a bit because things have gone a little far so you have a time when for instance. You're satirizing the government and this sort of irreverence creeps in all round the place on the BBC and in the end there's such a hue and cry about it being a bureaucracy and tending automatically to shift a little to the wind. It I'm mixing my knowledge is rather it with pressure is put on future withdrawal hones and then for a bit you get into a sort of retrenchment and it all becomes rather more solemn and serious again. This is the trouble I mean this is because individual performer's individual produces Anjan control it's because you have for good reasons or bad you have basically a civil service running the operation and what they say goes right through right down to the man with the microphone in his hand to take up this last point of individual produces corporate bodies of producers being in control because it's something we ought to spend a big bit of time on. Obviously the
fact that the BBC is a bureaucracy doesn't it seem to me in itself that a response to two side pressures for one thing any large broadcasting institution is a bureaucracy by definition and even of workers control the BBC or comparable stations they would still be bureaucracies in the present stage of enlightenment. And I also can't see why the BBC shouldn't be responsive to political pressure. It's always put the political pressure is an inherently. I think the challenge too but obviously political pressure is not the voice of the electorate being expressed. I don't know I think he lashes out at this point to say something about how he would see a more explicit and radical arrangement made in times let's say of English newspapers and English television to allow the work to save the producers to shape policy a much greater degree than they do.
Well I think the situation is one in which editorial control the old idea of an editor whether he's running a program or running a newspaper is gradually disappearing. The idea of his autonomy is a milled idea in an independent newspaper or television program. Control is vested more and more in boards of directors concerned with money. The sort of thing I would like to see very much more of would be control of programs and of newspapers by those who work in them. I don't think this is a tool an impractical idea. It seems to me that one could easily greatly improve the standard of programmes in newspapers by handing control of their content and the administration of the budget and indeed election of those who would get it and those who would manage newspapers and television programs into the hands of a general assembly of everybody who worked there. There have been experiments in this direction in West
Germany with the magazines with the cultural programs of the West German radio in Cologne. And it seems to me that this is going to be the sort of Democratic control of content and programming as fun as it is possible in this form of society which is certainly limited. It's going to be the only way we have of guaranteeing. Freedom of speech a certain originality and variety. The old concept of editorial responsibility David Dimbleby is in the unusual position of being both a worker and the proprietor. Do you see that as suggestion. I'm very very dubious and perhaps as a hire and fire it's not surprising of the idea that you should hand it over. I'm talking just about newspapers for the moment. You should hand over the entire control and financing of the newspaper to the editorial staffs. I mean I'm in it talking about a very small sized family business which we've done for years. I know that I got to meet wage checks at the end of the week.
I know that we've got to make the right amount of profit for me to be able to do that. I basically can only afford to give as much freedom to the editor. As works within that framework and in fact in practice he has almost total freedom. But that's only because he's the kind of editor that I agree with and I like the way that he handles the paper but basically if I'm paying the bill and I'm sure this must apply and in the states in the small television and small newspaper thing if you're meeting the bill you've got to in the end control what goes into the thing that you're producing because if it goes to the wall it's your money that goes to the wall it's your family that goes broke it's not the editor gets a job somewhere else. If I'm producing a newspaper that's my responsibility. And it's up to me how much freedom I give the editor. I happen to believe in giving him a great deal and I can understand this argument in terms of a small newspaper that I don't think it's a final answer to this problem. But there is a very real problem in a much bigger newspaper and in a large communication setup whether it's television or radio. And I think that handing over control of content to those who actually put it out on the screen or through the
presses is going to result festival in a very much higher quality of what is put across. Nicholas Johnson do you see these suggestions as wild or not. Not a tall I think the same kinds of discussions are going on in the United States right now the Supreme Court announced this year a really revolutionary decision called the Red Lion case in which they make this brief. Seem to be suggesting that there was a almost a right of access on the part of the citizen to the mass media that the First Amendment freedom of speech rights exists not for the owner not for the publisher or the broadcaster but exist for his audience who wants to be exposed to all points of view and exist for those who wish to have access to his facility that it's all very well to say in an open marketplace with many media that the owner can do with it as he pleases but when he's running the only newspaper in town or when he's running one of the three major
broadcasting stations in town he simply doesn't have that authority. The second thing that's happening here is happening around the world as a growing desire on the part of the people to participate in the affairs that matter to them to have a hand in shaping the environment in which they must live. Devices for public participation and control of all kinds are here being manifest in many efforts on the part of public groups to participate in the broadcasters decision to come into the license renewal here ain't to file fairness complaints when they believe issues have not been fairly treated and so forth. The third point I would mention is the impact upon creativity. I think that the creative artist the journalist constitutes something of what we would call in our westerns the writer the fellow who is out ahead of civilization kind of looking over the next mountain and telling us what he thinks is going to happen.
It has to be done by an individual. It cannot be done by a corporation by an institution by a board of directors by a committee even of the workers let alone of management Mr. Johnson doing something as complicated as running a television station or publishing a newspaper I'm not talking about control of the press is because I'd like to see anybody have access to the press without any rights or censorship or anything. I'm absolutely 100 percent behind that when it comes to people backing and doing the very complicated business of publishing publicizing selling newspapers on the same as television. Your what you're saying can't really happen in that way I think that it has to happen by broadcasters deciding that they will only go on the air if they're given the freedom within the time that they're on the air to speak the way they wanted to say the things they like. I mean this seems to me absolutely whenever I broadcast I always assume I'm free to say what I want in the field or the newspaper. If I'm publishing it I would give anybody who writes in it the freedom to say what they want but I think in that context it's a tricky business in television but I think it's very authentic in
fact to say that consumer participation is the same as producer participation. People are doing two things together I quite see that you were doing that Mr. Johnson what you just said but here it's seems to me very important to say that the access of the public to the media is something other than the control of the media produces and it's quite clear I think the massive observation that many producers would in fact constitute just as much of a restraint on the access of the consumer save speak as proprietors might. These things seem to me even if it hard to sort of time what do you say to that. Well I agree with you completely basically what we're saying is that. It's no longer possible to go into the village square and climb up on a soapbox and put forward one's point of view if you're going to have a mean fall. Communication with your fellow citizens that has to be by the use of one of the major mass media in the country and
therefore these cannot continue to be run with the same kind of dictatorial hand they have been in the past I doubt that many of the people listening to us now have ever had the opportunity to talk over a microphone. I doubt that I would be having the opportunity today but for the fact I happen now to be holding a position in government. I'm quite impressed with what individuals who write me letters have to say and I think they can be very poetic very insightful I think there are great number of people who have something worthwhile saying to their fellows who are not given the opportunity to do so. But I I quite agree that this is a different proposition from the Freedom accorded to an employee or a creative person or a writer who's working for a magazine or a broadcast station. Well thank you very much Mr. Johnson for the opportunity to speak on the air. Thanks David Dimbleby in London. Thank you goodnight. Transatlantic forum was produced in London by the British food costing corporation in
- Special of the week
- Issue 1-70 "Transatlantic Forum"
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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- Public Affairs
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 69-SPWK-455 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
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