Broadcasting and Beyond: proposals for progressive media
Tuesday, 21 May 2024 16:24

Broadcasting and Beyond: proposals for progressive media

Rod Stoneman outlines proposals for developing new, more radical and progressive media

You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. It comes from non- conformity – the courage to invent the future. - Thomas Sankara.

Recently sketching an account of my experiences working in Channel 4 throughout the 1980s and early 1990s has led me to speculate about the prospects for a return to a wider range of progressive views in the media. With its bold remit to innovate in the form and content of programmes, Channel 4 was at the cutting edge of a broadcast culture that had been open to more radical voices, and a strong leftist tradition had developed since 1968.

RS Channel 4 logo

In a television context it was a period where John Berger presented Ways of Seeing for BBC 2 and Stuart Hall made Karl Marx: The Spectre of Marxism with Thames Television. Clearly the range of politics available through public service broadcasting in Britain since then has become much more restricted – but that makes it all the more necessary to think of ways to rebuild and indeed to surpass the opportunities of the past in the very different context of the present-day. Perhaps some of the guiding principles applied to the setting-up of the new channel are relevant to progressive change in the media now?

Public service television gradually reduced bandwidth under market pressure and closed down genuine pluralism in the name of choice. The recent Conservative Party attacks on the BBC are a not-so-subtle way of reshaping broadcasting in an ideologically more amenable form. However, the dominance of the market and neoliberal ideas are increasingly being challenged on several fronts. The recent Labour Party manifesto proposed re-nationalisation of rail, mail and utilities, and several writers in recent articles in the series published jointly between the Morning Star and Culture Matters have proposed ways of democratising the ownership and control of cultural production.

The contemporary resurgence of the Left in British politics – as in the 1970s and 1980s – has happened in tandem with the growth of a casualised independent film sector. Individuals, workshops and groups have developed, structures of communication and connection and are facilitating the circulation of alternative views. What is lacking, however, is even a partial realisation of the potential of that sector to participate in the industry, reaching wider publics through mainstream distribution. Although the industry should not be seen as monolithic or closed, there are few outlets for radical voices, and there is also the tendency to use a token ‘dissenting voice’ to legitimise a system which is still deeply unbalanced.

Radical alternatives

Alternative political debate is generated online through Novara Media, Tribune and Jacobin. The Morning Star is the only left paper with a daily presence, and is now making an appearance in more supermarkets’ newspaper racks. But we are talking of a circulation of 10,000, as against the Guardian’s 126,000 and the Sun’s 1.2m. Meanwhile Momentum has been producing and distributing vital, eye-catching content – a popular audience watched many of its videos during the 2019 election, although that wasn’t enough to counteract a dedicated anti-Corbyn campaign from the mainstream media.

The Radical Film Network is a loose association which operates on a pluralist and decentralised basis. Over 300 affiliated organisations remain entirely independent and autonomous, while cultivating a renewed sense of community among both activist and experimental filmmakers, bringing political and aesthetic avant-gardes back into dialogue with one another.

Today’s new Left has typically achieved impetus and self-awareness as a movement outside the structures of established political parties or the unions: #metoo, Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, have all taken place separately and made forceful interventions with large scale impact. However the absence of an extensive, well-funded institutional space for film and programme-making which develops debates within and between these movements is a serious shortcoming. The creation of loose creative alliances of individuals and groups working without a dominant political party needs more sustained media space to develop their impetus into deeper and longer-term hegemony. Despite the moment of severe setback as the shift to the left in the Labour Party has been strategically counteracted, there are signs of regrouping and movement – a relapse is not a collapse and does not have to be permanent.

The revival of radical media through the creation of loose creative alliances of individuals and groups has the potential to create the crucial media space for debates on the left. ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­To renew socialist film production these days, new networks need to connect with trade unions and the Labour party on a local and regional basis.

There is a historical precedent in the late seventies – the ACTT workshop movement built support through discussion with the Labour government, which led to the concrete proposal that small production units with permanent staff be funded on the basis of a programme of work that would be carried out over a number of years instead of funding for one-off projects. Funds for distribution would be included in production budgets and a circuit of small cinemas would be run by exhibition co-operatives. The development programme proposed that five new workshops would be financed each year for five years (four of each five to be outside London). After the abrupt end of the Labour government the infrastructure of innovative audiovisual co-operative units was sustained by Channel 4 and the British Film Institute. 

Co-ordinated elements of the labour movement, for a comparatively small investment, could mount a very significant alternative challenge to the dominant media in a number of arts and cultural areas, drawing on the talents of sympathetic writers, film-makers, theatre-makers, broadcasters, and craftspeople. The broad alliances formed would include sympathetic unions and individuals working inside media – the NUJ and BECTU / Prospect, for example, would be important dynamic centres for organising such initiatives. The approach needs a pluralist basis with an openness for many different forms – multi-media work, films, podcasts and visual media to be taken to the public, even a presence in the streets with organised public art interventions for instance – ‘letting a hundred flowers bloom’ to use Mao’s famous phrase.

Furthermore, the pandemic has shown the possibilities for different ways of working. Remote working, utilising digital modes for meeting and communication, have led to a reconfiguration of the domestic domain as a space for work, education, creative activity, even self-realisation – a different use of time and relation between people. Individual participation through social media has developed the speedy production of short and witty forms of video.        

New technologies offer the possibility of cheap and easily accessed image / sound production. While refuting the implicit exclusions held in the industry’s spurious notion of ‘professionalism’ it is always necessary to think of the audience – to make sure that films made artisanally without budgets can work for viewers who are used to the expensively made productions that emanate from mainstream media – radical productions made with minimum budgets can hold their own through invention, style and imagination. A reservoir of creative practice is available from new generations emerging from college and university courses – there are large numbers of young people who can work innovatively and make competent programmes.

RS Darkest Spot

A crucial underlying change in the way we access the moving image is taking place which creates a timely opportunity for introducing radical media. Although traditional television is fighting to retain dominance in a dispersed market, it is now being watched alongside other content in a new non-linear way as, with the notable exceptions of news and sport and live events, new generations access what they want to watch online with divergent timescales.

It is important that a range of approaches to new productions – colour, music, art, comedy – play their part in any radical culture, to mix variegated forms of pleasure that reach parts that direct political address cannot. Key to building these media sources is distribution and marketing. Although being on the receiving end of the processes of selection and curation may be painful, they are necessary to choose and mediate the strongest new programmes. The London Film-makers’ Co-operative played an important role amongst the independent film sector in the 1970s and 1980s but its inclusive catalogue (anyone who wished to list films they had made could do so) made it unworkable. Folkscanomy is a current example in the Internet Archive.

Tackling the capitalist media

In developing the new technological domain we should be wary of the ferocity and resilience with which the old system will defend itself. We see constant reminders in the political sphere, but the formidable power of the capitalist economic system also ensures that everything is reproduced in its own image – the idealism at the inception of the internet has been reduced to a situation where only Wikipedia, amongst the 10 most popular websites, is a ‘non-profit’ public service.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War unleashed the most virulent forms of neoliberalism including the monetisation and marketisation of education and health. It has also seen the release of commercial pressure on public service media, releasing market forces which act as a self-fulfilling prophecy, and in the longer term lead to new, blander, more conformist film and media configurations.

It is clear that the principles of Radical Pluralism and Direct Speech that were central to early Channel 4 are still relevant starting points from which to approach a very different state of affairs all these decades later. The former involved bringing a wider variety of voices from a progressive spectrum to bear, utilising different forms with different things to say, creating a debate around them. Direct speech was the effort to hear from communities and cultures while minimizing the processes of mediation by ‘television professionals’ from outside. From access programmes made by miners in Wales to African feature films, voices from at home and abroad had their own space. There was a move to shift the balance towards direct speech in all the genres of fiction and documentary – allowing greater access and interactivity.

It is important to support organisations and facilities damaged by economic meltdown, but the crisis saw the possibilities of state intervention opening out quickly and in an unprecedented way. The parameters of digital technology, mobilised in the calamity of a pandemic, remote working, non-linear viewing, in tandem with new modes of life and communication, can add to more confident prospects for the Left’s self-representation.

Continued efforts to influence existent broadcasters and help progressive views break into ‘fortress television’ can continue alongside the building of networks that can supersede the current system. The best examples of radical media from previous epochs indicate some of the brave prospects and possibilities that can be renewed and built upon.

Peaky Blinders and the Real Jessie Eden
Tuesday, 21 May 2024 16:24

Peaky Blinders and the Real Jessie Eden

Graham Stevenson reports on the recent Real Jessie Eden event in Birmingham, including Dave Puller's new poem on Jessie.

Over 60 people crowded into the upstairs room at Cherry Reds café and bar in central Birmingham throughout the course of the Real Jessie Eden event, jointly organised by Culture Matters and the city’s Morning Star Readers’ & Supporters Group in early January 2018.

the event

The event opened with a round table on the interplay between the TV series, Peaky Blinders, and the character of Jessie Eden and her reality. This involved Paul Long, Professor of Media and Cultural History at the Birmingham School of Media, Dave Puller, a professional poet, who has written for the stage, radio, film, and television and has featured in these media regularly as a contributor, actor, and performer, and Graham Stevenson, a former senior union official and now a historian.

Kicking off was Paul Long, the author of Class, Place and History in the Imaginative Landscapes of Peaky Blinders, an essay in D Forrest and B Johnson (eds) Social Class and Television Drama in Contemporary Britain, published by Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Paul felt that the drama series Peaky Blinders was largely successful in terms of its representation of interesting working-class protagonists and of industrial Birmingham in the inter-war period:

'The Midlands had been poorly served by the creative process in television. It was a backcloth noticeably missing from dramatic representation in quality British television. It’s genesis in the ambition and mission of the series’ creator and author Stephen Knight, whose background was rooted in the milieu.  Characters were often imbued with sympathy and complexity in the way they try to cope with the aftermath of the Great War and the limitations of their environment. The creative process could be based on fact without being history, especially when it gave access to a period normally beyond the comprehension of the uninitiated.'

1944 cp congress women delegates Noreen

Women delegates to the 1944 CPGB conference

Steven Knight, the creator of the series, is the screenplay writer of the films Closed Circuit, Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, and one of three creators of the game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Dave Puller spoke about Peaky Blinders being stylised and exciting television, but he also recalled how he had listened to a BBC radio programme about the series, which

'highlighted the change in hairstyles, footwear, clothing, headwear and footwear that the producers felt necessary to make the series entertaining. It also mentioned the concentration on a romance that Jessie didn't have, rather than on her achievements as a radical communist and trade union organiser. She is, sadly a much-ignored historical figure.'

He was also concerned that it was extremely violent, depicted the working classes in a negative fashion and left the story of Jessie Eden completely unfinished:

'Instead of concentrating on the political and campaigning nature of Jessie, a totally false romantic interlude was introduced. As television Peaky Blinders might be a good watch, but as history it is bunkum.'

Graham Stevenson, who knew Jessie and has been working with her extended family on her biography, said that it was

'slightly annoying to read Peaky Blinder’s creative team and mainstream media say that there’s not a lot of information about her and then going on for a thousand words in print, ignoring the 25,000 words I’ve written about her that is freely available online – much of which has been purloined and distorted to serve interests that would not have been to Jessie’s taste.

He was quite certain that the real Jessie would never have allowed herself to be

‘seduced by a crook, boos, or a Labour politician, quite apart from any notion of failing to support the workers of Birmingham in anything.’

 The way the programme had left Jessie’s character was nothing short of disgraceful, despite belated attempts to put distance between the real Jessie and the TV character.

For him, there was a sense that misogyny informed the series. Strong women characters had been created for the lead to be attracted to but, inevitably, they had to fail since the robustness of Tommy Shelby’s masculinity would otherwise be at stake. If some turn in the plot revealed as different story, he would be pleasantly surprised, but he doubted it as the screenplay had committed itself now.   Another concern was that, while the BBC maintained strict protocols for the maintenance of absolute accuracy in its Tudor dramas, even down to the precision of food or needle-ware, it seemed that all aspects of 20th century working class life were fair game for anachronistic representation.

Modern, rather than contemporary music told one story but, in another example, young women today in music venues might think it a lark to nip into the gents. But, no woman in the inter-war period would have been seen dead in a male toilet save for an emergency worse than death, as Jessie was shown doing, in painting a picture of her cussedness. Extending and making up detail, or repositioning decades, say in a series based on characters in a novel, as with the Father Brown series, or Lark Rise to Candleford, was one thing. But just making up things about people who were still remembered by people alive today was for him a whole new level of cynicism.

It wasn’t the 'wandering accents that bothered. All of the actors carried off their tasks superbly, it was the script that was lacking- and the motivation, which seemed more middle class than anything.'

Knowledge of gangs and street violence was not unknown in modern day Small Heath, where the series is set, or Handsworth where he lived. 'Most working-class people aimed to diminish, not revel in, violence.' Whilst the misrepresentation of the only evidence on the internet for Communist support for the IRA in the war of independence had been taken from his research but the programme had layered 1970s sensibilities on to a quite different epoch, which in the context of the Birmingham pub bombings was quite irresponsible'. 

Graham’s own research has been expanding all the time, but the cynical abuse of his freely available material meant that he has curtailed that in favour of preparing a full-length book on Jessie’s life and times.

EDEN JESSE tenants leader

In the cultural section of the event, chaired by Andy Chaffer, Dave Puller has said how much he enjoyed his performance spot. He read poems entitled Local Hero,

'about the heroes that all children have, some political nursery rhymes, a poem about neoliberalism, an army recruitment poem called, aptly Join The Army. I also read a poem about Eton College being given £34 million pound of taxpayers’ money, so they could build a rowing lake for the 2012 Olympics. They did not have to pay the money back.'

Billy Spakemon, otherwise known as Dr Brian Dakin, Visiting Research Fellow at Aston University, pleasantly startled the audience into immediate and awed silence with his dramatic rendition of Strong 'Onds and Warm 'Eart.  A song which attempts to convey the character of the Black Country working man through references to chain-making boatmen and his own father who worked in the steel industry.

We asked Billy to tell us about himself:

'Briefly, I've lived in the Black Country all my life (bar 4 years playing footy for Swindon Town). I am a writer, singer, storyteller, public speaker and I work on various community projects that are linked to history identity and language.  About 20 years ago, I decided to discover who I was - a Black Country mon - through performance and acknowledged my own Oldbury roots by performing in the language (accent or dialect) of my birth and in a tradition of unaccompanied singing and storytelling.'

bill spake mon

The other songs Billy performed, Oldbury Mon, opens with part of a narrative taken from his cousin Geoff's song about Great Grandad Sailskin Jones. Billy takes up the story again:

'Geoff was a major influence in my journey, listening to him when a bab. The song section is linked to Geoff’s words and narrates the picture I built up about Great Grandada Jones from conversations with family.'

Billy has over a dozen albums recorded, which range from spoken word, song to stories for both adults and children. If you’d like to try one, they are all £3.00 including post and packing, just email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Billy is hosting or performing at many events throughout the year and hosts a radio show for Black Country Radio, the Omma ‘n’ Chain Show, which has chosen the Parkinson’s as its declared charity to support this year. March 24 will see him and others at the Pump House, Engine Street, Langley from 7pm, with a night of music storytelling and song. It’s a free event – though there will be donation buckets – and places can be booked via above e mail. Billy tells us: “It is limited so you need to be quick!”

Nellie Cole, an increasingly important poet on the performance scene in the Midlands rendered a number of poems from her collection about the Worcestershire murder mystery 'Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm'. In 1943, the remains of a young woman were found inside a hollow wych hazel tree in Hagley Wood, but investigations into who she was, who killed her, or why, provided no answers.

Nellie’s poem 'Bluebells' gives a snapshot into the early hours of the investigation, as volunteers comb through Hagley Wood in search for evidence. The poem 'Bella's Shoes Lead Nowhere' was written in response to a news story which followed an unsuccessful attempt to identify Bella from her shoes. 'Only They Say Flahrs' sees Bella in life, falling in love and becoming pregnant. This was inspired by the fact that, from her pelvic bones, forensic scientists could determine that Bella had given birth during her life. 'Theory #2: Gypsy' looks at one of the five possible identities of Bella, and follows her through her pregnancy, ending in the miscarriage of her child.

Nellie will be reading at the 'Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm' event at the Gunmakers Arms in Birmingham, on Saturday 24 February, so if you are roughly local, and missed the Real Jessie event, you can catch her there.  She has also recently been featured on Brum Radio Poets, reading some of her Bella poems. You can hear it on catch-up by following this link:

Perhaps the most exciting developments arising from the CM/MS Real Jessie event has been the interest in recreating even a tiny part of the dynamic that had once been Birmingham’s Star Club. An initiative that brought hard-nosed trades unionists right up against culture, then mainly in the form of a weekly Folk Club and a weekly Reggae Club, with an occasional Cinema Club.

The Star Club also became a major punk venue and was featured in the BBC John Peel Arena show, featuring a set by the Nightingales. This post-punk/alternative rock band was formed in 1979 in Birmingham by four members of The Prefects who had been part of The Clash's 'White Riot Tour'. Years after splitting up, they had a retrospective CD released by New York in the Acute Records label. The historic venue was above the Communist Party’s bookshop in Essex Street right in the city centre. Could a new development feature some similarly oppositional cultural formats? See:

But this is speculation in relation to the major concrete development – Dave Puller’s new poem about Jessie, which raises the idea of a Jessie Eden Day – on her birthday, the 24th February. More to come on this, perhaps more likely for 2019? Or even Jessie’s 120th Birthday in 2022? There's talk of a Jessie Eden Award, for heroism in promoting women’s trades unionism has been abroad in the region. All food for thought!

Although copyright of the Jessie poem is owned by Dave Puller, Culture Matters has been given the special privilege of airing his homage to a brilliant heroine of the working class.  Of course, it goes without saying that a live performance is by far the best way to appreciate this work! And Dave reports that others, inspired by Jessie, are on the way:

Jessie Eden 3


by Dave Puller

Monuments should bear her name
History book should note her fame
On her birthdate
We should celebrate
Jessie Eden Day

Jessie was a hero
Proud and working class
Wherever she saw injustice
She wouldn't let it pass

From Birmingham to Moscow
Jessie's legend grew
Whatever cause she championed
She would always see it through

The bosses or the unions
She'd make them stop and hear
Stand and make her case to them
With courage
Without fear

She'd face up to police and soldiers
Knowing she was right
That the people were behind her
If she had to fight

Blacklisted by the establishment
Jessie did not despair
Became the tenants champion
For rents
Affordable and fair

She led the biggest rent strike
In Britain's history
To make life better
For her community

Jessie never stopped giving
Her commitment shining bright
A true and lasting example
An everlasting light

Jessie was a hero
Birmingham should be proud
To sing her praise
To say her name
To shout it very loud

Monuments should bear her name
History books should note her fame
On her birthdate
We should celebrate
Jessie Eden Day.

The BBC: national treasure or tool of propaganda?
Tuesday, 21 May 2024 16:24

The BBC: national treasure or tool of propaganda?

Chris Jury explains why we should defend the BBC against the free-marketeers.

The period of public consultation on the BBC Charter renewal has already been undermined by the announcement that from next year the BBC will be responsible for the cost of providing free TV licences to the over-75s. This in itself represents a 20 per cent cut in BBC funding. But Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has made it clear that this is the very best the BBC can hope for and that far more significant changes are being considered.

In response, the Federation of Entertainment Unions has launched the Love It Or Lose It: Save the BBC campaign. Much to our surprise, the campaign has met with sullen indifference and even hostility from many on the left, based on the assertion that the BBC has a malevolent right-wing bias and is simply a propaganda tool of the Establishment.

It is undoubtedly true that for at least the last 20 years the BBC has mirrored the prevailing neoliberal economic and political orthodoxy and that “the suits” have seen their salaries rise to staggering levels in exchange for imposing cuts on
everyone else. But this has happened across the public and private sectors, so why would we expect the BBC to be any different? And does anyone seriously think that turning the BBC into a fully commercial media company will improve its political bias?

Ever since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, every BBC Charter renewal has seen the its legitimacy challenged using the catch-22, free-market argument which says that if the BBC makes popular mainstream programmes then it is unfairly competing with commercial businesses that should provide such programmes.

But if it only made niche public service programmes a universal licence fee would not be justified and the only way to resolve this dichotomy is for BBC content to be paid for directly by individual consumers through a mixture of commercial subscriptions, pay-per-view and advertising. Thus the size and function of the BBC would be determined by the market, not by politicians.

In response, many quite rightly argue that for licence payers the BBC is incredible value for money. For 40p a day you get 11 TV channels, 18 radio stations, iPlayer, the website, three orchestras and one of the most highly regarded news services in the world.

But the free-marketeers simply respond by saying: “Great! If it’s such value for money then consumers will voluntarily pay for a commercial subscription, right?”

And they claim that “free” consumers, making “free” consumer choices in a “free” market will force the BBC to provide the programmes that the viewers actually want — and that these “freely” made consumer choices are a far more authentic expression of the collective will than any choices made through democratic institutions ever can be.

This is of course the same “public bad, private good” logic that is used to attack the NHS, education, social services and everything else in the public sector.

But it is a profound misrepresentation of how business actually works. The purpose of any commercial business is not to provide goods or services to the public but to make money for its owners.

Indeed, the law has established that for public companies traded on the stock market, this is their only legal purpose. And it may surprise you to hear that the business of commercial TV companies is not the making and broadcasting of television programmes but the selling of advertising and/or subscriptions.

In business terms, the content of TV channels is simply a cost that has to be endured in order to generate the income from the real business, which is selling advertising and/or subscriptions. The profit comes from charging more for advertising and subscriptions than it costs to acquire the programmes.

This is not of course how viewers experience television. To viewers, its programmes are cultural objects, just like books, plays, songs, symphonies or operas and they carry huge significance and meaning. To a passionate Whovian, Dr Who is not a consumer product. It is an imaginative window into a life-enhancing world of infinite possibilities. To a regular viewer of Eastenders, the characters and world of the story are part of their own experience of social life, not simply a branded consumer product like washing powder.

Being informed by television about the arts, wildlife, history, news, science or how institutions work from the inside transforms lives on a daily basis. It informs career choices for the young, stimulates people to take action by joining organisations and it enriches all our lives by allowing us to observe and share experiences across space and time.

We experience television as a transformative cultural experience and for most of us television is the principal, if not the only, opportunity we get for such experiences. Television, and what’s on it is hugely important to us as individuals and to the health of our society. Making money for the owners is not the primary aim of the BBC, nor is selling advertising or subscriptions.

Its purpose is, or should be, to use the latest broadcasting technology to inform, educate and entertain the British public as democratic citizens and to do so without pressure from corporate advertisers or the government — hence the licence fee, which is actually a noble and praiseworthy attempt to provide value-for-money for licence-payers and a non-commercial income for the BBC while keeping the government and commercial corporations at arms length.

For a democracy to be meaningful all citizens have to be informed and educated to a level that allows them to analyse and critique competing economic and political theories and policies, to engage with civic life and to make informed choices at the ballot box.

The BBC is not simply a provider of consumer media content; it is, or should be, one of the foundational institutions of our democracy. A fully commercial BBC would owe no allegiance to Britain or its democratic citizens but only to its “customers,” and the only influence they could have would be to subscribe or not to subscribe.

So the questions we need to ask about the BBC are not whether we like this programme or that programme, or whether this or that presenter is a Tory bastard.
We need to ask whether we think our democracy would operate more effectively if the BBC became a commercial business, whether cultural life and the public expression of our shared cultures would be enhanced or whether television news and comment would be more reliable.

Just like the NHS, the questions about the future of the BBC are ideological. Do we believe that free markets are the only just and efficient way to provide individuals with all their wants and needs? Or do we believe that collectively owned public institutions are crucial to mitigating the inevitably brutal, destructive and chaotic effects of the marketplace?

Culture is both individual and universal and, of course, we make personal and individual choices based on which cultural objects we prefer. But the result of these choices is far more than simply an aggregate of these choices. It is what we call “our culture,” all of us live embedded within it and, like it or not, television has for the last 50 years been the defining and determining expression of our culture and will, in some digital manifestation or another, be so for many years to come.

Thus we need to defend the BBC as one of the core institutions of our culture and our democracy and not fall into the free-marketeers' trap by defending it solely on their terms or conversely dismissing it as merely a tool of the Establishment. Whatever its current failings, a national television broadcaster independent of both the government and the marketplace is the envy of the world and should be treasured and defended with all the passion we on the left can muster.