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Television Fictions

Television Fictions
Quality and Truth-Telling
John Mepham
There is now going on a debate about the future of British
television broadcasting. This debate was sparked off by issues of
broadcasting policy, by specific new proposals for the financing
and regulation of television broadcasting. These proposals have
seemed to many to threaten the quality of television programmes.

The debate has fore grounded the idea of quality and it is under the
banner of the defence of quality television that the government’s
critics have assembled, only to find to their embarrassment that
they could not clearly say, when challenged, just what it is that
they want to defend. For when the questions are raised ‘Well,
what is quality, how is it to be defined and how is it to be
assessed?’, it turns out to be very hard to give clear answers. It is
hard to present alternative proposals for financing and regulating
television, aimed at maximising, or promoting, or even simply
preserving the high quality of television, if one can’t say just what
quality is.

It might seem as if, unusually, philosophers might be able to
do something useful here, by providing those thinking about
practical policy issues with some illuminating conceptual analysis
of the notion of quality. However, it is not obvious that philosophy
can in fact be very helpful here because it seems at first sight as
if philosophical analysis leads us straight into a dilemma, or
perhaps even into supporting government proposals.

Briefly, the arguments go like this. Many philosophers, myself included, nowadays would start from the position that quality
is contingent. We cannot hope to define quality in terms of
intrinsic, timeless or universal values or truths. Quality is not an
objective property but one which is contingent upon changeable
values and purposes. In general the question of whether or not an
item is of high or low quality, whether we are talking of the quality
of TV shows, books, football matches or of people, that question
can only be answered by references to the purposes that these
things serve in people’s lives. The quality of TV does not rain
down from heaven upon those beneath, but grows up from its
context in their lives, their purposes and values. Just as the quality
of a blade is contingent upon the use it is to be put to (is it for
decoration, or surgery, for cutting bread, or the ritual slaughter of
goats?) so the quality of television programmes depends upon
their uses and the values they serve. These uses and values are
multiple. As for values, well they are for individuals to decide; as
for uses – well, TV has many purposes – to entertain the masses,
to unify the nation, to misinform the citizens, to relay the voice of
God, or to assemble audiences for the advertisers.

Unfortunately, in practice, the insight that quality is contingent has had a disastrous, disarming effect upon many worried
people who want to defend quality television. For it has seemed
to them that they are caught in an agonizing dilemma: it has
seemed as if they are driven to choose between two conceptions


of quality, neither of which they want to accept.

On the one hand, they say, if quality is contingent on values
and purposes which have no objective rationale, then it would be
arbitrary, elitist and paternalistic to attempt to impose any particular
conception of quality on the television audience. This would be to
impose the subjective tastes of some middle-class intellectuals,
whose tastes should rationally carry no more weight than anyone

But in this case, one gets swept along into the camp of Rupert
Murdoch, who said (in his Edinburgh lecture in 1989) that one
man’s quality is another man’s trash This is an economical
statement of extreme relativism. Quality just is what people are
prepared to pay for; there is no other measurement of it than the
measurement performed by the market. There is no accounting
for taste, apart from the accounting of profit and loss. The
contingency of quality goes hand in hand with the democracy of
the market and if that leads to the dominance of programmes
which offend the tastes of intellectuals and the establishment,
well a good thing too because such people have always taken
themselves too seriously anyway.

On the other hand, if market-led tabloid TV is too nauseating
a prospect, then we might be led to reject the contingency of
quality after all. We can instead join the camp of those who appeal
to a consensus among cultivated people as to what high quality is.

Those who know best may not be able to define quality or
enumerate its objective properties, but they can recognize it when
they see it – and it is, they say, BBC historical costume drama,
opera, Shakespeare, and other items of canonized ‘high culture’.

Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

This quality will just have to be imposed by those who know
best. This is roughly the traditional Public Service Broadcasting
conception of quality (and in Britain the name of Lord Reith is
always associated with it). It defines quality in terms of the
purposes to inform, educate and entertain, within a framework of
traditionally accepted cultural values and priorities which predate
television and which have their home in the discourses and arts of
‘high culture’. It aims to preserve the values and meanings of a
cultivated elite who see it as their responsibility to civilize,
through broadcasting, the rest of society.

The debate about quality has got stuck with these two conceptions of it – the populist and the patrician – as if these, or a
combination of them, were the only alternatives.

The government proposals are in effect a combination of these
two views. They would make the bulk of TV output market-led
and subject to no quality criteria but that of profitability, while on
the other hand obliging the TV companies to transmit some
‘reasonable proportion’ of programming to which an additional
quality criterion would be applied. The bulk of the output can be
as rubbishy as the market demands (leaving aside the questions of
sex and violence which they deal with separately) as long as there
is preserved, like a museum in the heart of the inner city, a patch
of high quality culture, glowing inspirationally among the surrounding rubble and deprivation. When it comes to defining the
high quality that would be thus preserved and fenced off, we are
told that we do not need any explanation or definition of it.

All we need is a civilised overseer who will recognise intuitively the familiar marks of true quality when they come into
view. Quality is implicitly thought of as derived from a cultural
tradition, an already accepted body of work, of aesthetic forms
and cultural meanings. The best that has been thought and known,
Matthew Arnold called it. We can rest assured that the mandarins
will recognise it for us. In practice, the model of broadcasting
aimed at seems to be ‘tabloid television’ interrupted (but not
enough to seriously threaten the profits) by prestigious items such
as the occasional opera or Brideshead Revisited, like a tabloid
newspaper with one page reserved for a column called ‘Our
Cultural Heritage’ .

So, we seem to be caught in a dilemma – either Murdoch or
Reith, tabloid TV or a paternalist regime of ‘high culture’ – or a
combination of the two.

The way to avoid this dilemma is to remember that while
quality…may be contingent, that does not mean that it is arbitrary,
a matter of taste. A conception of quality in television is always
linked to a social and political project. In other words the contingency of quality is not a terminus, beyond which rational debate
ceases, but a starting point, a challenge to articulate and defend
some particular conception of quality by reference to a social
project and the values and cultural purposes that television can
serve within it.

We cannot define quality in terms of timeless or universal
values or criteria, but nor is it indefinably arbitrary. The tests of
good television are justified not by individual whim, but in terms
of some conception of what television is for, what its social and
cultural purposes should be, what values it should therefore be
obliged to serve and be measured against. Conceptions of quality
are brought to life in practice by being anchored in a context of
broader ideals and purposes. Ultimately, the reasons for choosing
one conception rather than another would be that it expresses
one’s ideas about the values and purposes that should rule human
life, ideas about what a desirable social order would be like and
how it would allow individuals to live healthy and fulfilling lives.

In short, each conception of quality is vitalised by its relations
with values, social ideals and political projects. It is these that
allow television to be evaluated by the adherents of each conception
by reference to how it participates in the lives of individuals and
Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

society. Quality is contingent on these debatable ideals and
values. That is why it is endlessly contestable.

The confidence, even arrogance, with which some conceptions are being proposed, derives from the firmness of conviction
with which the functions of television are identified within the
framework of particular social and political projects. It is the
underlying clarity of purpose, and determination that television
should contribute to those purposes, that provides the basis for
these conceptions of quality in television. Notice, for example,
Murdoch’s vision (in his Edinburgh Lecture) of what he calls ‘the
new Britain’. It is part of a world revolution which, it is claimed,
is delivering political freedom and economic well-being. It is a
Britain in which neither socialism nor a stuffy old Establishment
are able any longer to restrain the market. This right-wing political vision is his ultimate justification for his proposals on television,
and for his free-market conception of quality, his implicit belief
that when it comes to quality there is no accounting for taste
except market accounting, in terms of profit and loss.

In fact, the proposals which the government has come up with
seem to be an uneasy muddle, a confused and contradictory
compound, with large amounts of built-in vagueness. This is
because they attempt to contain within one set of practical
proposals a commitment to several different basic ideals and
projects which are at bottom in conflict with one another. The
individual television viewer is implicitly conceived simultaneously in three ways: first as a private consumer of individual
pleasures on the television commodity market (hence the auctioning of franchises), secondly as a family person with responsibilities for the sexual and psychological health of dependents
(hence the policing of ‘standards’ by the British Standards Council), and thirdly as a citizen and inheritor of a national tradition and
culture (hence that reasonable proportion of ‘high quality’).

I reject both the old, paternalistic Public Services conception
of quality and the free market conception of quality ultimately
because I reject the political and social visions on which they are
founded. I reject that dichotomy: we are not forced to choose
between these conceptions. Let us replace them with another, one
which derives from a different social project, and is based on
different definitions of cultural purpose and morality.

So what I now proceed to is the definition and defence of one
conception of quality different from these prevailing two, and to
sketch in the arguments in favour of giving this conception of
qulaity priority over others, by reference to the social, cultural and
ethical values that it serves. My conception of quality has three
components, and they are a social project, a cultural purpose and
a normative framework.


The Soc/al Project
The social and cultural functions of television must be defined in
the context of a culturally plural society. I propose a conception
of quality which will be anchored in the social project ofpreserving the possibilities for cultural pluralism and extending the
possibilities for democratisation of society. It will therefore
refuse to incorporate any timeless conception of human nature or
any unique claim to be the Truth of human history. The trouble
with the old Public Service conception of quality was not the ideal
of public service but the monolithic and undemocratic idea of
culture on which it was based. A preferable regime of public
service broadcasting would adhere to a rule of diversity, would
actively seek to represent a diversity of values and interpretations
of modern social life. But diversity, while it is a positive value,
must be enriched and counterbalanced by other considerations
within an analysis of the cultural functions of television.

The Cultural Purpose
Television can have many different functions within a basically
democratic social project. I will focus on one particular cultural
purpose of television which is the provision ofusable stories. I make
suggestions about the specific historical significance of this
cultural purpose and the particular suitability of television as a
means of its fulfilment.

The Normative Framework
I propose an ethic oftruth-telling as the overriding general ethical
value to be served by television, and by extension as the basis for
the test of good television.

High quality television is television which is excellent as
measured by its faithfulness to these principles – the rule of
diversity, the cultural purpose ofproviding usable stories, and the
ethic of truth-telling.

Television Fictions
In all that follows I intend to work out this conception of quality
only as it applies to television fictions. I will not consider news,
documentary, current affairs, or other departments of television.

(This paper was originally written for a publication of the British
Film Institute in which these other topics were considered by
other writers.)
What is television for? What are its social purposes? No doubt
it has many: here I emphasise only this, the provision of usable
stories. Television fictions are not just to be assessed as entertainment. They are of serious cultural importance and are open to
a definition of quality in terms of purpose and ethical criteria.

Television fictions are of an immense variety and I see no
reason to restrict the quality framework of purpose and ethical
rules to anyone prestigious kind. The range includes songs and
music videos, advertisements,jokes, comedy routines and shows,
sit coms, serials, plays, music dramas, films and soap operas.

Every one of these forms offers to the viewer made-up stories
which are usable in ways I shall try to suggest and which are open
to quality testing in the ways that I am proposing, diversity,
usability and truth-telling. It is not good enough to define television’s permitted aims as the broadcasting of an untested mass of
junk fictions interrupted by some ‘reasonable amount’ of ‘high
quality’ middlebrow drama. Why should we not demand excel22

lence across the whole range of television fictions?

The reason why it is reasonable to demand high quality across
the whole range is that television fictions have serious personal
and cultural uses, some of which I will try to identify.

They are usable in the development of individual personality.

They are usable in the creation of social self-understanding.

Putting it very generally I would say that stories are a form of
inquiry to which people can turn in their efforts to answer
questions which inevitably spring up through their lives. What is
possible for me, who can I be, what can my life consist of, how can
I bring things about? What is it like to be someone else, to be
particular kinds of other people, how does it come about that
people can be like that? We have to make an unending effort to
answer questions like this so that we can distinguish fantasy from
reality, so that we can educate our desires, so that we can make
imaginatively informed choices and responses to other people, so
that we can discriminate between significantly different cases,
and so that we can articulate our feelings and aspirations. These
questions and these capacities and skills are basic to having a
sense of self, an identity, and to fair dealing with others within a
system of social relationships. In other words, they are the
foundations of the moral and social life. By usable stories I mean
stories which we can put to use, not necessarily consciously, in
these processes.

Of course, stories can have other uses – they can be used
simply to pass the time, to amuse, to deflect our attention from our
real lives, to comfort us in our sorrows by encouraging us to
believe in our fantasies, to recruit us to political causes, to deliver
us to the advertisers. Of course, these are not necessarily contemptible uses. There can be no selection of a way of thinking
about quality which does not, implicitly or explicitly ,give priority
to some uses, some purposes, rather than others.

But the uses which I am emphasising are more important and
should be given higher priority, because they affect such crucial
processes in individual and social life – the laying down of the
foundations of the moral life, of personal identity and of citizenship – what could be more important? My assertion of this
importance is the only reply I can offer to the sceptic or the
relativist who says that values and quality are arbitrary, and that
there is therefore no way of deciding which is most important, the
moral life or amusement, identity or profits, citizenship or individual consumption, and that to assert the priority of the former
ends over the latter is just to be paternalistic and elitist.

It is important to point out explicitly that amusement or
diversion, though they are legitimate purposes, can conflict with
other purposes, such as those of providing usable stories and
truth-telling. In choosing a regime of regulation for television we
are choosing in effect which of these purposes should be given .

priority. If amusement is given priority, as I believe it would be on .

free market model of television, then these other purposes would
not merely be given a back seat or relegated to specialised prestigeareas. They would be undermined.

What is objectionable is not amusement or entertainment but
a situation in which amusement is given such priority that the
more important social purposes are not just ignored or marginalised
but undermined, perverted or corrupted. The weakness of the free
market conception of quality is its cynical refusal to acknowledge
any conflict between the provision of profitable entertainment
and other purposes which viewers have, and will express given
the chance, in watching television.

What I have been suggesting is that each of us has to perform
a constant effort to create a more or less integrated personality, to
plot our ways through life so that our stories are more or less
intelligible to us, and to cooperate in reproducing and changing a
more or less coherent society, and that stories play vital roles in
these processes. But of course, fortunately, television is not our
Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

only source of stories. They circul;:tte in many places and institutions: in families and schools, as anecdotes and as formal instruction, in books, magazines, newspapers, in churches, trades unions,
in fact throughout civil society. The narrative economy of a society is vastly complex. Somebody might argue that it does not
matter much what television does in this respect for there are so
many other sources and influences that can counteract it. Therefore
low quality television, or television dedicated to some other
conception of quality, would be an ignorable nuisance.

Yet there is something particularly pervasive and which
cannot be ignored about television. The vast amount of time

people spend in front of it makes it among the more powerful
providers of narrative. It is probably the most influential locus of
social self-reflection. Television serves these social purposes
whether we want it to or not It can do so more or less well, more
or less damagingly. Any conception of quality which ignores this
fact ignores the uses to which television is put.

Now the idea of the usability of stories could be developed in
many ways, with different emphases. I want to talk a bit more
about the uses stories can be put to not by way of offering an
exhaustive account but just by way of illustration; but also to
argue that we are historically in a situation in which stories, and
I think television fictional stories in particular, do meetparticular
Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

needs. There is a material base, a historical context of particular
needs, by reference to which we can try to fill out the idea of usable
stories and make it more specific.

First, there is, most fundamentally perhaps, the fact that
modem societies are plural, are not integrated by a grand,
overarching national, religious or political narrative. There is no
one Truth, no one Book, no one narrative providing a framework
to which the little stories of our individual lives are to be adjusted.

Those who cling onto and dedicate their lives to the one Book, the
one narrative, do so in a society in which most other people live
their lives either in the service of another Truth or, in most cases,
with no grand Truths at all. In order to script our own lives, and
to have some understanding of the quite different lives of others,
we need to have access to an extensive narrative economy.

Because no one grand narrative has authority, we need and can use
as many little narratives as we can get our own hands on.

This is not just a matter of the importance of understanding
and respecting other people’s stories, though this is vital. It is not
that we each become fully formed within one culture and then are
required to tolerate each other. Much more confusingly, for each
of us our becoming is itself an unending series of confrontations
with unsettled questions affecting, far more now than in any
earlier period in history, every dimension of our lives. Perhaps I
can put this by saying that now most people’s lives in the
developed world are not tightly scripted in advance, but are open
to significant amounts of improvisation. We make up our lives as
we go along. They are open, still to be written, not of course in all
respects but in ways that would have seemed extraordinary even
very recently in history. For very many people the question they
ask as infants ‘What is possible for me?’ now has an extraordinarily broad range of answers. The possibilities have vastly
expanded. People’s lives are not confined in advance to some
single village or trade or level of education and wealth. People
face more choices: choices of sexuality, relationships, marriage,
education, work, location, religion, culture, politics. Life involves
constant reassessment of meanings and possibilities. The kinds of
dramatic changes in people’s lives that I have in mind are seen
most clearly since 1918. They include the enormous growth of
secondary and higher education, which has had the result of
increasing access to written and specialised languages, and different forms of culture and work, and has hence opened up many
choices, to a very large percentage of the population. For example, they include all those changes in culture, wealth, technology,
contraception and so on which have resulted in women being so
much less confined to domestic work than they were one hundred
years ago.

The freedoms and choices which I am talking about are not
just the choices of a consumer scanning the shelves of life’s
supermarket. The choices involved in becoming an individual and
in plotting a life with others are not like that and choosing and
watching televised stories is not like that either. Stories do not
simply satisfy one’s taste in the way that a brand of cornflakes
might. People look to stories to inform them by dramatising
problems and solutions, opportunities and dangers, virtues and
vices, and so to clarify all the endless conundrums which make up
so much of one’s life. This expanded freedom is obviously very
unevenly distributed in society, and for many people it is still very
small or has even contracted in recent years. Unemployment and
homelessness are great and brutal reducers of choice for millions
of people. In the Third World the past decade has seen the most
savage reductions in life chances for many millions of people.

Nonetheless, taking a broad enough view of modem history, one
can see in developed industrial or ‘post-industrial’ societies, I
believe, great and dramatic shifts away from narrow confinement
for substantial groups of people.

Now, to return from that great panorama of social history to

the question of the social purposes of television, what I am
suggesting is that modem society, as it has developed in these
ways, would be a particularly appropriate home for high quality
television, television which was excellent in its provision of
usable stories, because it would be helping to meet a historically
unprecedented need.

If a social purpose of television is to help to meet these needs,
does that throw further light on the problem of quality? What
kinds of television provision would be suitable given this social
purpose, and which kinds would defeat this purpose or undermine
or pervert it?

Certain tests and criteria suggest themselves, though in practice
it might be hard to answer the question, about any particular
television story, ‘In what ways is it usable? For what ends?

Serious or frivolous? As social enquiry or as social amnesia?’.

How is one to distinguish a horror fantasy which surreptitiously
expresses important but repressed desires from one which does no

High quality television fictions would be offered to the viewer
not as familiar and predictable stories but as hypotheses or
experiments of the imagination. There can be and are high quality
stories serving this purpose in every form and of every genre:

songs and jokes, serials and soaps: science fiction, fantasy,
parody, realism and ghost story. This conception of purpose does
not privilege as such any particular genre or aesthetic form. It is
served well by a Bob Dylan song and an episode of The Young
Ones, by Grange Hill or Tony Harrison’s Blasphemers’ Banquet
as well as, perhaps much better than, by Smiley’s People. This
definition of social purposes does not privilege middlebrow

It is a matter of society looking to television for images of
itself, not simply to confirm its already chosen meanings, but to
see its questions and puzzles articulated, its uncomfortable contradictions explored, the half truths and the absurdities which it is
tempted to believe laughed at, its invisible experiences brought
into the light, its marginalised groups allowed a voice. This whole
vocabulary of criticism is quite familiar of course. I am not
suggesting anything novel, only reminding those who claim that
quality means no more than popularity and that television’s
purpose is primarily amusement and profit, that there are other
considerations, other definitions of excellence. It is simply to
point out that our conceptions of quality could and should be
re attached to ethical and purposive considerations.

Varieties of Story-telling and their Virtues

more than manipulate the viewers’ feelings to no serious end?

How can we test the proposition that, which I believe to be true,
science fiction such as, in film, Blade Runner, Alien and ET are
profoundly usable films contributing significantly to our imaginative knowledge of human possibility and not mere entertainments
of escapist diversions? Arguments will rage. That is as it should
be. A conception of quality should challenge people to make a
case in relevant terms for the merits of particular fictions. But this
is not the same as saying anything goes, that it is all a matter of
taste. The conception of quality presents a measure, a purpose, a
challenge; it sets out the terms of the argument, in which a case
will have to be made. The fact that the measure of quality is often
undecidable should not lead to scepticism. As I have already
argued earlier, recognising the contingency of quality is not a
terminus beyond which no rational inquiry is possible. It is a
starting point.

There will not always be clear answers to such questions but
there will sometimes be powerful indications. For example, low
quality stories would simply recirculate received definitions of
what is possible and what impossible, of what is ‘normal’ and
what ‘pathological’. They would unthinkingly offend through the
use of stereotypes. They would be insensitive to the cruelty of
their prejudices. They would offer cliches instead of usable
insights, they would lazily fail to discriminate moral differences.

Characters would be portrayed in stock situations and would be
impoverished and predictable in their responses. Low quality,
unusable stories would, through cynicism or fear or exhaustion,
have lost touch with their social purpose and have settled for the
bland and the comfortable.


My conception of quality does not privilege middlebrow forms of
usable TV fiction. In fact I would argue that if there are any
particular forms which have a strong potential for high quality
usable story-telling they would be those forms that television has
specifically developed as particularly appropriate to its purpose
and to its properties as a medium – the series, sit com and soap

For those who resist recognising that these popular forms of
TV fiction have the potential for excellence, for high quality, it
may be helpful to remember just how hard it was for intellectuals
in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties to recognise the potential of new
aesthetic forms such as jazz and film. Not only were these
perceived as ‘popular’ rather than high ‘art’ cultural forms, but
they were thought to encourage or require particularly degenerate
forms of subjectivity in their audiences. Jazz seemed to invite
people to descend to a sensual, hypnotic, rhythmic level of being.

Cinema was seen as reducing its audience to trapped, solitary
passivity. Likewise now the flow of TV images is feared. It is
zappable, segmented, small in size, domestic in consumption and
trivial in content, and is therefore liable to create its own degenerate
audience, blanketed by a three-minute culture and with the
concentration span the length of a TV ad. This is seriously to
underestimate the potential of television as a cognitive and
aesthetic medium, i.e. as a source of truth and beauty.

Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

How does television drama in its many forms differ from the
novel? The novel (at least the psychological novel which has
dominated the novel tradition) specialises in two forms of discourse. It gives access to the intimate inner life of fictional
characters, to their thoughts, attitudes, feelings, imaginings and
so on, of a kind which we do not usually have even in our own
lives. It displays in verbal form our inner worlds which are in life
for the most part invisible and not articulated. Secondly, the novel
specialised in providing authoritative commentaries by the narrator on the meaning of all the episodes and events which are
narrated. Television stories, in contrast, being usually dramatised
rather than narrated, dispense with the central point of view of the
narrator. The specific formal innovation is that they give us access
to what we might call overheard conversations. These are not the
intimate secrets of the inner life, and they are rendered by and
large neither in poetry nor soliloquy. The favoured non-fictional
version of this is the interview and the favoured fictional version
is conversational chatter, gossip and anecdote. Moreover, they are
rarely supported by the kinds of magically enhanced visual
displays of meaning that are the speciality of the highly intense
and larger than life-sized cinema film image. (Perhaps the whole
aesthetic potential of TV will be changed with the coming of High
Definition TV?). The speciality of TV is the conversational voice
overheard in a domestic setting accompanied by less than lifesized images of talking heads.

For example, let us consider the soap opera. The many virtues
of this narrative form make it particularly serviceable for the
social purposes I have been discussing, of providing diverse
usable stories for wide audiences. The soap opera consists of an
endless string of events surrounded by conversational reaction,
characters, commentary and what one might call processing explaining, predicting, working out consequences, i.e. fitting into
and adjusting narrative schemata. The soap opera is a regime of
endless discursive processing of more or less ordinary events of
the fictional everyday world. That this work is endless is emphasised by two other specific virtues of soap operas, that their stories
are open-ended and that the conversational processing is performed by many characters none of whom is a final arbiter. In
contrast to the conventional novel, in the soap opera the whole
machinery of plot does not manipulate a story to a final conclusion. There is no closure, no point at which all the meanings
become clear and all the various events are tidied into one
intelligible pattern. In the soap opera, the work of interpretation
and decision is endless. Family and ‘community’ life does not
come to an end just becomes someone gets married or dies. This
lack of closure is according to John Ellis (Visible Fictions, p. 154)
‘perhaps the central contribution that broadcast TV has made to
the long history of narrative forms and narrativised perceptions of
the world’.

Not only is the work endless, it is conducted from endlessly
and rapidl y changing points of view. There is no narrative centre.

Although each of us does of course come to trust some characters
more than others there is no room in the soap opera for the
absolutely reliable witness or narrator. Everyone gets things
wrong sometimes, misunderstands what is going on, makes the
wrong decisions, gets caught in confusion and conflict. Everyone
moves from being central protagonist to being quite marginal, and
even, if we wait long enough, to disappearing altogether. Soap
opera can remind us that everyone is both central and vital and yet
also marginal and dispensable to the ongoing surge of interminably interweaving mini-stories of family and community life. The
chatter circulates through different points of view and this generates vast amounts of talk. (cf. Ellis, p. 157, TV ‘is massively
composed of talk; conversation, speculation, confrontation, chat. ‘)
Television fictions interact with and very directly enhance the
processing which the viewer constantly attempts in his or her own
Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

everyday life. They can, at their best, produce a stream of puzzles
relating to the morals and tactics of everyday affairs and offer to
the viewer a range of possible solutions which can be mulled over,
assessed, assimilated or rejected. They can expand the viewer’s
sense of what is possible, enhance his or her vocabularies and
repertoires of words, gestures and theoretical initiatives. TV
fictions can be the great laboratory o/modern everyday life. Of
course, they can only achieve these things well if they are of high
quality. In fact that, in relation to this particular kind of example,
is what high quality amounts to. It is quality contingent on,
relative to, audience and context. For particular audiences, with
particular needs, excellence has sometimes been achieved I
would say by Brookside, Grange Hill, Neighbours, EastEnders,
London Burning and Casualty, for example.

It is the very ordinariness, even apparent triviality, which is
the great virtue of these fictions from the point of view of this
social purpose that I am discussing, of providing usable stories.

This virtue can be enhanced in practice if it is combined, as it is
in the best of television fictions, by other virtues (which might
include a variety of things such as aesthetic quality, narrative
excitement, humour, and so on). In other words, there is no reason
why high quality television (on my conception) should not also be
entertaining or aesthetically pleasing or intellectually intriguing.

Some programmes put entertainment values very high on their list
of priorities and it is not always easy to see what other uses they
might be put to. But it is not easy to judge. Blind Date, for example, which may be said to involve fictions because half the fun
for the viewers seems to lie in making up stories about what goes
on when the participants are away together, could very well have
quite important uses for young people as a source of imaginative
knowledge about dating and relating to members of the opposite
sex (what do boys find attractive? how do you avoid being taken
for a complete idiot? is it better to be interesting or interested? and
so on). It seems, in other words, to be about the forms of self
display which do after all play a very large part in young people’s
lives and are sources of high degrees of anxiety. It is perhaps not
a major laboratory for imaginative research and on my conception

of quality it would not score very high marks. But it would only
be condemned if it could be shown that the stories which it
provides for its audience were open to serious charges of distortion. Do they encourage a way of thinking about what happens in
relationships which is seriously misleading in some way? My
conception of quality does not answer the question, it only
provides the terms of debate, the measures that we have to learn
how to apply.

I’ve indicated briefly how my conception of quality can be put
to work in the case of one form of TV fiction, the soap opera.

However, different forms will require different critiques. For
each it is a matter of discovering or arguing just how they serve
their social purpose, how they could be used in personal or social
inquiry, and how well they measure up to their own specific aims.

In short, what is itfor, this comedy routine in Monty Python or that
episode of Hill St Blues? For each form, and for each example of
it, the conception of quality needs to be re-thought and developed
and never simply mechanically applied. The conception, even
when it is spelled out in many details and even when it is clarified
by the addition of the ethical rule of truth-telling, is not meant to
serve as a numerical measure. There is no arithmetic of quality.

Quality is, from a logical point of view, undecidable. This,
however, is a virtue. Questions of quality are decided not by logic
but, provisionally, by people bringing to bear their interpretations
and their values in particular cases.

For these reasons, it should not be a task of a conception of
quality to place all programmes into a unique rank order. I do not
know how to make sense of the question ‘Is Cheers of higher or
lower quality as television than The Rite of Spring? , What we can
meaningfully ask is ‘What are the purposes and virtues of Cheers
and Twin Peaks and how do they compare with each other and
with other programmes of similar purpose, and how do we rank
these purposes and values from a general social and cultural point
of view?’ So if the tests of quality are different for different kinds
of fiction and the different ways they have of relating to the
purpose of providing usable stories, is there then no general rule?

I propose that there is a general framework within which all this
unravelling and testing takes place, and that is the ethical rule of

The situation is similar in respect of truth-telling in fiction.

Not every fiction is as good as every other, given certain aims and
audiences. That is why a rule of diversity is not by itself enough,
for the proliferation of fictions without constraint would not serve
the social purpose of providing usable stories. We develop methods and tests which help us to assess quality. Each practice or
tradition of truth-telling fiction evolves its own rules and guidelines, its own emphases and critical vocabularies. These themselves
change. People argue for new ways of doing things, put forward
different views about how to create and interpret usable fictions.

TV fiction of the highest quality extends the meaning and possibilities for truth-telling. A good example of this is Dennis Potter’s
The Singing Detective, which Murdoch admits would never get
made by free market television. There is always room for innovation, for argument, for challenge. The important thing is that the
ethical rule settles the most general terms of debate, the purposes
and values that the whole exercise is to serve, namely to render,
in whatever form or genre is suitable for particular audiences and
whatever technical means, some aspect of possible human lives
and so to work in ways which avoid the known pitfalls and
dangers, the known forms and varieties of mediocrity and men-


dacity. The purpose of a rule of truth-telling is therefore a way of
placing emphasis on a familiar array of virtues and vices, as they
apply to the practice of producing fictional worlds. It is to propose
that a familiar language of criticism is relevant to the estimation
of quality – a language which is open-ended and contestable and
which does not aim to provide any simple criterion of evaluation
(it does not propose some truth to which any fiction has to measure

As examples of how the ethic of truth-telling might work in
practice we could think about how impoverished and impoverishing
it can be when a ‘series becomes exhausted and comes to rely on
predictable, repeated formulae and loses touch with the truthtelling impulse which originally gave it life. The series M* A *S* H
is perhaps an example of this, having settled for easy sentimentality and canned laughter rather than the tough truth-telling of the
original film and early episodes in the series. This reminds us of
the danger of settling for amusement, with all its comfort and
familiarity and complacency, as a goal.

If television were to operate with social self-knowledge and
truth-telling as goals, then it would need to adopt some rule
against narrowness and blandness. It would have to be able to
refuse all the pressures that inevitably arise to restrict voices and
exclude stories. It would need to counteract all the mechanisms
whereby groups are marginalised or even presented as pathologi-

It is sometimes assumed that the principle of diversity, which is
justified by the fact that there is not and could not be any single,
uniquely authoritative Truth, no one right way of reading the
world, is incompatible with an ethic of truth-telling. But this, I
think, is not so. From the fact that there is no uniquely correct
interpretation of events, it does not follow that any interpretation
is as good as any other, or that any evaluation of competing
interpretations is no more than a matter of taste. This point can be
clarified by thinking about scientific research.

There is no guarantee that any scientific theory is true. It is
most probable that every theory, however strong the evidence and
wide-ranging the application, will be shown eventually to be
deficient in some way, will fail in some respect, and will need
modification or rejection. Yet this does not lead us to suppose that
any theory is as good as any other, that anything goes, that we have
no methods of research or tests of the quality of scientific theories.

Conscientious application of these methods and tests, and their
constant adaptation to new developments in the sciences, constitutes the rule of truth-telling in scientific research. It is precisely
because there is no Truth, no guaranteed foundation of true
principles which could act as a criterion of truth, no certainty
derivedfrom access to reality independently of our research and
its instruments, that an ethic of truth-telling is essential.


Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

cal. It would have to positively seek out ways of recording and
investigating areas of social experience which are rarely represented and social groups that are otherwise silenced or ignored. It
would foster curiosity and tolerance. It would resist parochialism
and chauvinism. That the rule of the market excludes, restricts,
narrows down what is represented, is clearly demonstrated by
American TV fictions (though some recent improvement in this
respect may be visible in such programmes as Roseanne). With
very few exceptions the entire working class of the USA is almost
totally invisible. A visiting Martian would think that the population ofthe USA consists entirely of multimillionaires (Dallas), the
professional middle class (The Cosby Show and practically every
other sit com including Thirty Something) and cops and robbers.

The rule of high quality should counteract blandness, the pressure
to go for the comfortable middle ground.

As a topical example, note how EastEnders has responded to
attacks (,Get this Filth off Our Screen’ etc) by falling away from
truth-telling, by exclusions and by moving towards the middle
ground. The following comments refer to the period to January
1990. Not only has it dropped the gay men (it never presented
them as ‘normal’, as recent attacks have maintained), but just as
damagingly it has manoeuvred almost its entire list of characters
into becoming self-employed small-business persons. It has fled
from representing people as employees or unemployed, and set
them all up in businesses, some legal and some not. It is a triumph
of the enterprise culture. Sharon no longer works for a travel agent
but is, with Wicksy, in pub management. A gang of self-employed
builders and a businesswoman hairdresser have become prominent. Ian and Cindy ran a cafe. Almost everyone else is a street
trader. Even Dot Cotton has been promoted to exercising management functions. With the exception of Carmel (and she is portrayed more or less solely in her private life) and Dr Legge, the
entire public sector has been almost completely eliminated. In
short, the proletariat, unemployment, the public sector of the
economy and homosexuality have all been abolished.

I now want to add one final consideration. This in effect spells
out a social purpose for these fictions, and indeed of television as
a whole, which I have not yet brought into the account. This is the
power of truth-telling on television, whether in fiction or nonfiction, to increase the capacity for truth-telling in its audience.

A banned Czech writer, Zdener Urbanak, said in 1977:

You in the West have a problem. You are unsure when you
are being lied to, when you are being tricked. We do not
suffer from this; and unlike you, we have acquired the skill
of reading between the lines.

That skill, of knowing how not to take messages at face value, of
being sceptical and inventive in distinguishing honesty from
dishonesty, was well cultivated in East European societies in
which governments had an unambiguously cynical disregard for
truth, combined with a claim to have a monopoly on it.

It is far harder to distinguish truth-telling from its opposites in
societies like ours inBritain or the USA in which so many people
are professionally dishonest and yet are in competition with one
another, thus producing the illusion of a free market of ideas and
information. Television has played such a powerful part in the
development of our post-modem culture, that it has seemed to
some that television is inherently a threat to the population’s
capacities for distinguishing truth from falsehood. It is almost a
definition of the post-modem nightmare – a world overwhelmed
by the endless flow of simulacra to such an extent that the
distinction between fantasy and reality no longer has any purchase.

But it is not inherent to television as such that it undermines
truth-telling in our culture. Whether or not it does so is in part a

Radical Philosophy 57, Spring 1991

function of the systems of financing and regulation which govern
it and which can promote or obstruct a culture of truth-telling in
both programme producers and audience.

What are the prerequisites for truth-telling, the conditions
without which it is impossible, and how can television promote or
sustain them? What makes it possible for people to tell when they
are being lied to, to detect when they are being tricked, to read
between the lines? It is not enough to be armed with a certain
ethical attitude, a commitment to honesty, a rejection of cynicism
though these too are essential. It is also necessary to have a fund
of cultural resources, a material base of skills and capacities
dispensed throughout civil society. Without these resources the
values and ethical attitudes attached to truth-telling would be
abstract and ineffective. High quality television requires, but also
helps to reproduce, a high quality audience, and this is among its
most vital social purposes.

Truth-telling is an activity which depends upon all those
capacities, skills, and resources of mind and character which
make truth-telling possible in particular contexts. For truthtelling requires specific vocabularies, information, virtues, habits
of mind and skills (technical, intellectual, aesthetic), imagination
and discrimination and curiosity. We should include among our
tests of quality the effects of television fictions, whether severally
or as a whole TV culture, on the audience and its capacities for
truth-telling. Society has, luckily, many contexts in which an
effort is made to train citizens in the skills of distinguishing the
honest from the dishonest, the trustworthy from the untrustworthy, the truth-teller from the manipulative and cynical. We should
include among our considerations about television the extent to
which it contributes to or interferes with these social processes,
that it serves to enhance or to destroy these capacities. It should
weigh extremely heavily against any proposed form of regulation
for television if it could be shown that it would result in the
deprivation or impoverishment of people in respect of their
capacity for truth-telling, or that it would encourage a television
culture which, like the culture of the British tabloid press, treats
truth-telling with systematic contempt. The very forms of television truth-telling make possible many particular forms of betrayal: its domestic setting, its easy simulation of sincerity, its
power to manipulate images, its direct address to the audience, are
all temptations to betrayal of the ethic of truth-telling, and yet in
all of the discussion of the future of television which is now going
on, the question of the ethics of television has not been raised at
all. What I have tried to show is that the question of quality itself
has essential ethical and cultural dimensions which it would be
irresponsible to ignore.


John Mepham

This is a revised and extended version of a paper first published
as ‘The Ethics of Quality in Television’ in Geoff Mulgan (ed.),
The Question of Quality (BFI Publishing, 1990). I would like to
thank Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and the British Film Institute for
their help and for permission to publish it here.


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