Rod Stoneman

Rod Stoneman

Rod Stoneman was the director of the Huston School of Film & Digital Media at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He was previously the CEO of the Irish Film Board and a deputy commissioning editor of the Independent Film and Video Department at Channel 4.

Public service broadcasting vs. competitive capitalist profit-making: the crisis at RTÉ
Thursday, 27 July 2023 07:41

Public service broadcasting vs. competitive capitalist profit-making: the crisis at RTÉ

The current implosion at RTÉ is not merely a short-term issue of corporate governance and public accountability. Its provenance goes a long way back in the history of the organisation and extends beyond the current spectacle of executives and board scrabbling for plausible deniability. It raises fundamental questions about the kind of public service broadcaster RTÉ should and could become.

One historical precedent to this argument began in 1968, a mere eight years after the station was founded.  Three senior producers—Jack Dowling, Lelia Doolan and Bob Quinn—resigned very publicly, declaring that “RTÉ had an inadequate idea of itself” and publishing the book Sit Down and Be Counted. There was a Late Late Show discussion about the issues but their arguments about the danger of ignoring new technologies, of stifling creative freedoms and adopting a more progressive direction were quickly defused and discounted.

The last few decades have witnessed an overall decline in public service broadcasting in Europe as many national television and radio stations have been drawn inexorably into competing with commercial models. In the early 1980s, the three RAI stations in Italy found their audience slipping with the onslaught of Silvio Berlusconi’s private channels. There were fierce debates inside the state broadcaster as Berlusconi’s Mediaset captured more than 50% of the television audience. Many argued in favour of replicating commercial formulas – “If you can’t beat them join them”, while others suggested that “We should define our differences as a public service more strongly, and practice them”.

The launch of Channel 4 in the UK in 1982 brought significant change as the concept of a mass audience was discarded in favour of an address to smaller and more specific niche audiences. As the country’s first “publisher broadcaster” it was programmed with imagination and commitment, bringing genuine diversity to the anachronistic and calcified structures of British television. The political and cultural context for the new station was set by legislation to “innovate in the form and content of programmes”, and a remit “to reach new audiences not catered for elsewhere”. Although the context of its intervention has changed entirely, and cannot be replicated in some nostalgic way, the principles of reinvention, embracing innovation and risk-taking could point to a new path for RTÉ.

Fighting powerful commercial sectors on their own terrain and competing head to head with their formulaic programmes, repetitive formats dominated by over-paid star presenters has been a strategy for failure. Explaining that this is delivering “what the public want” is not an adequate argument then or now: the free market is not democratic or an index of taste, rather it is a mechanism fulfilling desires that it has itself manufactured.

Creating cultural democracy in TV programming

Living in this time of rapid transition to a digital world it is imperative to rethink and reinvent RTÉ’s editorial approach as well as creating a more transparent, democratic economy for the national public service broadcaster. Linear television viewing has already been discarded by a younger generation and is fading fast for the rest of us. Migrating to the streaming model, we are coming to terms with life-changing technology. George Boole, the 19th century Cork mathematician, has a lot to answer for— he was responsible for the algebra behind the algorithms that now curate our taste and predicate our choices.

Clearly some elements from the traditional linear viewing will persist in new hybrid digital television and some programmes, such as news, sporting events and live music will continue to be transmitted at a fixed time. However, other diverse material, from short pieces linked via social media and YouTube to new drama and documentary series will be marketed to be viewed at our convenience.

A different identity for RTÉ can emerge from rethinking the principles of public service broadcasting on this contemporary basis. Rather than imitating programming based on delivering an audience to advertisers, television and radio can develop new approaches that reinvent national broadcasting in its most dynamic dimensions. TG4 is an example of what a certain level of protection from commercial forces can achieve in terms of intelligent and high-quality documentary-making and award-winning features.

Commitment to innovation and risk-taking would create a space where a new generation of Irish programme-makers can refresh the airwaves editorially and aesthetically. A younger generation is already reimagining versions of arts and politics on social media—Whispers News, Dust to Digital, Novara Media— exploring the meaning of quality and excellence in unexpected ways.

People Make Television, a recent exhibition at Raven Row in London, laid out the pioneering work of the BBC Community Programmes Unit in the 1970s; wide-ranging programmes made by myriad groups and perspectives. Channel 4’s network of regional workshops followed, exploring different forms of access. Democratic and accountable media is also a guarantor of independence from government pressure or interference. Part of the focus should be serving young people and minority groups’ self-representation within film and television. A wider spectrum of political pluralism is necessary to open debates about the urgent issues facing the country at this time.

New technologies for recording sound and images allow direct speech in the public domain on an instantaneous basis. Communities of interest and the sounds of life from cities and villages around the country have the potential to shift the balance to participatory access and interactivity by minimising the processes of mediation. Public service broadcasting is not to be confined to the serious and the slow. Engaging with audiences will release the creativity in most people. A brief glance at Instagram and Tik Tok shows that original talent for filmmaking is out there, it’s just not evenly marketed or distributed to a wider public.

This is not a matter of rebuilding anachronistic structures with a greater emphasis on integrity and public accountability. RTÉ needs to be independent of commercial pressures through a new funding model which would also secure its long-term future in an era when television advertising revenue is in decline. Now is the time for RTÉ to undertake a fundamental reimagining of its public service mission in the digital era and to escape the commercial competitive sphere which is at the root of many of its current woes.

Broadcasting and Beyond: proposals for progressive media
Tuesday, 04 August 2020 15:56

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.

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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.

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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.

When Channel 4 was radical: a sketch of political and cultural alternatives
Tuesday, 09 June 2020 14:29

When Channel 4 was radical: a sketch of political and cultural alternatives

Rod Stoneman looks back at the radical, risk-taking early days of Channel 4, as an example of a progressive alternative to mainstream, conservative media culture

In its first decade, Channel 4 took risks and developed programming that gave voice to the marginalised – from Black radicals to Irish republicans, and gay rights campaigners to striking miners.

The inception of Channel 4 in 1982 brought significant change, as the concept of a mass audience was discarded in favour of an address to smaller and more specific niche audiences. As the first ‘publisher broadcaster’ it was programmed with imagination and commitment, bringing genuine diversity to the anachronistic and calcified structures of British television. The political and cultural context for the new station was set by legislation to “innovate in the form and content of programmes”, and a remit “to reach new audiences not catered for currently by British television.”

Some of its bravest programming was developed in its first decade from 1982, when Jeremy Isaacs was appointed Chief Executive. His original, guiding phrase suggested the new channel was to be “different, but not too different”. He had to navigate aggressive reception from the right wing press; headlines like “Channel Bore”, “Channel Snore”; “How to de-tune your set from Channel 4” was The Sun’s typical contribution.

The first years of Channel 4 were an exhilarating period for anyone involved in the station or the nascent independent production sector. I joined the Independent Film and Video Department, a small section in Channel 4 which developed its version of the project for radical television, led by the late Alan Fountain, with Caroline Spry from 1985.

Radical pluralism

We understood our task to involve enfranchising a wide variety of programme makers and styles of making, pushing the boundaries of what was possible on television – working with individual filmmakers, groups and co-operatives within an ethos of radical pluralism. We began by commissioning and buying programmes for The Eleventh Hour, a late Monday night strand, and People to People – a short series of access and community programmes.

The wide range of The Eleventh Hour included political and personal documentary, low-budget fiction, perspectives from the Global South which offered insights into other cultures and politics. Initially this took place through seasons like New Cinema of Latin America, Africa on Africa and Vietnam Cinema. We bought and provided partial production finance for over 150 feature films from Africa, Asia and Latin America; this activity eventually lead to a weekly feature at 10pm on Sunday evenings in Cinema of Three Continents.

Our programming also encompassed visually radical experiments in film aesthetics and narrative forms: Dazzling Image, Abstract Cinema, Midnight Underground. For me, one of the most extraordinary events at 10pm on 19th September 1993 was when we transmitted Derek Jarman’s Blue, flooding Yves Klein’s ultramarine into living rooms for 80 minutes (with no advertising breaks), watching the filmmaker, losing his sight through AIDS, lucidly confronting his own mortality.

In another item which refuted patronising assumptions about the intelligence of British viewers, we screened three interviews and lectures with the always enigmatic and often opaque French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan – in black and white, subtitled and screened at 1.45am. To my astonishment they found their way to an audience of 250,000.

Giving voice to the voiceless

The space for progressive politics, and perspectives new to television was also sustained from a network of autonomous regional workshops. Previous discussions with Michael Meacher, then Junior Minister in the Department of Trade in the Labour government, had led to a concrete proposal that a structure of small regional production units be funded on the basis of longer term programmes of work instead of funding for one-off projects. Support for distribution would be included in production budgets, to a circuit of twenty-five small cinemas.

The abrupt fall of the Labour administration in May 1979 ended that proposal. But within two years Channel 4, in partnership with the British Film Institute and other regional bodies, began to realise a scaled-down version of the same workshop strategy. At its height a budget of £2m from Channel 4 contributed to a network of 12 to 15 workshops each year.

Three workshops, Sankofa, Black Audio and Retake, began to consolidate the Black independent sector. John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs, transmitted in 1987, was an early indication of the potential for reaching significantly wider audiences with formally innovative, politically relevant experimental film.

Workshops based in Belfast and Derry made documentaries such as Under the Health Surface: As Told by Belfast Women (1986) and Mother Ireland (1988/91), and were able to articulate Irish feminist and republican views at the height of the Troubles, although the latter contained an interview with Mairead Farrell, who was one of three IRA members shot by the SAS in Gibraltar in March 1988, and the programme was delayed for three years. Workshops also produced low-budget fiction feature films like In Fading Light (1989) from Amber in Newcastle and Hush-a-Bye Baby (1990) from Derry. The workshop network produced several programmes and collaborated on a set of Miners’ Campaign Tapes during the strike in 1984-5.

The underlying notion was one of encouraging ‘direct speech’, defined not only in terms of the access programmes in People to People (which followed the BBC’s Open Door) and initiating a shift of power whereby a community of interest could define and express itself on television, minimising the processes of mediation from “television professionals”, and shifting the balance to participatory access and interactivity. This connected with an emphasis on marginalised and voiceless communities in Britain and abroad and offered a sustained challenge to the imposed monoculture.

An expanding budget for the Independent Film and Video Department enabled a move towards magazine programmes that introduced radical views and found mid-evening scheduling in the late 1980s: Visions – which was followed by the Media Show, and then from 1991, Critical Eye connected single polemical and analytical documentaries, a magazine show like South, combined short pieces made by creative documentary filmmakers from what was then called the Third World.

Out on Tuesday (later, just Out), the world’s first networked gay and lesbian series, ran between 1989 and 1994 and set about giving new, often radical representation to diverse queer sexualities, cultures, experiences and histories. Many of these areas are still almost entirely absent from current television in Britain and elsewhere – paradoxically, as channels have proliferated, choice has narrowed and the histories of radical film on Channel 4 seem to have been buried and effaced.

Imaginative programming

It was an incursion into mainstream television by more imaginative, more politically responsive and aesthetically daring forms of programme making. Although it seemed not to go far enough or fast enough at the time, the project of taking radical and ‘difficult’ work met with some degree of success and a wider audience. In the ten years I was there, our department expanded exponentially in budgets and inhabited more accessible spaces in the schedule.

However, clearly these efforts and radical programming as a whole was set back and then swept away, as the British government constructed haphazard legislation designed to release 'market forces' which themselves, in the longer term, led to new, more congenial and conservative film and media configurations. This was a subtle, typically British way of reshaping broadcasting in an ideologically more amenable form.

Our work should be seen in a wider frame alongside the other parts of Channel 4 offering new forms of television: Film on Four having a decisive impact on the British film industry with features and series: My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), The Crying Game (1992), and the mini-series A Very British Coup (1988); an innovative soap like Brookside which was filmed in a newly developed suburban cul-de-sac in Liverpool; Channel 4 News providing a more substantial news service; sport from other cultures; education and politics included Bandung File, produced by Tariq Ali and Darcus Howe – a political perspective continued at the moment through The World Today on Telesur (supported by various left-wing Latin American governments) alongside the occasional radicalism and relativism of other international state-supported broadcasters.

Al Jazeera and Telesur point towards the very high degree of selectivity in mainstream representations that can take fact toward what we normally understand as fiction. It is not that the dominant depictions are untrue in any simple way, but that they are such a chosen, partial medley that they need to be contested as a misrepresentation, a drastically incomplete and biased picture.

Not coincidentally, the epoch of early Channel 4 corresponded with examples of braver programming in other parts of British television – following the original success of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972, BBC 2). For example Stuart Hall’s Karl Marx: The Spectre of Marxism (1983 Thames Television), or even right-wing Labour MP Brian Magee’s interview with Herbert Marcuse on the BBC’s Men of Ideas, where to his insistent question “But why are you still a Marxist?” Marcuse simply replied “Because it is correct.”

There is a contrast with the present when the Left is positioned through individual punditry – jousting with soundbites on well-established hoary formats like BBC’s Question Time is certainly welcome, but it’s no substitute for the space to develop arguments in sustained, independently-made programmes. The role of independent media – Novara, Tribune, Radical Film Network, Jacobin, Momentum – play David and Goliath with the mainstream.

As television belatedly is increasingly accessed in a non-linear mode via the internet, some of the most interesting contemporary filmmaking can be facilitated by digital technology. It is much easier to shoot and edit ultra-low-budget work outside of the funding structures now – radical filmmaking is out there, it’s just not evenly marketed or distributed.

It is not for nostalgic motives that we should revisit the 1980s as a historical moment in British television, but as a sketch of political and cultural possibilities that, in a changed context, can be renewed and surpassed. The innovations of early Channel 4 are relevant again at this critical time of change as television enters a new digital terrain and the Left emerges from the setbacks of December 2019 and the devastation of a pandemic. What can we learn from Channel 4’s daring and ground-breaking approach to diverse programming during the first breath-taking years, and how can its championing of new and alternative voices be applied to the new digital TV landscape?

This article is republished from Tribune.