Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An elite gaze on populism and revolution
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 13:38

Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An elite gaze on populism and revolution

There are always calls from the right to defund the British Broadcasting Company but they are now being joined by calls from the left as well, as one of the casualties of the genocide in Gaza is the BBC’s own vaunted “objectivity.”

That questioning was on display when BBC staff members wrote a letter published in Al Jazeera stating that the BBC coverage of this current eruption of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict was biased. The network spent a good deal of  time humanizing Israeli victims while failing to provide any context and information on the 75 years of occupation before the October 7 attack, thus rationalizing the Israeli response as “self-defense.”

These cracks in the armour are also apparent in the BBC’s Can’t Get You Out of My Head, a 2021 six-part documentary television series (now available on YouTube) by the prodigious filmmaker Adam Curtis. Curtis, in what he calls an “emotional history of the modern world”, attempts to trace the roots of the populism which is so much with us today. His reach is wide, encompassing the Mau-Mau in Kenya, Black revolutionary heroes and gangsters, the transformation and gentrification of London’s Notting Hill, Madame Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and the technological revolution which the documentary sees as resulting in mind control.

The reach is wide, but unfortunately the grasp is narrow. This is the Christopher Nolan school of filmmaking – that is, Nolan’s rapid-fire cutting and shooting through history at a pace that makes serious grappling with any moment of that history difficult. It’s Nolan’s scattergun fictional style, applied to documentary.

1971 Hold aloft the red lantern

Curtis finds all forms of revolutionary activity in the 1950s through the 1970s lacking, but his focus on the singular and the bizarre without much context. and almost devoid of an economic analysis which might underpin and ground his “emotional history”, ends up promoting the “chaos” which his elite gaze on the material seems to be so adamantly fearful of.

The montage, the clashing of various aspects of the counterculture as well as his tracking of the growth of digital surveillance and the various musics – reggae, rap, punk – which he uses as a backbeat to his story, suggest a new approach to documentary. However, there is one element that remains of an old and conservative style, and that is Curtis’ own all-knowing narration in a voice that in its supposed ability to grasp this totality remains the stentorian “voice of God.”

He treats populism as an end in itself, not as a symptom and coping mechanism of a wider breakdown of western capitalism. Under neoliberal capitalism, more and more wealth is being redistributed upwards over the time he is discussing, leaving people more and more desperate and searching for solutions that often include demagogic leaders – the best the system allows to be thrown at them.

When he does glimpse of the thought behind the detached veneer of his narration, the results are frequently disappointing. Thus, the Black Panthers were incendiary violent revolutionaries gullibly deceived by police informants, when in fact the Panthers’ greatest and most lasting contribution was the institutionalizing of their program of school lunches for poor children. The Cultural Revolution is seen as mass deception organized by Madame Mao, a disgruntled actor seeking revenge on the Shanghai film artists who had slighted her in the 1930s. In Curtis’ view the Revolution, which brought education to many poor rural Chinese in a country that was vastly illiterate, was only an unleashing of one-woman’s “resentment” that linked to a whole society’s anger at the past. The imperialist West is not blamed or even mentioned as a primary factor in generating this anger. (By the way, the footage of Peoples’ Revolutionary Operas is thrilling.)

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Jim Garrison, who attempted to bring to trial those who he claimed had participated in the assassination of a president, and whose efforts Oliver Stone and the myriad researchers working in the shadows to bring this hidden history to light, is labelled as delusional. Curtis dismisses the possibility that elites participated in a violent coup at the heart of Western democracy as “complete fantasy.”

Behind the imperial voice, the objective and all-knowing veneer, Curtis’ documentary is not a history of populism but instead a history of elite fears of both revolution and populism. Can’t Get You Out of My Head in its frantic pace generates a whole lot of heat, but in the end, not much light. As such, it strikes another blow against the BBC’s false “objectivity.” 

The media and Gaza: 'A textbook case of genocide'
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 13:38

The media and Gaza: 'A textbook case of genocide'

An authentic democracy cannot be psychopathic because most people are not psychopaths.

Most people would not vote to kill, wound and displace hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians for power, profit or territorial gain. Most people do not accept the great lie of ‘pragmatism’: that ‘the anarchical society’ of international relations mandates psychopathic violence: If ‘we’ don’t behave as psychopaths, somebody else will.

Most people don’t believe the world can be divided between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ‘children of light’ and ‘children of darkness’. You don’t need to be a mystic to know that love, kindness, compassion – ‘light’ – arise naturally in all human beings allowed to live in freedom and peace.

We know from our own experience that we are wonderfully happy when overflowing with love and desperately miserable when overflowing with hate. We know, therefore, that love is suited to human nature and well-being in a way that hatred is certainly not. We know that when hate arises in large numbers of people it is born of suffering, not of some ‘evil’ disposition. We know that the real answer to hate is not violence but justice that alleviates suffering and hate.

Because we are not psychopathic, it is deeply important for us to believe that we are not living in a psychopathic society. When this human need clashes with political reality, examples of cognitive dissonance abound – psychopathic circles have to be squared, 2 + 2 must make 5. This is the task of the propaganda system comprised of the ‘respectable’ political, media and religious institutions of our society.

In an interview with Channel 4 News, the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, supplied a particularly stark example. Welby began by affecting a transcendent spiritual impartiality, as one might expect:

‘I’m not pointing fingers’, he said.

Alas, Welby came back to earth with a bump:

‘I do point fingers at Hamas and say this is terrorism at its most extreme and most evil.’

Okay, but then was he also pointing fingers at the Israeli government raining hellfire on Gaza? Welby fell silent, hesitated:

‘It’s not… You can do the… You can say something which in different circumstances might be useful at a time that just makes everything worse… Let’s not run to judgement and blame straight away.’

The archbishop’s power-friendly ethical dissonance becomes even clearer when we recall that, last December, Welby told the BBC that ‘justice demands that there is defeat’ of ‘an evil invasion’ in Ukraine. It was right, he said, for the West to send billions of dollars of weaponry to support a ‘victim nation’ that is ‘being overrun by aggression’. After all, the international community had a ‘duty of care’ to protect weaker nations.

Welby’s failure to condemn any ‘evil’ committed by Israel came long after it had become clear that Israel had been criminally targeting Gaza’s civilian population with collective punishment cutting off water, food and electricity. And of course, by razing whole apartment blocks, indeed whole residential areas, to the ground.

From satellite imagery, The Economist estimated (30 October) that ‘over a tenth of Gaza’s housing stock has been destroyed, leaving more than 280,000 people without homes to which they can return’. The magazine noted:

‘Even Russia, during its siege of Mariupol in Ukraine between February and May 2022, negotiated humanitarian pauses in which some civilians were permitted to leave. Israel has thus far rejected calls, by the European Union and others, for such pauses.’

More recently, the health ministry of the Palestinian Authority has estimated that more than 50% of Gaza’s housing units have been destroyed, nearly 70% of its population has been displaced, 16 out of 35 hospitals that can take in-patients have stopped functioning, 42 UN Relief Agency buildings have been damaged, along with at least seven churches and 55 mosques. According to the World Health Organisation, there have been more than 100 strikes on health facilities. Since 7 October, more than 200 schools have been damaged in Gaza – around 40% of the total number – about forty of them very seriously, according to UNICEF data.

By any standards, this is an awesome level of destruction. In its first 563 days, Russia’s war on Ukraine killed 9,614 Ukrainian civilians, 554 of them children. In its first 25 days, Israel’s war on Gaza killed 8,796 Palestinian civilians, 3,648 of them children. Since the 7 October attacks by Hamas, at least 1,400 Israelis have been killed, including 1,033 civilians and 31 children.

Gaza - a graveyard for chidren

The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres puts the immensity of Israel’s violence in perspective:

‘Gaza is becoming a graveyard for children. Hundreds of girls and boys are reportedly being killed or injured every day. More journalists are reportedly being killed over a four-week period than in any conflict in at least three decades. More United Nations aid workers have been killed than in any comparable period in the history of our organisation.’

On 28 October, Craig Mokhiber, one of the world’s leading international lawyers, director of the UN’s New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, resigned to protest the organisation’s handling of what he called a ‘textbook case of genocide.’ In his resignation letter, Mokhiber wrote:

‘This is a text-book case of genocide. The European, ethno-nationalist, settler colonial project in Palestine has entered its final phase, toward the expedited destruction of the last remnants of indigenous Palestinian life in Palestine. What’s more, the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom, and much of Europe, are wholly complicit in the horrific assault. Not only are these governments refusing to meet their treaty obligations “to ensure respect” for the Geneva Conventions, but they are in fact actively arming the assault, providing economic and intelligence support, and giving political and diplomatic cover for Israel’s atrocities.’

In an interview with Al Jazeera English, Mokhiber made a further key point:

‘As a human rights lawyer with more than three decades of experience in the field, I know well that the concept of genocide has often been subject to political abuse. But the current wholesale slaughter of the Palestinian people, rooted in an ethno-nationalist settler colonial ideology, in continuation of decades of their systematic persecution and purging, based entirely upon their status as Arabs, and coupled with explicit statements of intent by leaders in the Israeli government and military, leaves no room for doubt or debate. In Gaza, civilian homes, schools, churches, mosques, and medical institutions are wantonly attacked as thousands of civilians are massacred. In the West Bank, including occupied Jerusalem, homes are seized and reassigned based entirely on race, and violent settler pogroms are accompanied by Israeli military units.

‘Across the land, Apartheid rules.

‘Usually, the most difficult part in proving genocide is intent, because there has to be an intention to destroy, in whole or in part, a particular group. In this case, the intent by Israel’s leaders has been so explicitly stated, and publicly stated, by the prime minister, by the president, by senior cabinet ministers, by military leaders, that that is an easy case to make. It’s on the public record.’

Our ProQuest media database search for ‘Craig Mokhiber’ and ‘Gaza’ delivered four mentions, all in the Guardian. One of these was a smear, another was a single-sentence mention in passing buried in a news piece, a third substantial piece of 667 words, and an additional mention yesterday buried in the penultimate paragraph of an opinion piece. There were no mentions found in any other newspaper and there are none on the BBC website.

On Channel 4 News, Matt Frei asked Welby:

‘What do you say to those demonstrators on the streets of London who are saying this is Israeli genocide against the Palestinians?’

Welby’s sage reply:

‘I say you’ve no understanding of what you’re saying.’

When asked if Israel was acting within international law, Labour’s chivalrous knight, Sir Keir Starmer, said:

‘As to whether each and every act is in accordance with the law, well that will have to be adjudicated in due course. Um, I think it’s unwise for politicians to stand on stages like this, or to sit in television studios, and pronounce day by day which acts may or may not be in accordance with international law.

‘I think it’s not the role of politicians. I don’t think it’s wise to do it. I come with the benefit of a lawyer of having litigated about issues like this in the past. And in my experience, it’d often take weeks or months to assimilate the evidence and to then work out whether there may or may not have been a breach of international law.

‘So, I think the call for politicians to look at half a picture on the screen without the full information and form an instant judgement as to whether it’s this side of the line or the other side of the line is extremely unwise. I’m not going to get involved with that kind of exercise.’

If this sounds like an in-depth, heartfelt response, last year, Starmer was asked:

‘Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?’

Starmer’s reply:

‘Yes.’

On 8 February, Starmer told the House of Commons:

‘Before I entered this House, I had responsibility for fighting for justice in the Hague for victims of Serbian aggression. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that when the war in Ukraine is over, Putin and all his cronies must stand at the Hague and face justice?’

Again, completely contradicting everything he is now saying, Starmer said on 7 March:

‘Vladimir Putin and his criminal cronies must be held to account for their illegal invasion of Ukraine. The UK government must do all it can to ensure the creation of a special tribunal to investigate the crime of aggression.

‘The Ukrainian people deserve justice as well as our continued military, economic, diplomatic, and humanitarian assistance.’

Notice, Starmer was not calling for a ‘no-fly zone’ or a ceasefire – completely unthinkable in relation to Gaza – he was endorsing continued intervention in the form of massive military support for the Ukrainian war effort.

On 17 March, Starmer said:

‘I welcome the International Criminal Court’s decision to open war crime cases against Vladimir Putin and other senior Russian figures for their barbaric actions in Ukraine.’

There is nothing random, or naïve, about Labour’s hypocrisy and servility to power. Declassified UK reports:

‘Some 13 of the 31 members of Labour’s shadow cabinet have received donations from a prominent pro-Israel lobby group or individual funder, it can be revealed.

‘The list of recipients includes party leader Keir Starmer, his deputy Angela Rayner, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy, and even the former vice-chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, Lisa Nandy, who is now shadow international development minister.’

Britain’s veteran warmongers have been queuing up to persuade the public of the rightness of Starmer’s complicity in genocide. Arch-Blairite former Labour MP Peter Mandelson said:

‘As for Keir Starmer, I would just say this – I think what he’s doing is demonstrating to the British people the sort of toughness and mettle that he would display, if he were to become prime minister of this country. He has been very tough, very realistic…’

In a separate interview, as if reading from the same script, former Tory MP and Thatcherite Michael Portillo opined:

‘I’m amongst those who think that Keir Starmer has done exactly the right thing and has shown a great deal of mettle, which I think will be quite widely admired. And that’s important, I think, for a domestic audience that wonders whether he’s up to being prime minister.’

Dissidents are viewed and treated quite differently. Responding to home secretary Suella Braverman’s suggestion on X (formerly Twitter) that, ‘It is entirely unacceptable to desecrate Armistice Day with a hate march through London’, BBC sports commentator Gary Lineker posted:

‘Marching and calling for a ceasefire and peace so that more innocent children don’t get killed is not really the definition of a hate march.’

Nile Gardiner, a foreign policy analyst, former aide to Margaret Thatcher and contributor to the Telegraph, responded:

‘Gary Lineker’s knowledge of foreign and national security policy is practically zero. His vast narcissism and ego as a BBC football pundit is matched only by his sheer ignorance.’

In reality, of course, narcissism would mean Lineker keeping his head down, banking his huge salary, avoiding the inevitable torrent of abuse, and thus keeping his reputation safe and sound, like so many people do.

 

It is quite astonishing to reflect that, in 2011, NATO deployed 260 aircraft and 21 ships, launching 26,500 sorties destroying ‘over 5,900 military targets including over 400 artillery or rocket launchers and over 600 tanks or armored vehicles’ in response, not to the mass murder of civilians, but to a merely alleged threat of mass murder posed by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

Not that there had been a call for a humanitarian ‘pause’, or a ceasefire, or the introduction of UN peacekeepers – the widespread demand was for massive military intervention. In reality, the NATO ‘no-fly zone’ that instantly became a bombing campaign obliterating Gaddafi’s army was based on a lie. A 9 September 2016 report into the war from the foreign affairs committee of the House of Commons commented:

‘Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence… Muammar Gaddafi’s 40-year record of appalling human rights abuses did not include large-scale attacks on Libyan civilians.’

In February 2011, The Times insisted that ‘there is incontrovertible evidence’ that demonstrators in Benghazi ‘are being blown apart by mortar fire’. Even if accurate, this would have been a pin prick compared to Israeli actions now. This was the response to the Libyan government proposed by The Times:

‘British officials and private citizens must do all they can to cajole, pressure and exhort it out of power.’ (Leading article, ‘In bombing its own civilians, Libya stands exposed as an outlaw regime,’ - The Times, 23 February 2011)

By contrast, on 25 October, The Times praised Starmer’s ‘initially assured response to the outbreak of violence that followed Hamas’s terror attacks on Israel on October 7’, which ‘correctly emphasised his party’s unconditional support for the Jewish state’s right to self-defence’.

This was a reference to Starmer’s appalling declaration that Israel ‘does have that right’ to inflict collective punishment on Palestinian civilians by cutting off water, food and electricity.

On 22 March 2011, with NATO bombing of Libya underway, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland published a piece titled, ‘Though the risks are very real, the case for intervention remains strong’. He meant military intervention, of course – war – insisting that ‘in a global, interdependent world we have a “responsibility to protect” each other’. Freedland now warns against such ‘binary thinking’, as he baulks even at the idea of a ceasefire:

‘It seems such a simple, obvious remedy. Until you stop to wonder how exactly, if it is not defeated, Hamas is to be prevented from regrouping and preparing for yet another attack on the teenagers, festivalgoers and kibbutz families of southern Israel.’ 

Freedland’s article was titled: ‘The tragedy of the Israel-Palestine conflict is this: underneath all the horror is a clash of two just causes’. In ‘Manufacturing Consent’, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky commented on their analysis of media treatment of victims deemed ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ by the West:

‘While the coverage of the worthy victim was generous with gory details and quoted expressions of outrage and demands for justice, the coverage of the unworthy victims was low-keyed, designed to keep the lid on emotions and evoking regretful and philosophical generalities on the omnipresence of violence and the inherent tragedy of human life.’ - Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, ‘Manufacturing Consent’, Pantheon Books, 1988, p.39

The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee also rejected calls for a ceasefire, obfuscating with a tangled web of Welby-style verbiage:

‘That word “ceasefire” has become a symbol and a semantic roadblock, as events rush on and words get left behind. “Ceasefire” has become an ideology rather than a practicality.’

When it comes to Gaza in November 2023, the famous ‘responsibility to protect’ has vanished from thinkable thought. Today, even the responsibility to protest is under legal threat. As for the British government’s response, Peter Oborne describes the shocking truth:

‘Meanwhile, not one government minister, as far as I can see, has condemned the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in Gaza, or uttered a word of condemnation of the wave of settler attacks including displacement of Palestinian communities – war crimes – across the West Bank. Nor the genocidal language used by too many Israeli leaders.’

In describing the conflict, the BBC is content to use the pro-Israel propaganda construct ‘Israel-Hamas War’.

Israel’s murderous bombardment of Gaza was described by the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen as Israel ‘still pushing forward’. Bowen noted: ‘Palestinians call this genocide’.

It is not just the Palestinians though, as Bowen well knows.

Culture is ordinary: One hundred years of the Beeb
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 13:38

Culture is ordinary: One hundred years of the Beeb

From Daleks to Strictly, Mark Perryman explores the meaning of the BBC at 100

For decades those of us of a certain age have been able to measure our lives out with episodes from the BBC. Playschool for early years (remember them?) with Brian Cant and Floella Benjamin looking after our every need – so long as the TV was on.  Not forgetting the best maths teacher we never had, Johnny Ball.  The fact Johnny 's daughter Zoe came to be the media face of 1990s ladettes via her stint on BBC Radio One, before graduating in the 2010s to presenting on Radio 2, only adds to this sense of us as listeners and viewers growing up and old with this great British institution.

Characters from the original Magic Roundabout

Primary school years coincided with the Magic Roundabout, a five-minute dose of the magical just before tea time. An extraordinary, and total, reinvention of the original French animation to give Dougal, Zebedee, Brian and more, an entirely new, and much-loved, meaning.  'Time for bed?' Yes please, leave all the nasty news for the grown-ups to endure!

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Blue Peter was more didactic, though in a kindly way. From the 'Get down Shep!' of John Noakes via that elephant dropping an almighty poo on the studio floor, to creating all kind of d-i-y artefacts with 'sticky-back plastic' when all of us trying it at home knew it was Sellotape! Achieving a Blue Peter badge became the not-so-secret ambition of the aspirational child.

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Teendom dawned along with the Thursday night post-supper treat of Top of the Pops. This was Glastonbury, The Brixton Academy, and looking good, before most of The Arctic Monkeys were born, not on the dance floor but in our living rooms. Dictated by whatever was topping, rising, bubbling under the week's charts as broadcast live by Radio One the preceding Sunday evening, TOTP was broad enough to be the first introduction for many to Bowie, reggae, punk, Two Tone and a lot more. 

But the real insight into all that music had to offer beyond the charts was provided for punky-indie adolescents by the incomparable John Peel broadcasting on Radio One from 10pm, a strictly under-the-bedclothes night-time pleasure for those still of school age.

The BBC had a knack of conjuring up shows which were perfect for growing up with. Doctor Who has changed an awful lot from the era of William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee. Via regeneration, after regeneration, David Tennant, Jodie Whittaker and Ncuti Gatwa are not the same as their Whovian forebears. Yet so many continuities exist to provide reassurance. Daleks, exterminate! Where would we be without them? Modernisation, as we've learned from politics, has its limits.

bbc Monty Python rev

Not only that, change can also serve to disappoint. Monty Python existed on the outer edges of English surrealism. It was a miracle the show was ever broadcast – there had never been anything quite like it before, nor anything like it since either. The dead parrot, the four Yorkshiremen, the People's Front of Judaea not the Judaean People's Front achieving a crossover on the big screen to the popular that few of a surrealist disposition achieve, or more likely even seek. John Cleese, Minister of Python's Silly Walks, with Fawlty Towers moved this Pythonesque caricature of Englishness to an even bigger and broader audience. The fact John has now himself become a caricature of Basil, his most famous character, is for many a grave disappointment. Or is it perhaps rather the most surreal, ridiculous consequence imaginable? 

1968 was a year of revolt. The Mai events in Paris, the Prague Spring, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, with communist revolutionaries reaching the very edge of the Saigon US Embassy compound. Meanwhile in good old Blighty something is stirring on the seafront of Walmington-on-Sea. Yes, '68 really did mark the first broadcast of Dad's Army, a defiantly and most particular English version of anti-fascism. The bank manager, his assistant manager and junior clerk were united across class and status divisions with the local butcher, funeral director, seaside retiree, local spiv and more, against Hitler and what his stormtroopers would do to their beloved town.

OK so it wasn’t exactly the Anti-Nazi League but for a comedic version of the breadth and reach of the wartime popular front against fascism, none will ever match Mainwaring, Wilson, Pike, Frazer, Godfrey, Walker but most of all Lance Corporal Jones. As Jones endlessly reminded us about fascists, 'they don't like it up 'em'!

RAYMOND WILLIAMS rev

Does any of this really matter? For some the BBC is a century-old voice of the Establishment. For others it’s a cabal of the woke. But as Raymond Williams sought to teach us, 'culture is ordinary'. For most people, it is in the nooks and crannies of children's TV, soaps, celebrity-led reality TV, and comedy that ideas are formed, dismantled, remade, rather than simply via the news. Stuart Hall (no, not the disgraced former BBC It's a Knockout Presenter, the other one, the cultural theorist) applied Williams's premise to an entirely new way of 'doing' politics:

It is through culture that processes of social change make themselves most dramatically visible. Culture is a constitutive dimension of society.

Hall believed that popular culture was the site where everyday struggles between dominant and subordinate groups are fought, won, and lost. Culture thus has to be thought of as an active, key part of society.  In the process politics becomes inseparable from popular culture, and traditional class alliances are eroded and new ones formed by the mass media. From Daleks to Strictly, this is why the BBC not only informs and entertains, but matters to us all. Happy hundredth, BBC!

Note: Philosophy Football has a BBC Centenary T-shirt range, including a half-price offer on David Hendy's The BBC: A People's History from here.

Dalek s s 2022 1.600

Covid-19 and the ownership and control of the media
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 13:38

Covid-19 and the ownership and control of the media

Natalie Fenton points to the need for less concentrated ownership and more democratic control of the media, in the wake of the Covid-ap pandemic. 

The media are vital purveyors of information and interrogators of power in a pandemic where a government’s decisions translate directly into lives lost or saved. In a global health crisis, the public need, more than ever, a media that will interrogate those decisions and hold power to account.

However, the sad fact is that the pandemic has exposed much of the mainstream media as being part of the system rather than its watchdog. There have been repeated examples across different media outlets of a systematic failure to interrogate government responses. Instead, media outlets merely amplify the official statements from endless, bland press briefings.

These daily briefings churn out what we used to call propaganda but now refer to as PR. The government has explicitly sought to restrict media challenge and scrutiny by refusing to put forward ministers or representatives to go on news programmes such as Radio 4’s Today Programme. It has also barred certain journalists from asking questions at their press briefings in order to discredit critical reporting – actively seeking to punish and freeze out watchdog journalism.

BBC journalists also have to worry about possible government funding cuts. Reporting accurately on your own paymaster has always been a problem for political journalism, but particularly so when the government is all too willing to be the playground bully. So when Dominic Cummings ignored the rules of lockdown and outraged the nation, Radio 4 gave his wife a spot to explain how kind he is.

Newspapers have also played the game to their advantage. With many of them facing economic meltdown due to the collapse in advertising revenue, the News Media Association (representing most of the largest and wealthiest media organisations) lobbied government for their own bailout. The result has been government underwriting of large corporate media to the tune of £35m through advertising and paid-for content under the rubric of ‘we are all in this together’. 

The advertising looks like public health campaign material. But the paid-for content that tells the reader that the government is doing a pretty good job looks like any other article, just tagged with an additional health warning that “this advertiser content was paid for by the UK government”.

In the UK, this is particularly ironic given that the press campaigned extensively against effective (independent) regulation on the basis that it would lead to unwarranted state ‘intrusion’ into the industry. Many of them are still paying out millions of pounds settling phone hacking cases – so this £35m subsidy of taxpayers’ money is in effect contributing to phone hacking settlements.

Meanwhile, virtually none of the paid-for content is going to small independent news organisations, even though they lobbied for their fair share.  As a result many of these will struggle to survive.

Alternative models of ownership and control

Coverage of the pandemic has revealed mainstream media to be an explicit channel for government PR spin, further propelling the revolving door between major news organisations and the government. Boris Johnson worked for the Telegraph and the Times. Michael Gove was a Times journalist. George Osborne became editor of the London Evening Standard. Allegra Stratton’s recent appointment as Rushi Sunak’s director of strategic communications is a friend of Dominic Cummings, and was national editor of ITV news and political editor of Newsnight. The list goes on.

What can we do about it? The deep entanglement of media power and political power is self-serving. Government favours large corporate media because they are dominant – and they retain their dominance because the government favours them. Concentration of media ownership keeps this relationship intact. So we must legislate for more plurality of media ownership, to create a sustainable communications environment that is innovative, diverse and fully independent of vested interests (whether these are commercial or political).

We need to encourage alternative models of media ownership such as cooperatives and employee buyouts, that promote equality and financial security of journalists over profit-making and shareholder returns, and serve a far wider range of needs and more diverse set of interests.

We also need more democratic, diverse and accountable public sector broadcasting. Over the last three decades the independence of the BBC has been steadily eroded and its programme making increasingly commercialised. In recent years, its funding has been severely cut and its programming has become increasingly conservative. Public service content needs to be delivered through modern, democratised public platforms and networks and to operate autonomously of government and the market.

Without these changes, our mainstream media will remain far too complicit with elite political power to do the job they are supposed to do. And in a global health crisis, a failure to scrutinise government mismanagement could literally mean life or death for thousands of people.

This is the latest in the series of articles on the effects of the pandemic on culture, published jointly with the Morning Star.

The BBC: national treasure or tool of propaganda?
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 13:38

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.