Paul Victor Tims

Paul Victor Tims

Paul Victor Tims is a writer and a magician. 

Culture Punch: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and righteous anti-capitalist violence
Tuesday, 08 October 2019 15:35

Culture Punch: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and righteous anti-capitalist violence

Published in Films

Paul Tims argues that Tarantino's assertion of the value of violence in his latest film has a message for anti-capitalist activists

I’m a huge Tarantino fan. You’re shocked, I can tell. Sarcasm aside, regular readers can probably infer from my writing style and thematic preoccupations that I’m equally enthused by his violent, grind-house sensibilities and the surprisingly astute and nuanced social commentary of his meatier films. Case in point, The Hateful Eight wasn’t just about eight people in a room trying to murder one another, it was a meditation on the way the oft-romanticised values of the Old West arbitrarily legitimated some types of amoral sociopath while condemning others. Likewise, Django Unchained was (obviously) a film about the evils of racism and the historic slave trade, but it was also a portrayal of complicity in that trade by people we usually think of as victims, or at least uninvolved bystanders.

Often, his films are underpinned by a shared theme of vengeance or personal outrage (which you can read more about HERE and which will be important later). My point is that Tarantino films aren’t just entertaining exercises in stylised sex and violence (although they do contain those things in wondrous abundance, thank goodness). They’re also reflections on the state of culture or the history that lead to that culture. Few, however, have felt as relevant and significant as his most recent effort, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Spoiler Alert

In order to discuss the cultural import of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and what it means for those of us on the left, I need to spoil the ending completely. Throughout the majority of its run-time, the film follows two minor (and entirely fictional) figures in the Hollywood eco-system who used to act in old-fashioned, two-fisted, morally uncomplicated Westerns until they started to become unfashionable and who just happen to live next to Sharon Tate. Clearly, the film is building up to the events of August 8th, 1969, when Tate and four other people were murdered by the Manson family. However, Tarantino being Tarantino, that’s not what happens in the film’s universe. Instead, the Manson family try to attack our fictional protagonists first and end up getting beaten to death themselves, set on fire and (in one case), partially eaten by an adorable pit-bull terrier.

Now, ostensibly, the reason for this is personal and pretty obvious: catharsis. Everyone (including Quentin Tarantino) hates the Manson family, yet as a culture we can’t help but accord them a level of importance and keep their legend alive because of the emotional impact Tate’s murder had. By showing them as a bunch of blundering, easily-eviscerated incompetents, Tarantino robs them of this posthumous power and, in fact, gives us licence to laugh at them. It’s the ultimate and final ‘screw you’ to a group of people who, in the director’s view, did something unforgivable to a cohort he strongly identifies with.

However, this analysis is far too simple. What’s much more interesting to me is the film’s tacit acknowledgement that something is wrong with our culture. The overriding theme of my Culture Punch articles thus far has been that the superficially cheery and harmless cornerstones of our modern western culture are built on a foundation of corruption and decay. The BBC and Facebook share an insidious right-wing bias that affects the type of content they deliver through their different mediums. Disney (whose films define so many childhoods) uses slave labour to make its merch. Even the videogames industry is built on the backs of underpaid, overworked, exploited developers. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is obviously specifically concerned with cinema, not society in general, but it seems to share my underlying belief that something is very wrong with the shape of modern culture. For Tarantino, this something is connected intimately with the way we, as a culture, process violence.

Let’s briefly unpack the film’s ideology and find the evidence for those assertions. Our first clue to the director’s thesis comes from his choice of main characters. Both of them are intimately connected with (but not defined by) a specific type of masculinity in which violence is a central pillar. DiCaprio’s character, Dalton, carved out a niche for himself playing rough-and-ready gunslingers in TV shows and films, even though he’s clearly a soft, sensitive guy in real life. Pitt’s character is a real-life badass who proves to be lethally effective in threatening situations but who, in his day-to-day existence, is content to potter around doing odd-jobs. Considering the wide array of Hollywood archetypes available, I think it’s telling that Tarantino chose to zero in on two men who were familiar and comfortable with violence but who weren’t obsessed with or imprisoned by it.

The second piece of the puzzle comes from the film’s near-constant references to its protagonists’ obsolescence in American cinema. Tarantino constantly reminds us that the world these men represent is on its way out. It’s a world where violence is a tool available to comparatively ordinary people; a tool that can be used to affect positive as well as negative deeds. Indeed, even a passing familiarity with cinematic history bears this out. After the 1960s, Hollywood’s relationship to violence changed profoundly. Throughout the seventies and eighties, it became the province of the exceptional and the inhuman. If you don’t believe me, think about the best-known violent action films of that era. In Terminator and Robocop, violence is enacted primarily by superhuman machines, with lesser violence accorded to society’s outsiders and to specific, exceptional human beings. In the Rambo films, violence is the province of specially-trained individuals who just happen to embody the American military ideal (even though they might have a complicated relationship with the military itself). Then, from the 1990s to the present day, violence became increasingly cartoonified. Supernatural and superhero movies turned it into a stylised affair with very little connection to reality and (in many cases) no visible blood or loss of life beyond that necessary to keep the audience invested.

Finally, Tarantino shows us a version of the Manson family massacre in which the presence of ordinary people who are used to violence leads to a radically different outcome. Instead of the Manson family murdering Tate and her friends, they are defeated completely and totally by an out-of-work actor and his stunt double, one of whom is heavily stoned at the time. Aside from framing the massacre (as it occurred in real life) as the point at which Hollywood turned its back on mundane violence (because it was used against its stars), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is also stating that, actually, the type of violence embodied by its lead characters has a right to cultural acknowledgement and can actually serve as a bulwark against the type of violence embodied by the Manson family.

Righteous violence and capitalist exploitation

Now, that’s all very interesting, but what on Earth does it have to do with socialism and cultural democracy? The answer is simple: the film’s model of acceptable and even righteous violence is exactly counter to what capitalism wants us to believe about violence.

No oppressive regime or social structure has ever been dismantled without violence. The 26 Counties of the Republic of Ireland didn’t free themselves from British rule with well-practised tutting: it took an armed uprising (you can read about the Easter Rising and how it turned the tide of public opinion against British occupation HERE). The suffragettes didn’t win the vote for women by peaceful deeds alone: they did it by blowing up private property, putting their own lives on the line and taking other forms of violent action (which you can read about HERE). 

Capitalism is a system of exploitation. Atrocities are perpetrated in its name every day. Around the world, people are worked to death in sweatshops. People with treatable conditions die because they or their healthcare providers can’t afford the exorbitant prices charged by Big Pharma. Governments are too afraid of corporate powers to charge enough tax, and as a result welfare budgets are stretched to breaking point and people die in poverty because they don’t qualify for benefits their governments can’t afford. The global capitalist economic system is a plague whose symptoms are inequality, strife, misery, physical sickness, poor mental health, economic slavery and death. And the point is this – you can bet that the people who benefit from this system don’t want ordinary folk realising that it is within their power to commit violence against the apparatus of their system.

Now, I don’t think that there’s a conscious conspiracy in Hollywood to disconnect fantasies of violence from any sense of real-world applicability. I also don’t think that Tarantino is using his latest film to seed an anti-capitalist uprising. However, mainstream Hollywood’s usual refusal to engage with plausible violence is beneficial to capitalism, regardless of whether it’s intentional or not. Likewise, Tarantino’s unexpected assertion of the value of violence is relevant to the struggle, even though he clearly didn’t intend it as a coded message to diehard lefties.

I’m not saying that it’s good or appropriate to go out and physically attack the first venture capitalist or banker that you see. For a start, you’d be arrested and, for another, in a world of impersonal systems, any effective violence would have to be enacted against infrastructure not people. I’m not even calling for a violent uprising against capitalism right here and now. My point is merely that it behoves us to remember that we are capable of fighting back on the physical level as well as the cultural one – and this is something our oppressors would do well to bear in mind.

Culture Punch: reforming the videogames industry
Wednesday, 17 April 2019 17:16

Culture Punch: reforming the videogames industry

Published in Sport

Paul V. Tims looks at the games industry from a socialist perspective

It probably won’t surprise my regular readers to learn that I love videogames. What better way to escape the turgid, late-capitalist nightmare-world we all inhabit than by stepping into an entire other life where you’re an infinitely-customisable mass murderer. At their best, videogames are great works of art. Red Dead Redemption II is the story of a brutal outlaw slowly developing a conscience as he confronts his own mortality. Portal 2 is a jet-black and utterly surreal comedy that rivals God Bless America or Thank You For Smoking for both belly-laughs and heart-rending poignancy.

Videogames crafted with love and care by passionate people can be truly transcendent experiences. Unfortunately, videogames crafted by soulless profiteers to make a quick buck are the exact opposite, and encapsulate the very worst excesses of capitalism. Sadly, the evils of many so-called ‘Triple-A’ games companies are often overlooked by otherwise left-leaning, decent people, for the simple reason that interactive media are still new and baffling things, that defy a lot of folks’ understanding. Because I’m both a hard-left pseudo-Marxist type and a massive nerd, I’d like to think that I’m ideally placed to talk to about the problems of the mainstream games industry. Consider this article a primer on those issues.

The Crunch

If you haven’t heard of ‘The Crunch’, be very, very grateful, for you have lived a better life than most games developers. It might sound nothing more menacing than an edgy new breakfast cereal, but The Crunch is actually an appalling and exploitative bit of workplace practice the blights the lives of people working in the modern games industry. You see, game development studios are basically beholden to publishers, and game publishers are unfeeling, lizard-monster-bastards.

These publishers mandate the release dates of the games before anyone knows how long the project might actually take to finish. As a result, as a game’s release date approaches, the game is usually blatantly unfinished. Consequently, developers have to work 20-hour shifts and often go without sleep or adequate nutrition for days at a time in order to make sure the game is ready on time. In many cases, their physical and mental health is seriously affected. You can read a full article on the effects of ‘The Crunch’ in the New York Times HERE. The bottom line, however, is that the Crunch damages and even destroys ordinary workers in the games industry, just because big publishers refuse to factor actual humans into their scheduling, and therefore set grossly unrealistic release dates.


Simply put, Micro-transactions are the method by which game publishers turn games into self-contained market-places, while trampling on the narrative experience they’re supposed to represent. Micro-transactions ‘allow’ – by which I actually mean ‘force’ – players to purchase in-game items with real-world money after they’ve already bought the game. They effectively create a system whereby players can only succeed in a game (or fully experience it), by spending additional money.

That prices a lot of people out of the game and creates a virtual environment that enshrines consumerism and privileges those with the most spending capital. Micro-Transactions are particularly onerous when paired with ‘loot boxes’. Loot boxes are used in a lot of games to randomise the items that players receive. Many games then allow players to pay for loot boxes using Micro-Transactions, meaning that they’re forcing players to waste money on random gear in order to unlock the items they do want through repeated purchases. Obviously, this is scummy and manipulative, but if you want more details I recommend checking out the Youtube channel of games journalist and comedian Jim Sterling. His video-essays on Micro-Transactions are lucid and deeply compelling. They can be found here, along with all his other videos. I particularly recommend this video about how loot-boxes and Micro-Transactions essentially force underage players to gamble to gain access to in-game equipment and bonuses.

The Price Point

If you’re familiar with videogame outlets, you might have noticed how suspiciously uniform the pricing is. Almost all new ‘AAA’ games retail for between £49.99 and £60. It might seem like a minor gripe, especially compared to the exploitative ‘Crunch’ or manipulative Micro-Transactions, but the price of games is a problem for a number of reasons.

Firstly, in most cases it’s too high. If books or films were so expensive that they priced enormous swathes of the population out of the market altogether, there’d be an outcry about how the poorest in society don’t have access to important parts of the culture. Because games still aren’t viewed as legitimate cultural artefacts , however, nobody kicks up a fuss about the obscene overpricing.

Secondly, the price-point remains the same regardless of the length, content and overall quality of a game. Certainly, one could argue that about £50 is reasonable for a game like Red Dead Redemption 2, which takes hundreds of hours to fully explore, features one of the most beautifully detailed and well-realised worlds in game history, and is built around a winding, morally complex tale of a man confronting his failings at the end of his life. One might, however, have a harder time arguing that Marvel’s Spiderman should cost the same price, considering it is possible to breeze through it in about eight hours, the game world is pretty but also completely generic, and the plot involves people in tights beating seven bells out of one another for increasingly silly and melodramatic reasons.

What Is To Be Done?

The games industry is easy to overlook when you’re trying to build a socialist cultural democracy. The word ‘games’ makes it sound frivolous. However, the problems that beset the industry are real and are the result of unfettered, capitalist greed. As such, they have to be addressed, and here are a few proposed solutions.

There’s an argument to be made that, in the grand scheme of things, the videogame industry isn’t particularly important. If videogames ceased to exist tomorrow, the loss to culture would be large but not insurmountable. However, the industry is important to the people that work within it and those who engage with its products. Part of cultural democracy is surely about acknowledging concerns that only affect fringe groups, and taking those concerns seriously.

The games industry may be easy to overlook when you’re trying to build a socialist cultural democracy, but the problems that beset it are real and are the result of unfettered, capitalist greed. As such, they have to be addressed, and here are a few proposed solutions.

‘The Crunch’ is a horrendous, sadistic and exploitative work practice that treats people like machines and it should be banned completely. Games publishers who whip their employees to the point of exhaustion using this practice should face prosecution, and I’d like to see a Labour government pass the laws that would make this possible.

Micro-Transactions turn customers into exploited users who have to pay over and over again to properly engage with a product that they already own. Ideally, they should be banned in paid titles. They’re arguably acceptable in so-called ‘free-to-play’ games where players aren’t expected to buy the game outright and can access the main bulk for free. After all, those games have to make their production costs back somehow. But Micro-Transactions have no place in games that people have to pay for upfront.

The Price-Point of ‘AAA’ games is absurd, but sadly there’s no easy way to make it fairer. No state or government can objectively judge a game’s quality and legislate on how much it should cost. However, funding and grants could be set up for independent studios developing less overblown games with lower price-points. This might make the ‘AAA’ industry think twice about its own pricing, while opening up the games industry to less corrupt newcomers.

Facebook and why we should all own it
Wednesday, 06 February 2019 10:09

Facebook and why we should all own it

Paul Tims, our regular Culture Punch columnist, sums up the problems with Facebook and calls for an end to private ownership of such an important means of human communication

I think it’s fair to say that Facebook is now a ubiquitous means of communication. In the western world, it’s used as widely as phone calls or emails. It’s used to contact business associates, friends, family members, sexually alluring strangers, people you met once at a party and completely failed to connect with - and the occasional hitman. Okay, probably not that last one. The point is that Facebook has, since its inception, grown into one of the most widely-accepted communication platforms in the world. Which would be fine, if it was completely neutral, like an email service, a telephone network or a carrier pigeon. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Facebook has an agenda.

The term ‘agenda’ tends to get thrown around a lot in political discussions, usually in rather vague ways designed to make the accused party sound as sinister as possible. I’m talking about a set of specific biases and preoccupations that have the net effect of turning Facebook into a site that favours a right-wing status quo. The main function of this article will be to examine some of Facebook’s most obvious and pernicious biases, explain them, and propose what to me is the blindingly obvious remedy of ensuring the common good by taking such companies into some form of common ownership.

The most explicit and easily-demonstrated example of Facebook bias dates back to 2011, when the site deleted, on mass, hundreds of anti-monarchist profile pages. The official reason was that the pages didn’t comply with some of the site’s minor rules. For example, because they were pages devoted to a cause rather than to individuals, the profiles didn’t show the owners’ real names. This excuse doesn’t, however, hold a great deal of water. The pages had been ignored by Facebook until 2011. They were deleted just in time for the royal wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Facebook waited until the exact point when the anti-monarchist, anti-establishment message would have been most relevant, and then abused its position as a communications platform to cripple that message. You can read both sides of the story here. To my mind, the timing is deeply suspicious... in much the same way that a dog sitting beside a large pile of dog crap on a recently-cleaned living room carpet is deeply suspicious. There might be several explanations for the state of affairs, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out which one is most likely.

More recently, Facebook has allowed itself to become a platform for the far right to spread disinformation. Because Facebook is used as a media outlet by various content creators, one might think that the platform has a responsibility to police lies, threats and disinformation spread on its platform. It does… it just doesn’t act on that responsibility, at least not in the case of right-wing output. According to this article on, the website’s algorithms don’t differentiate between legitimate political analysis and far-right propaganda content such as ‘Infowars’ (if you haven’t heard of Infowars, it’s a lunatic, neoconservative web-series thingy that specialises in the kind of conspiracy theories that would make David Icke raise a dubious eyebrow).

Despite containing outright lies and threats of violence against leftist politicians, Infowars' video and textual content isn’t restricted by Facebook and is presented alongside less deranged political pages. One might assume that this is simply Facebook enacting perfect neutrality by not interfering with the content it is used to distribute. However, the same hands-off approach doesn’t seem to apply to more left-leaning output. For example, a Pod Saves America video posted on Facebook was recently flagged and given an 18+ rating. It contained no threats of violence, no aggression, no actual disinformation: it was a pretty dry analysis of an investigation into some political misconduct by the Russian state. On Facebook, you have to be over 18 to watch a potentially educational political video. However, impressionable youngsters can watch the abusive, violent crypto-fascist ravings of Alex Jones. I think that seems a little unbalanced.

Cambridge Analytica

However, the most spectacular and irrefutable piece of evidence against Facebook is its involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. For those of you who don’t remember the scandal, here’s a quick recap: in 2014, Cambridge Analytica used data harvested from literally millions of Facebook profiles to create software that could analyse voters and influence decisions at the ballot box. The software was used to aid Trump’s electoral campaign in the US and the predominantly right-wing (and very racist) pro-Brexit campaign here in the UK. You can find a detailed summary of what happened here.  The point is that Facebook allowed this to happen. Over 50 million profiles were malappropriated by election-rigging rightist software sociopaths, and the platform did the square root of bugger all to stop it. I’d go so far as to say that it was cheerfully complicit in Cambridge Analytica’s activity.

But what does it all mean? We’ve established that Facebook has a monarchist bias, a Trump-y bias and (possibly) a pro-Brexit bias, but why has the platform allied itself with these random pieces of rightist ideology? Facebook is still run, more or less, by Mark Zuckerberg, and we may never know what goes on in that dude’s head. He is, after all, a mumbly pseud with a seemingly infinite capacity for talking bollocks without offering the slightest whiff of insight. The same guy who played him in The Social Network recently played colourful comic-book sociopath Lex Luthor and I think it’s telling that the latter was vastly more sympathetic.

However, even though we can’t penetrate the cloud of self-aggrandising Silicone Valley guff that wafts from Zuckerberg’s every pore, we can come up with an explanation using my all-time favourite philosophical tool: Occam’s Razor! All other factors being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. In this case, the simplest explanation is that Facebook is a business first - an advertising paltform - and a communications platform second. Businesses like the British monarchy because they attract weepy, gurning monarchists with disposable incomes and a lot of time on their hands… time that can, for instance, be used gawping at Facebook and the adverts that appear thereon. Businesses like Trump because he’s totally okay with them paying almost no tax and exploiting their workers. Tech businesses such as Facebook even like Brexit, because it means they won’t have to worry about enforcing the EU’s online copyright laws. 

The fact of the matter is that one doesn’t have to look very far to uncover the rationale behind Facebook’s multifarious biases: profit. The company is simply doing what all companies do: maximising its profit margins and baulking against legislative threats. It’s an obvious truth, but we tend to forget it far too often: all corporations are inherently selfish institutions, and Facebook is no exception. It’s agenda is nothing more grand or impressive than the grubby pursuit of money and users. Capitalist companies are under a fiduciary duty to maximise the returns to the shareholders who own and invest in the company. it would be against the rules of the game for Facebook to pursue the common good rather than the good of the small number of rich and powerful shareholders that own it.


So, Facebook is obliged by the capitalist system to pursue profit. I suspect that this factoid surprises precisely nobody. But can Facebook be redeemed? To answer that question, let’s take a look at a related scandal that broke in the news recently.

As some of you may be aware, Instagram is on the verge of integrating with Facebook so that the two platforms can trade data more effectively. Unfortunately, it also may have killed a few teenagers. Instagram has been accused of hosting content that actively encourages self-harm and suicide. You can read the cold, hard facts (and some heartbreaking testimonials from parents) here. Of course, we can’t expect platforms with literally millions of users to check every single piece of content that they host, and there’s no legislating for the random malice and psychosis of web-users themselves.

However, Instagram seems to have made almost zero effort to control content with self-harm and suicidal imagery (which is detectable by algorithm, in case you were wondering). What’s more, it’s worth remembering that Instagram, like Facebook, has algorithms that are designed to harvest information about its users and then throw them content that it thinks they’re likely to click on. These algorithms obviously aren’t specifically designed to show suicidal teens suicide-encouraging content, but Instagram doesn’t seem to care that it’s a likely side-effect. Its business model as an online advertising platform requires it to seek and keep the attention of the maximum number of potential consumers - how it does that is of secondary importance.

Like Facebook, Instagram is motivated by profit and that’s what the blind pursuit of profit does: it turns companies into slathering monsters quite willing to create hillocks of self-mutilated corpses, just so long as the corpses can be monetized first. 

What is to be done?

How do we apply the principles of cultiural democracy - shared ownership and democratic management - to Facebook? There are several things that could be done, preferably by an incoming Labour government. Although the company is based in the US, it still has to maintain servers in the UK. There’s no reason why executive-level Facebook employees in Britain shouldn’t face charges for their complicity in the platform’s manipulation of the political landscape. After all, Facebook has influenced elections and referendums while pretending to be neutral: at the very least, it’s committed consumer rights offences by not being upfront about its biases.

Some legal action has already occurred surrounding the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but a more generalised case could and should be made against the site’s malpractice. It would also be useful to introduce new laws that specifically pertain to the neutrality of online communications platforms. You’d be shocked if your telephone company started cutting off your calls because you expressed a political preference for Jeremy Corbyn or socialism, yet it seems that online communications networks can cheerfully censor some content while promoting other bits. At present, this behaviour is legally dubious, but new, clearer laws could make it completely and unequivocally illegal.

Of course, these legal steps are half-measures. If we want to maximise the common good, why not take Facebook into some form of social, common ownership? With democratic management by our elected representatives? I don’t mean broken up into smaller platforms, or more heavily regulated: I mean actually, completely owned and managed by us - see here.

Alternatively, an incoming Labour government could close down Facebook's operations in the UK, and create publicly-owned online multimedia communications platforms. Sites like Facebook are immensely profitable, partly because of their advertising revenue and partly because of their ability to harvest and monetise data. You can read a Marxist analysis of how such sites turn data-surveillance into profit here. Wouldn’t it be nice if some of that revenue went into, say, our diminishing Welfare State - education, housing or the NHS? Plus, deciding what data to keep, what content to show and how to manage to political pages would be a job for public servants with a remit to protect users, not profiteering sociopaths.

Taking Facebook - and Google, Amazon, and Twitter - into public ownership, or simply closing them down and creating or adopting publicly-owned equivalents, could also encourager les autres, as they say. It could show the world the benefits of socially owned enterprises and be a major plank of a comprehensive programme of cultural democracy by an incoming Labour government. It could be the flagship of a fleet of detailed policy measures designed to reclaim the cultural commons - to take back into common ownership all of our culture around communication, the arts, sports, and all the other activities and practices which give us enjoyment, promote our happiness and well-being, and help us flourish as human beings.

Culture Punch: The BBC's right-wing bias
Wednesday, 05 December 2018 17:47

Culture Punch: The BBC's right-wing bias

Paul Tims lays into the BBC's right-wing bias.

In this article, you’ll see that there are all sorts of valid political and cultural reasons for my personal distaste of the BBC. However, in the interests of full disclosure, I should also admit that I may have been soured by the declining quality of Doctor Who and the mere existence of Strictly Come Dancing (a tedium-filled televised berk-scape with the subtlety and grace of a 3am foghorn). But I’m also deeply concerned, angry, embarrassed, angry, revolted and angry about the insidious right-wing bias within the public service broadcaster. Did I mention I’m angry?

Of course, before I can dissect the BBC’s right-wing bias, I have to prove that it’s really there. To that end, let us consider Exhibit A… or Andrew Neil as he probably prefers to be called. Until quite recently, the BBC’s flagship political discussion program was The Daily Politics. It’s been cancelled for largely non-political reasons, but throughout its run it was hosted by Andrew Neil. Now, the purpose of a show devoted to discussion and political analysis is to provide an unbiased platform on which individuals with different political views can put forward their arguments and be met with robust-but-fair critique. This isn’t possible if the host of that show is openly and explicitly aligned with a particular party or ideology.

Andrew Neil is a raving-righty, dyed-in-the-wool Tory, misogynist and climate change denier. He was once editor of the right-wing paper The Sunday Times. During his tenure, he hired a Holocaust denier and Nazi apologist to write on the discovery of Goebbels’ diaries, see here. He has also been directly involved with the Conservative party itself - he once helped them to select a successor to Michael Portillo by personally hosting an evening of interviews. This man was the supposedly unbiased, balanced host of the BBC’s supposedly unbiased, balanced flagship political show. For fifteen years. Give that a minute to sink in.

Naturally, Andrew Neil is only the tip of a very large, very Tory-blue iceberg. He’s a good example, because everyone knows who he is and recognises his face (if only from nightmares in which they’re trying to cross a bridge and he emerges from beneath it wielding a bone-club). However, the real scope of the BBC’s bias only becomes apparent when you look at its higher-ranking but more-easily-overlooked personnel and former personnel.

For example, Robert Gibb (who used to be the Beeb’s political editor) has recently been appointed as the Director for Communications to the Tory PM Theresa May. Meanwhile, Nick Robinson (the BBC’s current political editor) used to be the chairman of the Young Conservatives. Chris Patten (chairman of the BBC Trust) is a former Conservative cabinet minister. Kamal Ahmed, who succeeded Robert Peston as the BBC’s political editor, formerly worked for the explicitly right-wing paper, the Daily Telegraph.

The BBC presenter John Humphries declared his bias on-air with a political programme so right-wing that even the BBC Trust (which is chaired by a former Tory cabinet minister) had to admit it was at fault. The programme was ‘The Future of the Welfare State’. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, it “failed the public by swallowing wholesale the evidence-free myth of a ‘dependency culture’ in which unemployment… is the fault of the unemployed”. By the BBC’s own admission, it failed to provide appropriate statistics that would have allowed its viewers to arrive at informed opinions.

It’s also worth noting that, when the Beeb uses panels of pundits in its political shows, an overwhelming preponderance are right-wing, according to an article published in The Independent.

The BBC’s right-wing bias isn’t just in its appointment of high-ranking staffers and show-specific speakers, however. It’s ingrained into the language and rhetoric that proliferates across the network. In one article about the BBC’s pro-establishment leanings, Owen Jones describes how he has frequently been introduced as a “left-wing firebrand”, while equivalent language is never ascribed to right-wing guests who appear on the Beeb. The article is also my source for the names of BBC right-wingers. 

Perhaps the most compelling proof of the BBC’s bias, however, can be found in its treatment of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. A study conducted by the Media Reform Coalition and published recently by the universally-respected Birkbeck University found that the mainstream media (which, of course, includes the BBC) has consistently given more time and prominence to Corbyn’s critics than his supporters. In fact, they’ve given his critics twice as much airtime. In this way, the BBC has supported right-wing bias against Corbyn without making direct statements against him itself.

This is a particularly dangerous form of bias, because it allows the broadcaster to keep its hands clean and therefore keeps it free of accountability. You can read the full report here.

But what about BBC comedy and drama?

Of course, there is a counter-argument to all this. The BBC has provided a platform for many left-wing writers and presenters. It’s showcased the comedic talents of such varied lefties as Frankie Boyle and Stephen Fry, for example. Some of its dramas have a fairly obvious left-wing subtext, such as The Night Manager (which used a sadistic arms dealer as a personification of capitalist greed and western callousness) and The Line of Duty (which wasn’t afraid of showing incompetence and corruption in the British police).

But that’s the problem: the BBC only really entertains left-wing political views in its comedy and drama. It’s happy to include left-wing ideas, provided they can be safely contained in whimsy or fiction. However, when it discusses the real world in its serious news shows and political analysis shows, the Beeb reels inexorably and inevitably to the right. The bias is baked in from the start because the people in charge have very specific, very right-wing views. The subtext is unequivocal: the BBC doesn’t mind giving the left fantasies and rants to divert us, but it won’t take us seriously in real discussions.

It’s also worth noting that, though the BBC does occasionally allow leftist thinking to enter its dramas, this is by no means the norm. A quick Google search for ‘BBC dramas’ reveals that most of their prime-time dramatic output has consisted of crime dramas. That’s not always indicative of right-wing bias (hence the excellent Line of Duty), but it usually is. Detective shows tend to perpetuate the myth of an infallible police force and an irredeemable, uncomplicatedly evil criminal underclass. I love a good detective yarn as much as the next person (though I prefer the old Poirot series to anything the Beeb has to offer). However, the preponderance of shows with clear authoritarian leanings should trouble anyone with an eye on the shape of our culture and society.

The BBC’s right-wing bias is particularly disappointing because of its position as a state broadcaster. As an organisation that exists outside the profit-motive paradigm of the free market, one might expect Auntie Beeb to provide a haven for alternative, unprofitable ideas.

In my last ‘Culture Punch’ article, I talked about the cultural dominance of the Disney corporation and suggested that breaking it down into its component studios would be a good step towards ending this dominance and creating a polyphony of different voices. After the article went up, a very wise person pointed out that all the newly-created media companies would still be profit-motivated, because they’d still be part of the capitalist system. As such, their voices and ideas might not be as varied as one would like to imagine. In an ideal world, organisations like the BBC should be the answer to this problem. State broadcasters should provide a space for ideas and viewpoints that would never find favour among people who want to earn a fast buck. In particular, they should offer a platform to leftist thinkers in order to counteract the right-wing bias intrinsic to the private sector.

Clearly, this isn’t the case. The BBC has the same ingrained bias as its private-sector counterparts. It is free from the profit motive, and thus perhaps lacks the Randian, libertarian aspects of right-wing ideology. However, it still clearly cleaves to a socially and politically conservative world-view. It postures about impartiality and feints at left-wing ideas in its fiction and comedy, but the most cursory glance at the people controlling it exposes its Tory affiliation. A flick through the TV schedules demonstrates its authoritarian undercurrent.

The key to the BBC’s bias – and to what the broadcaster could be without it – lies in its founding principles. The BBC’s original mission statement is grounded in Reithian values. In other words, it seeks to “enlighten and educate” the public. This mission statement sounds noble. Indeed, in the early days of the broadcaster, it made perfect sense. Before the internet and the proliferation of other TV and radio channels, information didn’t flow particularly freely. Learning about the world, its history and its political landscape, was difficult. Not everyone had the time or energy to sit in a library for hours, reading influential academic texts and comparing the reports of different newspapers with different biases. Synthesising a coherent and self-consistent opinion or world-view required non-trivial effort. By offering factual programming and news, the BBC provided a guiding light and made it easier for people to stay informed.

However, there’s a problem with Reithian values- a problem that has become ever more apparent as the world has entered the information age. Reithian values are fundamentally paternalistic and conservative. They enshrine a hierarchical relationship between the ignorant viewer and the all-knowing Establishment broadcaster.

Small wonder, then, that the Beeb’s top brass and institutional outlook fall firmly into the Tory camp.

So what can be done?

What, then, can be done about the problem of BBC bias? First of all, I’d like to see an incoming Labour government clean house. British governments have historically kept the BBC at arm’s length in order to preserve its impartiality. Since that was clearly a massive waste of time and effort, I think it’s about time the BBC and the BBC Trust were forced to retire editors, executives and trustees who have explicitly affiliated themselves with political parties. People with such transparent biases have no place in a broadcaster whose role is to be as impartial as possible. If the BBC appointed a Morning Star columnist to a position of political editorship, the public and the mainstream press would be up in arms about leftist bias. Yet the broadcaster employs multiple personnel who worked for Tory-affiliated or explicitly right-wing newspapers, alongside people who have actually been involved in the Conservative Party itself.

The double standard is self-evident and needs to be done away with. Ideally, I’d like to see the BBC’s top brass drawn from the ‘front lines’ of culture. For example, the BBC’s political and news editors shouldn’t be the patriarchs of newspapers and other outlets who have just moved from one desk to another. Perhaps, instead, they should be experienced journalists and reporters who have involved themselves in political and global events as they’ve unfolded, have challenged powerful interest to report the truth and have a real sense for what is and isn’t important. Meanwhile, the people in charge of drama and comedy and soaps should be drawn from the arts – people who are dedicated to the act of creation, not just filling a schedule.

Secondly, the BBC’s Reithian ideals need to be re-examined by whoever takes charge of the organisation following the Great Cleansing… er, I mean, upper-management restructuring. It makes very little sense for a broadcaster to dedicate itself to “educating” viewers who already know the facts surrounding world events. Perhaps a better goal would be to offer insight. Simply giving viewers an incomplete set of factoids (the selection of which betray a certain bias) is no longer enough. In order to justify its existence, the BBC needs to provide detailed analysis of issues and events from a wide variety of different political standpoints. This needs to be enshrined in an updated mission statement.

Finally, it wouldn’t hurt to create more state-backed broadcasters with different remits. One already exists. Did you know that Channel 4 is a state broadcaster, even though it funds itself with advertising? Well, it is, and it has an explicit remit to push boundaries and provide a platform for alternative ideas. It’s actually been a huge success, giving us forward-looking speculative dramas like Humans, Black Mirror (which has since moved to Netflix) and Utopia. I also regularly watch both BBC and Channel 4 news and Channel 4’s news shows typically challenge received wisdom more frequently and offer more unbiased reporting than the BBC’s.

Yes, Channel 4 isn’t what it used to be. It’s become less radical in recent years, possibly due to its need to attract advertisers. While its funding model isn’t perfect, however, in principle it represents a genuine alternative to the BBC. However, Channel 4 and the other, associated ‘4’ channels represent one modest network. Compared to the BBC and the ocean of privately-controlled channels, the Channel 4 group is miniscule. However, the existence of Channel 4 does prove that state-backed broadcasters with alternative remits and the freedom to operate more independently than the BBC are viable. Creating a few more of them couldn’t possibly be a bad idea. The state could even fund their creation by taxing private broadcasters and taking money from the BBC’s own inflated budget.

None of these ideas are particularly radical. Getting rid of self-serving, biased shot-callers, re-evaluating the BBC’s mission and putting money into an already-proven alternate broadcasting concept are all things that can be accomplished quite easily. What’s more, they would benefit everyone.

As a socialist, I obviously dream of a world where the BBC leans left instead of right, but I’m not suggesting turning the BBC into a paradigm of leftist thinking. Getting rid of its Tory infestation wouldn’t turn it into a radical leftist organisation, it would simply help dispel the pall of bias that hangs over the broadcaster. It would be a step to abolishing the Beeb’s (barely) hidden agenda, so that it could be trusted again. A credible, trustworthy BBC is something you should want, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum.

Creating new broadcasters is a good way to open up the cultural stage to new voices, which is always a good thing. Obviously, the project of Cultural Democracy demands more platforms for more voices, but creating new broadcasters does more than that: it provides a space which creates more culture. The capacity of the human race for creating ideas and telling stories is infinite, and allowing our culture to reflect that is nourishing to the soul.

The BBC should be a home for an enormous range of ideas. Its news shows and political programmes should give equal time and attention to views from across the political spectrum. Its dramas and comedies and serials should be drawn from genuinely daring concepts that privately-owned, privately-funded broadcasters would never dare to touch. And when it fails us – as it has by inflicting its rightwing bias on the public – it should be held accountable.

What’s more, it shouldn’t be the UK’s sole state-backed broadcaster. A healthy culture is one where countless ideas are allowed to flourish. At present, the BBC holds a privileged position as the media voice of the UK. As a result, it gets to filter which ideas, narratives and world-views make it into the wider public consciousness. Frankly, that needs to end. The BBC needs to take a more democratic role, as one media voice amongst many.

Culture Punch: The Many Horrors of the Disney Corporation
Saturday, 27 October 2018 18:02

Culture Punch: The Many Horrors of the Disney Corporation

Published in Films

There is a certain self-satisfaction to our popular culture which I find nauseating. TV and film are used to tell more styles and types of stories than ever before. At any given moment I can boot up Netflix or Amazon Prime and find a hundred sci-fi series, horror flicks, romances or documentaries. On any given day, I can walk into a cinema and satisfy my craving for any genre I choose.

And yet, I find myself discontented. For all the superficial variety of modern cinema and television, almost everything on offer suffers from the same vague, ideological squalidness. The underlying ideas and concerns of most of the stories in our visual medium are as tawdry as they are homogeneous. And just to be clear: they’re very homogeneous.

This problem finds its purest and most troubling expression in one company: the Disney corporation. I despise Disney. Don’t get me wrong: like everyone else in the universe, I like some of the films they’ve bankrolled. They own Marvel Studios, and a surprising number of that studio’s films are very, very good. My issue with Disney has nothing to do with their ability to produce entertaining content: my problem is that they own just about everything. Well, that and the use of child slave labour to make their merchandise. We’ll come back to that.

It’s Disney’s money behind the Star Wars franchise (and every other LucasFilms franchise), the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the animated films of Pixar, Touchstones Pictures, the ABC (aka the American Broadcasting Company), A&E and Lifetime (two lesser-known US cable channels), and, for some mad reason, the Muppets. And that’s not even a comprehensive list! Disney owns shares in various news and music distributors as well (including Vice, believe it or not).

The point is that this one corporation owns most of the film studios generating our most influential cultural myths, along with a vast network of lesser studios and TV channels. Its ideas, values and ideologies therefore dominate the cultural landscape. Yes, it’s true that most of their interests are in America, but we still consume the same content here in Britain. If you regularly watch movies of any description, your mental landscape is being shaped by Disney. If you have kids who watch films or TV, their value systems are being moulded by a company that got caught using sweatshop labour as recently as 2012. And no – I don’t think they’ve stopped just because they haven’t been caught again since.

You can find a complete history of their malpractice and abuse at the Corporate Research Project. Disney is a company that’s happy to subject its workers to slave-like conditions whenever it thinks it can get away with it. It also grossly underpays its western-based workers outside of sweatshops. You can find an interesting summary of just how wealthy Disney is and how little it pays its workforce in the essay Disney Corporation Through the Eyes of a Marxist. The essay also discusses Disney’s function as an ‘opiate of the masses’, which makes it a perfect companion to this article.

This single, exploitative company is in charge of the most influential cultural franchises on the planet. Yet despite the evil of the company itself, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the values and ideas that Disney-backed films promote… at least on the surface. Those films seem pretty big on friendship, diversity, self-sacrifice, etc. – all the usual positive values that help our society function. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that there’s quite a lot of weaselly and self-serving messages hidden in Disney’s output.

Consider, for instance, the villains of the Marvel studios films. If you’re familiar with those films, you may have noticed that a surprising number of the villains are motivated by outrage over injustices they have suffered at the hands of America in general, or its fictional superhero community in particular. My favourite example is probably the terrorist from Captain America: Civil War, who turned ‘evil’ in response to the fact that American superheroes and villains nearly destroyed his eastern-European home city.


Meanwhile, there’s The Vulture, from Spiderman: Homecoming, who’s actually just a working-class dude who loses his job to a company owned by Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), and is driven to a life of crime as a result. Hmm. I wonder why a company like Disney that routinely exploits the impoverished and people from less affluent nations might be keen to portray them as unhinged psychopaths-in-waiting. Maybe I’m paranoid, or maybe Disney has a vested interest in limiting our sympathies with the people and demographics it regularly screws over.

Of course, not all Disney’s Marvel films are propaganda for capitalism and western colonialism. It’d be hard to argue that there’s anything ideologically suspect about the Guardians of the Galaxy films for example. But then again, those were directed by James Gunn, who was fired by Disney at the first opportunity, so I’m not sure if that counts for anything.

Lest you think the disturbing propagandist trend is confined to just one of the studios that Disney owns, let’s examine another one. LucasFilms is the Disney-owned studio that makes Star Wars. Now, who can tell me what’s wrong with Star Wars? That was a rhetorical question – put your hand down.

Part of the problem is the simple lack of depth. To say that the modern Star Wars films are about as deep as puddles would be an insult to puddles. I once stepped into a puddle in Wales and sunk up to my waist. I wish Disney’s Star Wars had that kind of surprising depth (and that I’d been wearing waterproof clothes, but that’s off-topic).

The Empire’s holdouts in the new trilogy are clearly meant to be an allegory for the rise of the far Right, but they seem less villainous than the real thing because they’ve been airbrushed into a saleable form. They’re a stylised form of evil designed to shift themed merchandise, and they make that type of evil look almost appealing, which is kind of irresponsible when its real-life counterpart is on the ascendant across Europe and America.

Also – and I admit this is a comparatively minor gripe – the new films actually endorse the mindless following of orders, even if they don’t make sense. In The Last Jedi, there’s a military General on the good guys’ side who keeps giving really, really stupid orders that keep putting people in danger and nearly getting them killed. Some of the other characters nearly mutiny… but it turns out the General had a super-secret plan all along and should have just been trusted!

The moral of the story seems to be to trust high-ranking military officials, even when they’re clearly nuts. I think the film’s writers and producers expected to get away with this little subplot because the General is a purple-haired woman who looks like a Liberal Arts major rather than a moustache-twirling Kitchener type. Newsflash, Disney: smuggling a message of militarist conformity in under the guise of diversity and progressivism makes it worse, not better.

Disney also has a… complicated relationship with sexism and racism. In fairness to the corporation, there’s actually very little direct sexism or racism in their recent films. Their classic output, on the other hand, is rife with it. Remember that, until recently, Disney was primarily known for its animations based on fairy tales and the ‘Disney Princesses’ contained therein. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White – that whole fictitious milieu. None of these characters had any real agency.

racism 2

Of course, in the modern age, Disney has made a show of subverting and even mocking this trope from its earlier films. Films of that era also contain quite a few racist stereotypes (Dumbo, one of their non-fairytale films from that era of animation, contains a racist caricature in the form of a crow named Jim Crow, after the segregation laws that America used to discriminate against people of colour). There is a discussion of Disney’s sexist and racist messages here.

The problem isn’t that the Disney company made sexist and racist movies years ago. I can’t legitimately attack the modern incarnation of a company for things it did before most of its current executives and employees were even born. The problem is that Disney continues to profit from these movies. It regularly releases and re-releases DVDs and Blu-rays of them. It continues to sell them to uncritical children and nostalgia-blinded adults.

I’m not saying these movies should become inaccessible. I don’t think any cultural artefact should be put beyond reach, no matter how repellent it might be. However, there’s something sleazy and toxic about the way Disney continues to peddle them (and therefore the ideas they contain) for profit. Really, they should be in a public archive, instead, with annotations explaining their historical context. But they’re not. They’re in supermarkets, utterly devoid of context.

By now, you should have a sense of how huge Disney is and how comprehensive its impact on our culture truly is. The point is that one of the largest media companies in the world – a company whose content almost all of us consume – is perfectly comfortable with skewing the underlying ideology of its current output to the right while selling even more retrograde content from its past. And that’s a problem, because the messages are ubiquitous and therefore play a gigantic role in shaping the thought processes of anyone imbibing them. Worse, they’re also subtle. They enter the brain as background information and aren’t subjected to the critical and analytical processes that would greet explicit ideological message-mongering.

Any cultural and ideological monopoly is bad, because it means a single source is distorting and mutating the mindscapes of entire populations. A cultural and ideological monopoly that happens to be in the hands of a right-wing, morally-bankrupt mega-corp is so, so much worse.

Disney is engaged in a constant project of acquiring more studios and controlling more and more of the cinematic and cultural landscape, which should worry anyone who values the polyphony of ideas and viewpoint that exist in a real cultural democracy. And they have a history of using sweatshop labour.

In their article Culture for the Many, Not the Few, Mike Quille and Chris Guiton state that “Fundamentally, cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They assert our common humanity against divisions of class, gender, race and other divisions caused by capitalism”. The Disney corporation controls an enormous swathe of our media culture, and the ideologies that it pushes are antithetical to those cultural ideals. It enshrines division, particularly between different nationalities and classes of humanity. As such, it is as an enemy of cultural democracy.

Do I think a company like Disney can be reformed? Frankly, no. I think the culture of exploitation and right-wing bias is so deeply ingrained in Disney’s corporate DNA that its incapable of meaningful, lasting reform. However, that doesn’t mean that the individual writers, animators and artists trapped within the company are beyond redemption. In an ideal world, I’d like to see the talented people working for Disney break away and set up their own small, independent studios, which would be owned by their workers, not external shareholders. Smaller studios that aren’t answerable to profit-motivated capitalists can put out content with a healthy range of ideas and viewpoints.

Believe it or not, you can encourage individual creators to break away from their masters and Disney in this fashion. All you have to do is find out the names of individuals who have worked on films that you’ve enjoyed, and support their independent projects. You can also be open in your criticism of Disney in order to make creators and film-goers aware of the depravities of the organisation.

However, individual action is never enough on its own. It’s also worth considering what governmental and legislative steps can be taken to break the cultural dominance of the Disney corporation and improve conditions for its workers. As you probably guessed, I have a few ideas.

Crucially, I think we need to see a new kind of anti-monopoly law aimed specifically at media corporations. This law would limit the number of studios and creative teams that any one company could have under its corporate umbrella. A key part of the problem with the Disney corporation is that it owns too many studios and creative teams and therefore dominates our cultural landscape. Any law that prevents it from acquiring new studios would be a positive first step. If the law could also force Disney (and companies like it) to sell off some of their studios to the people who already work there, that would be even better. It would create a polyphony of worker-owned, independent studios practically overnight.

Theoretically, an incoming Labour government could introduce such a law in the UK, but Disney is an international company primarily based in the USA. In other words, other countries (particularly America) would have to adopt versions of the law for it to have a serious effect. However, the UK has an opportunity to lead the way by being the first company to apply anti-monopoly laws to the cultural landscape itself, and thereby encourage cultural democracy.

An incoming Labour government could also do something about the way Disney treats its workers in this country by raising the UK minimum wage for individuals employed by corporations above a certain size. It could also help combat Disney’s use of sweatshops by requiring that all companies have documented proof that their goods are not being manufactured in sweatshops.

None of this would result in the destruction of the Disney corporation. However, they are practical steps that can be implemented within our lifetime and – hopefully – within the lifetime of the next Labour government.

I’m not saying you should never consume media put out by Disney. Aside from anything else, that would be almost impossible, particularly if you’re into genre films. However, Disney has been given a free pass for far too long. Large swathes of the population laud the company for the creative risks that it supposedly takes with its movies and for its superficial (and entirely false) progressiveness. It’s important to bring its faults, failings and evils to light. Discuss them with other people who watch the movies. Make people aware that they’re putting monsters on a pedestal. Heck, talk about it on the Internet if you’ve got the stomach for the inevitable backlash, courtesy of emotionally fragile fans.

Above all, when you consume their content, don’t do so uncritically – be aware of general and current issues.