Oliver Dowden has taste. Some, at least. Though he is secretary of state for Digital, Culture, Media and (still baffling that this is bolted on) Sport, taste is not always something you associate with senior politicians.
Dowden said he is obsessed with French TV police procedural Spiral. Spiral follows surly, sometimes sullen but always effortlessly cool cops as they race around Paris far too fast in relatively small cars, shrugging then crackling their sexual tension all over one another. There are also ridiculously good-looking members of the French legal system in it. Everybody, of course, treads a line that is close to illegality. Maybe Dowden sees himself as Gilou. Or the urbane Pierre Clément. He hasn’t said. Still, there aren’t enough Spiral obsessives, so good work Oliver. Vraiment.
This came up because Dowden was announcing plans to review how certain broadcasters can avoid particular content and audience protection standards while others can’t. It is, says Dowden, a way to “level the playing field” so that broadcasters like Disney+ and Amazon Prime have to abide by the same rules as broadcasters like the BBC.
This government like the word level. They’re forever levelling up. Boris Johnson particularly employs it with merry abandon, as if attaching it to anything that isn’t performing will act like Miracle-Gro and send green shoots skywards. In truth, they’re like special forces units surrounding the compound of a despotic leader and hammering out death metal until the will is broken. We’re all in the compound. They’re trying to level us up into submission.
Dowden’s plan is curious. Implicit in it is the idea that because some broadcasters can play fast and loose with output rules, we’re all fleeing from traditional broadcasters to the racy upstarts.
Great new shows will not be made if talented young people, without family money behind them, have nowhere to learn
While our viewing habits have changed, that reality is not born out. One of the biggest hits on TV this year was Line of Duty, on that most traditional of broadcasters, BBC One. Nearly 13 million of us watched the conclusion live, with a couple of million more later. It was the UK’s most watched drama series of the 21st century. It’s also on BBC One where another huge, if unlikely, hit rests, Jimmy McGovern’s must-watch Time. You could find any other number of successes on similar analogue broadcasters.
Quite why Oliver Dowden believes this legislation is needed is unclear. Given that there is also push towards the privatisation of Channel 4 to keep the broadcaster, Dowden insists, “at the heart of British broadcasting” it could be the new powers mooted are simply misdirection – focusing away from the Channel 4 fandango.
If there is a genuine desire to level the playing field here, the answer will not come through new rules. It has to come with investment. If we want more shows on traditional channels, or in fact on any channel, to be roaring successes, then there has to be a bottom-up approach to backing the talent. Invest, and invest early.
We’ve spoken before in The Big Issue about Westminster government plans to cut arts education funding because certain subjects aren’t “strategic priorities”. Great new shows will not be made if talented young people, without family money behind them, have nowhere to learn. This goes across the board. If you’re genuine about levelling up and making sure nobody is left behind, stop closing libraries. Stop shutting gateways to opportunity. If the £200m estimated cost for the new Royal yacht was awarded to UK libraries, it would just about take them back to the funding level they were at in 2010 before austerity bit. There is an estimated £8 return on every one pound invested in libraries. The more we put in, the more everybody gets out. In so many ways.
In Spiral there is a character called Roban. He’s an investigating magistrate, there to judge whether a prosecution should proceed. Of all the characters, he is the one with the most noble compass, an inflexible honesty, impervious to the political chicanery of those above him. He is man delivering truth, regardless of personal cost. Just saying, Oliver…
Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue