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Monday, 30 July, 2001, 15:37 GMT 16:37 UK
Keeping tabs on TV
still from Bras Eye
Brass Eye sparked a high volume of complaints
By BBC media correspondent Torin Douglas

The culture secretary's desire to air her views to Channel 4 and the Independent Television Commission (ITC) may be understandable, given the unprecedented number of complaints prompted by the Brass Eye programme.

All ministers want to be seen to be "doing something" but this is a highly sensitive area, as Monday's statements from Tessa Jowell and Downing Street recognise.

The media fiercely protect their independence from government

And even though the prime minister's spokesman says these are "legitimate questions", they are ones that a broadcasting minister - of all people - has to handle with care.

The government has no day-to-day role in broadcasting - that is one of the cornerstones of media regulation in a democracy.

Quite rightly, the media fiercely protect their independence from government.

Ministers introduce the laws that govern broadcasting and appoint the regulators who oversee it - such as the ITC commissioners and the BBC board of governors - and then leave them to it.

Broadcasting rows

Even though ministers will have views about programmes - and often quite vocal disagreements with broadcasters - they are not meant to "interfere".

The dividing line can be narrow.

Ms Jowell seemed to recognise this, in the statement issued in her name at the weekend and following her discussions with the ITC.
Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell
Tessa Jowell's intervention has caused a stir

After the discussions on Monday she said the ITC had a "heavy responsibility... to safeguard public trust and confidence", re-asserting the role of the regulatory body.

After the programme was broadcast she had aired her views more as a viewer than as a government minister.

Her statement began: "As a viewer and a parent, I think it is a great shame that a public service broadcaster has chosen to transmit this programme.

"If this is considered acceptable material then we are tearing down all the boundaries of decency on television."

She then put on a different hat: "As secretary of state, this raises the question of whether the ITC can deal quickly enough with complaints against programmes.

This dual role - as viewer and minister - can lead to confusion.

Any strengthening of its (the ITC's) powers would mark a change of government policy

Does the secretary of state - like Ms Jowell as a parent - believe the programme was "tearing down all the boundaries of decency on television?"

And if so did she mention that in her phonecall to the ITC?

On Monday she said she had no intention of dictating or influencing the content of programmes - but she did have a role in making sure the ITC was equal to the task of representing the concerns of the public to broadcasters. Her recent comments add weight to this.

Ms Jowell said the fact the Brass Eye programme was repeated after only 24 hours suggested a rethink was needed over the ITC's powers, to introduce a "fast track" approach where necessary.

But that assumes the ITC will uphold the complaints against Brass Eye and this is by no means certain.

The two most-complained about programmes until now - both, as it happens, screened by Channel 4 - were the film The Last Temptation of Christ, which attracted over a thousand complaints, and the gay drama Queer As Folk, which got more than 160.

Both were cleared by the ITC.

Shifting power

And though Ms Jowell may want the regulator to act more quickly, that flies in the face of recent trends, which have tended to weaken the regulators' powers.

Before the 1990 Broadcasting Act, the Independent Broadcasting Authority could preview programmes and order them off the air.

The ITC never had that power - though it can impose fines on broadcasters that seriously break its code.

Any strengthening of its powers would mark a change of government policy.

Under current plans, the ITC and other communications bodies are due to be replaced by a single "lighter touch" regulator called OFCOM.

See also:

04 Oct 00 | Entertainment
Channel 4 comedy 'unacceptable'
04 Apr 01 | TV and Radio
Comics fight for Bafta honours
24 Jul 01 | TV and Radio
BBC man 'tipped' for Channel 4
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