When my dad was in the military police, he would caution errant squaddies with “anything you say will be taken down, screwed around with, and used to convict you.” That cogent modus operandi is, in a nutshell, what West Midlands Police say was employed in the making of Channel 4’s Undercover Mosque
.The force alleges dodgy editing – have they never seen Life on Mars?
Even progressive thinker DI Sam Tyler never suggested that his Seventies colleagues become television critics. Still, Dispatches, despite a robust defence, is in danger of being labelled as the latest victim of television’s crisis of trust.
We know there’s a crisis of trust because Michael Grade, the industry’s current cheerleader, publicly admits it, as does everyone else who’s made a career out of never having to say they were sorry.
But Grade’s trust campaign has nothing to do with the word as you or I understand it. It’s a phoney crusade.
It is about brands and reputational risk, the language that Michael Grade employs when he’s not blaming young people for destroying broadcasting.
Remember, by the way, that Grade’s own appointment as ITV executive chairman goes against the best-practice recommendations of the Financial Services Authority (FSA). Those recommendations in turn stemmed from the Higgs Report, prompted by another crisis of “trust” caused by companies such as Enron and World Com.
They, of course, weren’t British television companies. They were just multi-billion-pound multinationals.
Of course, Grade’s not concerned about securing the trust of a bunch of financial regulators or City types – they’re just suits! He’s worried about the audience, about you and me. He may have plenty of tolerance when it comes to flexing the FSA’s code of conduct, but he has zero tolerance for death scenes.
What, then, is really behind Grade’s trust talk? If you want the nearest commercial example of television’s trust crisis look at the company that’s pulling out of ITV’s biggest sponsorship deal at the end of the year, Cadbury. The Coronation Street sponsor was fined £1m last month in a court case for salmonella contamination in a factory.
The salmonella scare involved a massive product recall; throw in legal fees and a small dent in market share (hot weather hit it harder than potential stomach trouble – Cadbury couldn’t capitalise on the opportunity to shed unwanted pounds as you consumed them) and the whole sorry experience totalled about £40m.
That’s a fair-size chunk of the fat £150m profit it made supplying unneeded calories in the UK last year.
The company that the chocolate manufacturer is leaving, ITV, has its small trust issues with Paul Watson’s death-or-no-death documentary on Alzheimer’s, but contested current affairs shows that lose ratings aren’t going to have TV execs losing sleep. No, losing sleep comes when, like ITV, you lose £20m in six months from putting your gaming operations on hold, or pay lawyers such as Olswang to carry out expensive investigations – all to avoid the nightmare from which you would never wake up: increased regulation.
Because when you put aside all the dull, old, insider arguments that pass for table talk among television types, the word “trust” is simply a disguise. It means: before analogue completely disappears, before the rules that govern us are completely rewritten, don’t do any more to us; we can look after ourselves, we can put it right. The silent shriek that’s audible only to broadcasters is public service.
And while the notion of public service remains an anachronistic embarrassment for politicians and executives, as outdated a notion as professional soldiers dying for their country rather than in pursuit of a goal-oriented foreign policy, it still can’t be ignored, any more than you can hide the bodies of dead guardsmen with a copy of a UN resolution.
Grade is the popular, public face of television’s anachronistic embarrassment.
Unlike Five’s Jane Lighting, he’s old enough to be able to use the words trust and television without sounding like he’s reading from a script. He’s charming and well-liked enough for people to let him get away with it.
And as for the potential casualties?
Curmudgeonly old buffers such as Falstaffian “manipulator” Paul Watson.
Paper millionaires David Frank and Stephen Lambert forced to buy back their own stock to prop up RDF’s share price. Peter Fincham, not short of a bob or two himself, slumming it at the BBC. Stand or fall, they’re not exactly prime candidates for public sympathy.
Trust is a sham. It has no impact on viewers. Academic studies are overwhelmingly conclusive on one key point: no one ever lost readers, or viewers, or listeners because they weren’t trusted.
The word is brandished to persuade the world outside that the costs of losing programme revenues or advertising, or – in the case of the BBC – the privilege of self-governance, are taken seriously not because of their commercial or political impact, but because they have moral significance. At least Cadbury didn’t bother to pretend there was morality lurking behind chocolate production.
So no one stands to benefit from the trust crisis, not even broadcasting’s bonus-winners. Exceptâ€¦ erm, ironically, me. I’m writing a book called Can You Trust the Media? It’s 60,000 words, out next April, in all good bookstores. Friends who are not in the media have a joke: “The first word’s no,” they smirk. “What are the other 59,999?”