BRIAN Lamb could hardly be a more unlikely media entrepreneur—a modest and civilised man in a world with more than its fair share of egomaniacs and vulgarians. But he was a great one nonetheless. He came up with the idea of C-Span in the late 1970s when he was the Washington bureau chief forCablevision magazine. And he presided over its growth from a start-up with a staff of four into a quirky Goliath with a couple of hundred employees, three channels and a radio station.
Mr Lamb had a simple idea: to expose America’s public life to the public eye. He persuaded the cable companies to pay for a public-service channel via a levy based on the number of their subscribers. He got the House of Representatives to open its proceedings to the cameras (the Senate followed later). The result has been some of the dullest television in history (think budget proceedings)but also some of the most riveting (like the Iran-Contra hearings).
Mr Lamb expanded his coverage to include presidential press conferences, speeches to think-tanks and the like. He also tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Supreme Court to open its hearings to the cameras. He added a few bells and whistles to his formula; profiles of presidents, interviews with authors, phone-ins with journalists. But he never violated the simplicity principle. The profiles were just-the-facts. The interviews were spartan. The hosts were resolutely non-partisan. C-Span remained an island of sanity in a media world increasingly dominated by braying bigots.
Mr Lamb’s “Booknotes” (“One author, one book, one hour”) was the ultimate showcase of his style. He specialised in asking short, direct questions with sometimes hilarious results. One famous exchange with Martin Gilbert, a British historian, involved the question of whether Winston Churchill had ever engaged in buggery:
Lamb: Why was he accused of buggery and what is it? Gilbert: You don’t know what buggery is? Lamb: Define it, please. Gilbert: Oh dear. Sorry, I thought the world would—buggery is what used to be called an “unnatural act, of the Oscar Wilde type” is how it was actually phrased in the euphemism of the British paper. You don’t know what buggery is?
David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, once called this “the quintessential C-Span moment”. May there be many more.