The Television Act 

6 October 2014 tbs.pm/5762

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The sixtieth anniversary of Independent Television has in a way already passed, since the Television Act that brought it to life was passed on 30 July 1954, and the Independent Television Authority started thereafter. No doubt the appointments had been considered over the previous months.

Look back on the Act through today’s eyes and you’ll see it consists of a number of clauses which are little more than quaint curiosities. Many of these were thought as such at the time, at least by American observers more used to their much freer framework.

For one thing it was a very short piece of legislation, which was high on platitudes but low on legal requirements and definitions. This was a feature of the time. This was little more than an enabling Act, as had been used for supply of such things as gas and electricity, and the Authority was largely left to its own devices to operate around vague and woolly principles. Theoretically the Postmaster General could intervene if the Authority was negligent.

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The first oddity is that the whole thing is only set up for a ten year period, ie it has a sunset clause. This is why the 29 July looms large as the end date for contracts for some rounds to come. It also meant that as each contract was offered it was for an ever shorter period, coming up against the buffers of the putative closure date. This short ten year period was the gestation for the need for further legislation preceded by some form of assessment. I doubt the originators of the Act had foreseen the operation of the Pilkington Committee.

The Authority functions are clouded in haze, mainly arising through the fears and scares raised during the gestation of the Bill.  The transmissions are to be of ‘high quality both as to the transmission and as to the matter transmitted’. The members of the Authority are appointed for only five years, and can’t have any financial or other interest, even if this is just as a retailer of televisions.

Programmes can’t offend against good taste or decency to refer offensively to any living person, presumably including even the most notorious. ‘Proper’ is the keyword for the balance of subject matter, standard of quality and proportion of content being of British without attempting to define what ‘proper’ actually means. All of this smacks of pompous assertion that ‘proper’ is a quality that is self-evident, and doesn’t need any hint of actually how it could be judged.

Advertising too has a list of motherhood statements; it has to be ‘clearly distinguishable’ from the rest of the programme, inserted at the beginning, end or ‘natural breaks’. The last point as to whether a break was natural or not would be a contentious point for years if not decades.

The Authority has ‘to do all that they can’ to ensure that contractors do not include such undesirables as people or corporations based outside the UK, or advertising agents. Anyone else is fine, therefore. They also have ‘to do all that they can’ to ensure ‘adequate competition’ between these contractors that are ‘independent of each other both as to finance and control’. This latter duty was more onerous than it appears, and arguably never satisfactorily achieved.

The ITA also gained a number of powers that could have made it a repressive body; the right to see scripts and programmes in advance, and to forbid items to be broadcast. Careful selection of the ITA meant that this potentially heavy handed set of powers was used much more selectively than may have been envisaged.

If politicians had thought that the power of intervention ultimately in the hands of the Postmaster General would be frequently exercised they would be disappointed. In the first few years of the Act intervention was urged on a number of occasions; each time the PMG demurred to the ability of the ITA to operate itself. The first of these related to the selection of contractors, and the next article will consider these and the wider issue of competition that the ITA was required ‘to do all that they can’ to ensue.

ITV Opening Night film courtesy of RAX118G on YouTube

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