Michael Fay: Folly to apply modern values to past TV

WHEN independent television was launched over 50 years ago, viewers were delighted. Almost 90 per cent of them abandoned the BBC for the 'planned vulgarity' of ITV.

Is language in ITV's prime-time series Endeavour offensive?
Is language in ITV's prime-time series Endeavour offensive?

And like everything else that proved popular, the Government decided it
had to be regulated. The original Independent Television Authority made way for three other regulators with Ofcom as the latest.

I spent more then 20 years as a media regulator and, to this day, still cannot watch a programme without wondering whether it complies with the programme code. I’ve tried – really tried – but it can’t be done.

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The underlying approach during those years was to apply arms-length, light touch regulation. The gulf between regulation and censorship was understood; programme makers were encouraged to widen their range, not to be restrictive. The formal intervention was for a serious breach of the programme code and was a last resort.

This is why I was mystified by Ofcom’s decision to give a formal “intervention” and a summons to an errant broadcaster’s top brass to a meeting at the regulator’s HQ for what I believe could have been better resolved through a less hard-line approach.

The culprit is Talking Films, an independent free-to-air channel devoted to vintage films and television series. Although launched only two years ago, 
it attracts an ever growing audience of film buffs and nostalgics – over two million at the last count.

The channel’s offence was to show 
an edition of the 1970s hugely popular series A Family at War which traced the lives of a Northern family between 1938 and D Day.

In the offending scene set in an Army Mess in 1942, one of the loutish and unpopular soldiers calls an Egyptian waiter a disparaging three-letter term and is immediately reviled by his colleagues.

But the full regulatory might of Ofcom has fallen on the directors – father and daughter team – who run Talking
Films for failing to warn viewers
that the programme contained “politically offensive language given the general unacceptability of racist language”.

The language was undeniably offensive but we need to consider the context. The series was made almost 50 years and set over 70 years ago in a rough and ready Army Mess.

This seems to be an attempt by
 Ofcom to apply contemporary standards of political correctness and to ignore the context. It may not have been an attempt to re-write history but critics of regulation – and there are many – might want to see it that way.

Talking Pictures, to its credit, has made a spirited reply pointing out that its programmes reflect the attitudes and language used in the eras in which they are made and set, which provided a contextual justification. The sophistication of today’s viewers 
to recognise this is underestimated 
by Ofcom.

In reality, the channel is extremely cautious in flagging up content which might reflect outdated attitudes. In
the last few days viewers have been alerted that a couple of classic Laurel and Hardy comedies contain outdated attitudes and one may frighten young viewers!

Should Ofcom persist on this course, what will they make of the content 
of the many films broadcast which were made in the 1930s and 1940s? They are of 
their time and so they need to be viewed as such.

Perhaps Ofcom should look
carefully at new programmes. A
recent episode of Endeavour, ITV’s Sunday peak-time detective series, contained very unpleasant racist
insults to a black soldier. The series
is set in the 1960s so, maybe, Ofcom might argue that the language was within the context of the 1960s.

If so, there is no case against Talking Pictures.

You may never have watched Talking Pictures but Ofcom’s decision is important for all viewers because it may result in a more cautious, play-safe approach across a wider range of programmes by other broadcasters.

Less formal regulation in the past achieved much more with the light touch. Viewers are sufficiently mature
to recognise and understand social changes and attitudes over the past 
80 years.

Michael Fay is the former head of the North region for the Independent Television Commission.