Documentary making and the principles of public service broadcasting

Informational and educational documentaries must remain a priority for public service broadcasting in the face of the pressure of chasing ratings, argues Jonathan Stedall.

As a director of documentary films for over forty years, largely for the BBC, I believe that the principle of public service broadcasting – as embodied in the BBC charter – is absolutely vital for the cultural and spiritual health of our nation. BBC programmes were always intended to be there for everyone­ – `to educate, inform, and entertain'.

Since its founding in 1922, the BBC has always been editorially free of government control or censorship, and of commercial pressures through advertising. It is paid for by all of us through the licence fee, and should therefore cater for all tastes. If it became an exclusively highbrow service, for example, many people could quite justifiably object to paying for programmes they never watch. There is, however, another objection that arises increasingly these days: why pay a licence fee at all if it is to subside programmes that could just as well be made by commercial television. The BBC’s remit to educate and inform, as well as to entertain, is in many people’s opinion increasingly neglected – particularly in its television output.

The BBC position, and therefore the principle of public service broadcasting, has been complicated ever since the advent of commercial television in 1955. And now more than ever, with so many channels on offer, it no longer has the monopoly it once enjoyed. All those broadcasters are chasing the same audience, and – if they are funded by advertising – will almost always pitch their wares to what attracts the most valued demographic. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, this frequently results in programmes that are shallow and superficial. But the BBC should be immune from such pressures; its remit and its guaranteed funding protect it from chasing audiences to the same extent. Yet this is what seems to be happening, and it is a dangerous betrayal of the trust that the British people have always had in the Corporation.

In my own field of work this concentration on ratings has resulted, even at the BBC, not only in fewer documentaries, but ones made in a style that frequently have the tendency to insult the intelligence and sensitivity of the audience. Such offerings tend to be overloaded with explanatory commentary, instead of allowing people to watch and listen for themselves. Too much music, restless cutting and weird camera angles seem to stem from the assumption that the audience is fickle and/or stupid, and about to switch channels if bored for more the a few seconds. In submitting ideas for programmes, producers are increasingly under pressure to come up with sensational or controversial subjects. A programme that simply celebrates something or someone is usually considered too soft, and not of interest to a general audience.

In saying all this I have absolutely no problem with people’s wish and need to be entertained in a light-hearted way. But that is only one side of our natures. The idea and indeed the ideals behind the founding of the BBC was that people might at any moment turn on the radio – and now, too, the television – not only to hear the news, to be made to laugh and to cry, but also to discover something about which they had no knowledge and which caught their attention and their interest. It’s an attitude that expresses faith in our potential to grow and learn, and to ask deeper questions about the world and our own place in it. As a young BBC producer in the sixties we were told by our boss, Huw Weldon: `Always assume your audience is uninformed, but also assume they are intelligent!'

If the BBC loses faith in this mantra it doesn’t deserve to exist. But we would be very much poorer without it. Public service broadcasting, like the NHS and our education system, should be available to everyone. It’s in our own deepest interest that an institution like the BBC continues to broadcast but, however we pay for it, it must remain as free from pressure to dilute its educational output as from political interference.

About the author

Jonathan Stedall is a documentary maker and former producer/director at the BBC