I see dazzling years ahead 

13 August 2018 tbs.pm/65591

TV’s future –
by the Postmaster-General

 

The RT. HON. ANTHONY WEDGWOOD BENN, M.P.

talking to
GEORGE MARKSTEIN

 

From the TVTimes North for 30 October to 5 November 1965

TWO large – screen television sets stand in his office at the G.P.O., one for colour (“it’s only on loan”), the other for black and white.

Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn is never far from a TV set. He has one in his bedroom, another in the living-room of his house in Holland Park. And, of course, another is in his office at the House of Commons.

“I’m an inveterate television viewer,” said the P.M.G., in an exclusive interview with TVTimes. “Even in bed, I just can’t switch it off if there’s a good programme.

“Sometimes I’m so tired I fall asleep, and when I wake up, it’s still switched on, the screen blank.”

“Any favourite programmes. P.M.G.?”

“I can’t very well name names, not behind this desk. But there are many I enjoy.”

“How about the commercials?”

“The skill that goes into making the best of them is immense, and there are some very good ones. Even if I don’t like all of them, the standard is often very high. As a matter of fact, one commercial knocked me absolutely sideways. It was an appeal for foster parents, and it showed how the technique has been developed to its best.”

“You mentioned watching TV in bed. Is there a case for very late television?”

“I don’t see why there couldn’t be television programmes for an audience in the wee hours. Television has a part to play all the 24 hours round, and shift workers surely are entitled to their share of the programmes.

“I remember taking part in a discussion programme on American television in Chicago that went on until 3.30 in the morning. The surprising thing was how many people next day said they had seen it, despite the late hour we stayed on the air.”

“What sort of programme could you visualise at that time of night?”

“Really serious discussions, for example, that can explore topics in depth and aren’t limited by time — the sort of thing that can go on for two or three hours if it’s interesting enough.”

The Postmaster-General in his office – with two TV sets

“How about early morning programmes — television with the bacon and eggs?”

“Indeed why not? Breakfast time television is something that might be explored.”

“Will the British public get more than three or four channels to choose from one day? Will viewers in London, for example, ever have more, as many as seven, channels to pick, like viewers in New York?”

“I don’t think Londoners or anybody else in England will ever have that many channels to choose from. But one day, there’s no reason why there might not be five or so.

“Vast technical changes are taking place. A stationary satellite, hovering at a fixed point over the British Isles, might enable us to deploy our available channels to a much bigger degree. Dazzling possibilities lie ahead.”

“Some of these channels might be devoted to specialised programmes?”

“The whole question is being gone into by the Government now. The broadcasting authorities have already been trying out special minority programmes — I don’t mean features for pigeon fanciers, or anything like that.

“But it may surprise you that there have already been experiments with televised refresher courses for surgeons, for instance. It’s been done late at night in Scotland. Some people were doubtful about the wisdom of teaching surgery methods where the public can watch it, but it wasn’t advertised and nobody seems to be aware of it.”

“Will television become more adventurous?”

“I think so. I have already said that I can see nothing but good coming from the irreverent intrusion of the cameras into some of the darker corners of the Establishment, the professions and the centres of power.”

“Well, what are some of these darker corners television still has to invade?”

“I went on record long ago as advocating the televising of Parliament. The decision does, of course, rest with the House of Commons. But my views are well known.”

“Are you in favour of other public activities and events being increasingly televised?”

“Of course.”

“Even, perhaps, one day, the courts?”

“I haven’t actually thought about televising the courts, but it’s been done in the United States, you know.”

“How about the Establishment as you put it?”

“People in public life must expect to be questioned about their activities and the decisions they make — that is one of the jobs for which television exists. It is the one way they can be held to account in one’s living-room.”

Mr. Wedgwood Benn says he is “an inveterate viewer”

“There are a growing number of self-appointed pressure groups which claim to speak on behalf of television viewers. How do you feel about them?”

“I quite welcome it. Television is a minefield of special interests and it is perfectly reasonable that these interests should form themselves into groups and express their views. The only thing they must remember is that it isn’t my job to reflect these views. I just pass on the letters to the people concerned.”

“Mr. Wedgwood Benn, you yourself have played a leading role, at one time, in producing he Labour Party’s political television broadcasts. Do you think it right that party political broadcasts are rammed down viewers’ throats on all channels without choice?”

*Td like to clear one thing up. Independent television is not compelled to screen party political broadcasts just because the BBC does. That used to be the case, but now it’s up to ITV. The BBC only acts, so to speak, as publisher. Independent Television doesn’t have to take it. It could decide not to show them.”

“Do you think the one hour ‘church curfew’ will continue on Sunday evenings, when only programmes of a religious nature can be shown?”

“Ah, the church equivalent of the Toddler’s Truce. Actually, no one has ever made representations to me that we should alter it. It’s the one thing on television about which nobody has written to me. I think very good use has been made of this time, and some splendid things have been done.”

“Will we ever see commercials in the breaks between religious programmes?”

“I gather that something like this is on the way. The Central Religious Advisory Council, which advises both the BBC and the ITA, has been looking into this, and has come up with certain recommendations. It doesn’t concern me directly, as Postmaster-General, but I am being kept informed.

“Until now, religious programmes, those between 6.15 and 7.25 on Sundays, have been ’insulated’ from commercials. The rule has been that there must be a gap of at least two minutes at either end before a commercial can be screened.

“The recommendation is that this ‘insulation period’ must be abolished, and that commercials be screened immediately before and after, just like any other programmes.

“The religious advisers feel that religious programmes need not be put into a special class. I understand that this idea has already been tried out briefly for a spell with the late night epilogue. Nobody complained.”

”But will there be commercials in the breaks between individual programmes during the ‘church hour’?”

“That’s speculation at the moment. It’s a matter for the ITA, of course.”

“As an ex-public school boy, you have said that your children, who go to a comprehensive school, are better educated than you and that is at least half due to television. You don’t just mean school television?”

“Certainly not — I mean all television. I have four children, Stephen 14, Hilary 11, Melissa eight and Joshua seven, and they are all very keen viewers.

“It’s certainly helped to make them better informed and better educated. When I come home in the evening, they tell me what’s been going on in the world. It helps them in every way.”

“So you don’t join the chorus of people who say television is too violent, for example, for young children?”

“My children certainly haven’t been turned into cruel monsters by all their viewing. You know, there’s nothing quite so sadistic as some of the nursery rhymes that have become our folk lore — and have never harmed anyone. I only object to one or two cases of lingering sadism I have seen. Sadism is a danger and the use of crime and violence simply to build and hold an audience is undesirable. The ITA are very aware of this.”

”You have not yet imposed any ban since you have become Postmaster-General…”

“Oh yes, I have. The ban on cigarette advertising. That was done by me, not Lord Hill. It was, of course, a Government decision, and constitutionally I had to convey it to the ITA.”

“Do you think we shall see more bans in the times to come?”

“I have nothing to do with the contents of programmes. But let me say this about bans. Opinion changes. There was a time, in the 20s or the early 30s, when there was a strict ban on any controversy of any kind about religion or politics on the BBC. You know how that has changed in the passage of time. Because something is banned today, it doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow.”

“Radio has increased its air time. Should the permitted hours of television broadcasting be increased?”

“That’s something we’re examining now. and I don’t think I ought to comment. But, as you know, it has been said that the problem is this. Longer hours mean more income for Independent Television, but a bigger strain on the BBC’s finances.”

“Will some of our television priorities, the balance between programmes, be changed?”

“It’s perhaps more a question of what alternatives might be desirable. There isn’t enough local television, for example.”

“Are there any issues that television has so far shirked?”

“I think television in the last 10 years has been very courageous. If there is one thing I missed, it is the opinion of other countries about what’s going on. Television still presents world affairs too much from a British point of view — there is a great deal of scope to show us the views of people contrary to our own. This will be made possible when we have more channels.”

“Great technical changes are going to take place. Will they affect the ordinary viewer in his living-room ?”

“I think so. At the moment, television programmes from the satellite have to go through a relay station here at Goonhilly. But the day may come when TV programmes from other countries will be relayed straight into the viewer’s set from that country’s satellite — when one will be able to switch on foreign television shows just like one does foreign shortwave radio broadcasts now.”

“One way and another, the next 10 years in television will be very exciting?”

“The most exciting!”

 


 

Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn (1925-2014) was first elected as a Labour MP, for Bristol South East, in 1950. In 1960, his father, who had been made Viscount Stansgate by Winston Churchill during the war, died and the title passed to Benn. He was thus expelled from the House of Commons, but stood again as a candidate in the resulting by-election in 1961 and was re-elected. An election court disqualified him and seated his Conservative opponent. The then-government passed the Peerage Act 1963, which allowed peers to disclaim their title and be elected to the Commons – a process immediately used by Lord Home, to become the new Tory Prime Minister, Sir Alex Douglas-Home. Benn also used this Act, and the man who had won his old seat immediately resigned from the Commons to force a by-election that Benn won.

Benn was Postmaster General from October 1964 until July 1966; he was then Minister of Technology until Labour’s defeat in 1970. He was Secretary of State for Industry from 1974-5 and Energy from 1975-9 under Wilson and Callaghan. He lost his seat in the 1983 general election, then became MP for Chesterfield in a by-election in 1984. He left parliament at the 2001 general election.

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