A Trust In Television
A LOW brown building melts into the general October gloom. Up closer you can see that Coventry's Department of Employment Office, for all its smart new brickwork, is covered in scaffolding, The first neon lights of the day are flashing on as haIf a dozen or so of the unemployed, who look as though they could have been there all night, have started to form a queue for the nine o'clock opening. A helpful graffiti artist has made his addition to the aluminium plaque on the door; the unemployment is what most people now call it anyway.
In a carpark round the corner a camera crew which has hastily filmed the waiting workless is now packing up its gear. It seems odd that some of the opening shots in a series about world poverty should be taken in one of Britain's boom cities of the sixties.
'Poverty is relative', says producer Marylin Wheatcroft. And the growing number of unemployed in Coventry count themselves as poor.
Aid organisations like Christian Aid and Oxfam are concerned nowadays to make the connection between poverty in Britain and that in the Third World. The arguments have matured and Third World education programmes have moved beyond fear and famine. That is interesting in itself. But even more interesting is the means by which this story is being told — the International Broadcasting Trust.
'A psychological and political breakthrough' is the way that the Trust's chairman Terry Lacey puts it. Some 63 organisations have come together for a venture that is unique anywhere in the world. 'And it is seen both nationally and internationally,' says Lacey. 'as a major achievement.'
The film they are making in Coventry is not for showing to a few of the faithful in some draughty church hall. This is primetime network television that is being made — and an eleven-week series at that.
The IBT's job is to take research and ideas from the voluntary agencies and turn them into programmes that the major channels will want to buy. Beyond that it will provide the back-up written materials to supplement the programmes — and help set up the viewer groups all over the country who will make best use of them.
It's an ambitious scheme that started small. A group of people from the British voluntary agencies were lamenting the cutbacks in development education grants from the Thatcher government. But they could see one opportunity on the horizon that might help to fill the gap. Britain's fourth nation-wide television channel (there were already two BBC ones and one independent ITV network) started up late in 1982. And it was planned to work on a completely new basis; instead of making its own programmes all the channel's output would be bought or commissioned from outside producers.
This was where the agencies saw their chance — if they could organise themselves quickly enough, As it turned out the development television bandwagon started to roll so fast that at one point the IBT had more staff than the fledgling Channel 4 itself.
'The more member organisations that IBT had' says Henrietta Gilpin, one of the early staff members. 'the more pressures we thought we could put on Channel 4 to commission us.' And the idea was so attractive that it brought in not just the aid agencies but also UK-centred organisations like trade unions and race relation groups.
'The negotiations were very protracted,' she admits. But they did get the vital commission to make the programmes. The talks are still going on. 'We are such an extraordinary body that it is difficult for them to cope with us. When it comes to copyright, for example, there is usually a lot of protection for independent producers — whereas we actively want people to copy our material.'
But what kind of material will this be? Editor-in-Chief James Farrant, who was recruited from the independent company Thames Television, sees the films as 'giving a voice to people, without putting too much of our scheme of things on top of them. What's it like to be poor and living in Trinidad when your country is totally dependent on oil, for example? I hope that we will take you there better than a news report'
The locations are not just in the Third World. Programme eight in the series is the only one they are filming in Coventry. And Marilyn Wheatcroft. the producer on the spot, echoes Farrant's intention.
'Television offers a strength of testimony that you will get nowhere else', she says. The testimony the day before had come from a bulky' resilient Scotsman, John Gorman. He's 'unemployed', but working, He gives his services almost full time as Treasurer of the Coventry Tenants Federation — a self-help housing group. There aren't many treasurers who will spend their mornings rattling their collection cans around the city' streets. But this morning - as on every Friday morning — John is working his way up and down the bus queues.
Right now, however, he has a camera crew on his tail. 'I just try to ignore them,' he says - unconvincingly as the media presence seems to be doing him a power of good. The bus passengers hastily dig into their pockets when they see that a camera and microphone will be testing their generosity.
In October 1982 IBT camera crews were scattered around the world: in Mozambique, Kenya, Grenada and Trinidad as well as in the UK. This will generate the first series of ten programmes called 'Common Interest' and will show how the present state of the UK is linked with the economic problems of the Third World.
The second British location will be Bathgate in Scotland. Bathgate has a problem which is familiar enough in the Third World. Major companies that moved in only a few years ago, when there were attractive investment incentives, are now moving on to look for cheaper labour elsewhere. The Third World pressure group, Scottish Education and Action for Development, one of IBT's member agencies, was instrumental in setting this story up.
This is closest to the IBT's ideal way of working, Editor Farrant sees it as 'drawing on the resources of research and expertise that lie untapped in the development agencies. Chairman Terry Lacey, who is also the General Secretary of War on Want, sees the IBT as' bridging the gap between the world of the development lobby and the world of television'. He wants the agencies to be involved at the inception of programmes.
Yet there are doubts that the agencies will really grasp the opportunity. After the euphoria of establishing the IBT, their participation has not been as full as it might have been; ideas for the second series of programmes seem to have been slow in coming,
And the working groups set up around particular programmes do not seem to have been all that effective.
Contributions may have been inhibited by the uneasy feeling that there were fundamental differences in political outlook between some of the organisations; differences that are exposed when you discuss programmes on particularly thorny issues.
'But the development lobby,' says Terry Lacy. 'is essentially pluralistic. It can't succeed unless it learns to tolerate its own pluralism. One of the things it has done too much of in the past is to try and convert bits of itself from one position to another.' Some programmes are going to be controversial and are likely, he thinks, to provoke a negative reaction from certain groups.
'You can have a sense of balance, but perhaps only at the end of a full year's production.' In that way both 'the hard and the soft end' of the development lobby can make their case to the public.
In fact they have already started. IBTs opening salvo was a half-hour satirical programme in November 1982 produced by Jonathan Dimbleby. Viewers were asked afterwards to write or telephone for the IBT's programme guide and so far 5,000 have done so. This tells them not just about the forthcoming series but also about the ways to get involved in local activities linked to the films.
It is IBT's 'viewer groups' that will set it apart from anything even remotely similar. Maybe half a dozen people gathered round a TV set to discuss the programmes is what Education Officer Paul Gerhardt sees as the ideal audience — and most probably looking at video copies after the broadcasts.
'One of the problems with TV,' he say's, 'is that it has been so ephemeral. You can't refer back to the facts or criticise the images in the same way' that you can with a book.'
IBT programmes he sees as being used over and over again — not just because copy-right problems will be fewer, but because in addition to the films there will be back-up written materials for the study groups.
'The programme on Mozambique. for example, will look at the idea of whether socialism is a form of wealth creation or only of distribution. The educational material that goes with it will not only fill in more of the background in Mozambique but also link it up with other development issues like the meeting of basic needs.'
Gerhardt is clear, however, that IBT is not setting out to make 'educational television'. 'What we want to do is make good programmes that can be used.'
Who will the users of the first series be? The vast majority of the study groups at the beginning of 1983 are likely to be of the traditional adult education type — from the Workers Educational Association or local authority or schools courses. But Gerhardt believes that when the programmes start going out many more informal groups will start to take advantage of them.
'I would like to see them used by the smallest discussion group without any kind of teacher. The best thing that people can do now is to get the programmes copies in January and start to do something any time after,' IBT will itself be selling video copies both nationally and internationally'.
They might not, in the future, just be Channel 4 programmes either. IBT's initial connection with this channel he sees just as an 'historical accident'.
Chairman Terry Lacey also sees the future in much broader terms. 'Channel 4 is simply a peg behind the door on which to hang our coats.' Once inside the television industry he thinks IBT should eventually become involved in the discussion of programmes on all four British channels. 'The important thing about IBT is that it gives both agencies and local activists the opportunity to link with all kinds of television production.'
There are four local activists in Coventry on a wet Friday afternoon who are learning just what this means. Just beyond the bus station in the centre of Coventry is a battered old building that looks as though it might have once been a school. AIf, Alan, Chris and Milton — four of Britain's army of unemployed youth - are squeezed into a small upper floor room with the IBT film crew and all their lights and equipment.
'They came to us six months ago' says Alan, 'and asked us what we would like to go in the programmes. So we went away and thought for a couple of weeks and came back with our six points. But they took one look at them and said 'We can't use all that, that's what the whole series of programmes is about'.
What they do get to talk about is Not the Jobhunter, their alternative magazine for the young unemployed (the Job hunter was an official government broadsheet for the same people),
The filming was hard work. They found that they had to speak precisely before the camera. 'You want to make sure,' say's Milton, 'that that will be one of the bits of film that will be used in the eight minutes or so we've got.
'After all this.' says Chris, 'the editing is really out of our control.'
The control clearly stays with the programme makers, IBT and the agencies who make it up. 'I don't see us as an "access" slot, says Editor James Farrant. 'Television is centralised because the equipment and the means of production are centralised. For the moment we have to accept that But the IBT offers at least some participation.
Terry Lacey wants to see that participation: produce a kind of ‘football club atmosphere' around the programme makers — one that will both be critical and also provide practical help.'
It remains to be seen whether IBT can also succeed in drawing some of the less committed supporters along to the game.