Football Talk

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University, UK

Real Football


To be simultaneously a football fan and a critical academic is not easy. By ‘football’, I mean what Americans call ‘soccer’, which was originally an abbreviation of ‘Association Football’. It is what most people around the world call ‘football’. There are other games that call themselves ‘football’ but they do not really count, although what I have to say here largely applies to them as well. In the game that I am referring to, the player is not allowed to touch the ball by hand, that is, except for the goalkeeper, who is permitted to do so.

Why is it difficult for a critical academic to be a football fan? Well, for a start, there is so much to criticise. I know there are scholars of media and cultural studies who are not critically minded so this is not a problem for them. However, I am not one of their number. Frankly, I cannot see much point in what I do if it is not critical. There are plenty of other people outside academia actually employed to celebrate and promote prevailing media and cultural arrangements. They do not need my help. There are fewer of us in any case and we may be a dwindling band.

The difficulty here is greatly exacerbated by liking what you criticise. Perhaps ‘liking’ is too vague a word. ‘Addicted’ might be more appropriate. What is it that I like? The game itself, to be sure – I also like talking about it, perhaps even more so. Furthermore, I like listening to other people talking about it too: footballers, coaches and commentators as well as other fans. To tell you the truth, I do not much like listening to fans of other clubs than mine talking about their own teams. I do not mind so much listening to commentators talk about other clubs. I also listen to them talk about international football, especially the trials and tribulations of the England team having to face other countries that have the temerity to try and beat us. Yet, I do not generally regard myself as being particularly nationalistic or even patriotic.

Where do I listen to all this talk? On television, of course. In Britain, not unusually, there is a great deal of talk about football on television, including the older terrestrial channels and the newer Sky Sports channels, owned by Rupert Murdoch. One of these channels is almost entirely devoted to football but does not actually show any matches. Instead, it gives minute by minute reports on what is happening in football or, rather, what is being said about football. These reports are repeated endlessly with updates. Much of what is said, very often by retired footballers, about what is going on now is utterly banal, no more sophisticated than that which might be said by any reasonably competent football fan. However, when it comes to matches on other channels, Sky and terrestrial, the talk becomes very analytical. When Sky screens a live match, which it does several times a week, the programmes are usually twice as long as the match itself. There is an hour or so of talk about football before the match and, then, an hour or so afterwards. Clips are commented upon, coaches, fans and players are interviewed.

Sky and the BBC both have preview shows around Saturday lunchtime for the matches that afternoon. The BBC one recently featured Tony Blair, who spoke much more truthfully about football than he ever does about politics. Sky has a regular panel of ex-footballers who also watch the matches while they are being played on screens that we viewers cannot see; and they tell us about them. On Sundays there are discussion programmes on yesterday’s matches, one of them a breakfast session of journalists from the national newspapers talking about the issues, with them eating their breakfasts whilst pontificating. There is a great deal of talk about football on television. You can attend to it all day long if you want.

Why? Several years ago, Umberto Eco commented upon this kind of ‘sports chatter’ from an Italian perspective. He remarked, generally speaking ‘there exists only chatter about chatter about sport’. It consists of ‘evaluations, judgments, arguments, polemical remarks, denigrations, and paeans follow a verbal ritual, very complex but with simple and precise rules’. According to Eco, this was ‘the parody of political talk’. I think it is true that a great many men prefer to talk about sport and football, in particular, than about politics; quite a few women do so too, though most women usually talk about something else that is not to do with the world of official politics. It has often been remarked that people do not talk about politics because their say does not count and it’s boring anyway. As Jean Baudrillard observed, talking about politics is for the political class, not for the masses. It is ‘the evil genius of the masses’ to demonstrate their contempt for that remote discourse by being interested in and talking about something else that is much more entertaining.

However, this is troubling from the point of view of dialogic democracy. After all, if we do not talk, we do not participate. Instead, we talk about something like football. Football talk on television — and in ‘real life’ — displays all the features of a kind of dialogic democracy where everyone’s opinion counts and is violently disagreed with. Much of the talk is dialectical. People who know very little about politics and care less about it do know a lot about something else and they talk about it passionately in a keen spirit of debate. It is obvious to say, then, that football talk is not just idle chatter but, in some sense, a displacement of politics. Whether this is a safety valve or not is open to debate. No doubt it does not fully explain such fascination with sport and especially football, the pleasurable release and all that. However, it might go some way towards explaining why something that is so unimportant seems so important.

Image Credits:

1. Chelea/Thailand

Sky Sports

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TV Down Under

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University, UK

Television Tower

Television tower

Recently, I visited Australia and New Zealand. While I was there, amongst other things, I watched some television. Watching TV in the Antipodes is a special experience for someone from Britain. Australia and New Zealand are fairly recent former colonies that still recognise the authority of the British crown and its monarch as head of state, though there is considerable republican opposition to this in both countries. Australia and New Zealand are predominantly English speaking countries that come somewhere in between Britain and the USA culturally in a general sense. When I was intending to visit New Zealand for the first time a few years ago, people told me that I would find it was like Britain in the 1950s. By the end of my visit, I concluded it was much more like the USA now. As well as American influence, the ‘Asianisation’ of Australia and, indeed, New Zealand, moreover, is especially evident on the street and when you buy something to eat or grab a taxi. These are complexly multicultural countries.

Okay, some of the architecture — particularly in Melbourne — and certain institutional arrangements remain from the British Empire. For instance, ‘public service broadcasting’, originated in Britain, still exists to some extent in Australia and New Zealand. For someone concerned about the fate of public service broadcasting back home in Blighty, at a time of privatisation and deregulation around the globe, watching TV ‘down under’ is worrying. Although the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) has been forced increasingly to observe market disciplines, it continues to be funded almost exclusively by public money, through the license fee, and does not take advertising. Margaret Thatcher thought briefly about introducing advertising to the BBC in the 1980s but was dissuaded from doing so because commercial companies in the ITV system (Independent Television) complained that it would reduce their revenue.

As American sympathisers with public service broadcasting know only too well, advertising revenue is an enormous determinant of US programming and the experience of watching TV. In Britain, it is possible for the viewer to avoid advertising by watching BBC channels. Not so in the Antipodes, where public service television is now funded significantly by advertising, with the obvious commercial consequences for programming that this entails.

The main channels with something of a public service remit and funding in both Australia and New Zealand are undistinguished, to say the least. The mix of American crime shows, soaps, heritage dramas and ever-wackier game and talent shows is depressingly familiar from British commercial television and the populist end of BBC programming. The news is pretty awful, evincing a strange mixture of globalisation (mainly represented by the USA) and parochialism (mainly local celebrities and sports). In response to this admittedly cursory impression, I was prompted to invent a new concept to rival Roland Robertson’s ‘glocalisation’, signalling interaction between the global and the local. My concept is ‘globoprovinicialism’. There’s the New World Order and then there’s Melbourne, Sydney or Wellington.

For a Briton, though not necessarily an American, the most interesting aspect of TV down under is its multicultural terrestrial services. Australia and New Zealand have a considerable range of migrant communities from Europe and Asia as well as very significant indigenous peoples, the Aborigines and the Maoris. We have little in the way of multicultural programming on British TV, occasional programmes but no dedicated channels except for Channel Four Wales.

In Australia, the channel that caught my eye most is SBS (Special Broadcasting Service). On a couple of mornings when I switched on I caught some Russian news and Italian news, not just about Russia and Italy, but from Russia and Italy. The evening news bulletin is in English but it is about the world in a very extensive way. SBS broadcasts European football matches and foreign-language films subtitled in English. Multicultural programming started on radio before the television channel was launched. SBS at present receives triennial public grants and advertises only between programmes, not within them.

One of the stars of multicultural broadcasting in Australia, Mary G, made the transition from radio to TV. Mary G, a man in a frock, is a kind of Aboriginal Barry Humphreys/Dame Edna Everidge figure. His show, which includes studio chat and comic sketches, is hilariously funny. It is the most prominently national programme of the Aboriginal broadcasting service based in Alice Springs.

Turning to New Zealand, there is nothing in particular that is distinctive enough to commend its television services, possibly with the exception of Maori TV. The Maoris in New Zealand were always more belligerent than the Aborigines in Australia. They gave up sovereignty in return for ‘protection’ by the British crown in 1834. The treaty that was agreed then is the basis for subsequent struggles over Maori rights, for instance, Maori custody of the sea-beds and the foreshore, which has now been violated by recent governmental legislation in order to sell seaside land to the tourism industry. More diffusely, Maori traditions and language have persisted and are currently showing signs of recovery. However, there has been great concern over the loss of Maori language in younger generations. To rectify this and to restore a distinct Maori identity, there has been Maori-language broadcasting on radio and television for some time. Only in 2004 was a dedicated Maori TV channel finally launched. This was the result of long drawn-out campaigning and negotiation with the public authorities. In 1989, New Zealand On Air was set up in response to the semi-privatisation of public service broadcasting. It has provided public funds for the development of Maori broadcasting, though, as a glance at Maori TV would confirm, not lavishly so. The formation of Maori broadcasting services and companies to supply programmes has been beset with difficulties and, indeed, controversy over the use and misuse of public money.

What did I make of Maori TV in the few hours that I was able to see of it? First, there is clearly a tension between an authentic and ghettoising mentality, on the one hand, and a crossover mentality on the other hand. A great deal of programming is very earnest, especially in shows that tackle social problems like alcohol abuse and seek to foster Maori traditions and language. Most notable here, is teaching the language through soap opera plots and instruction on traditional Maori customs and ceremony such as greeting visitors by pressing noses with them. All of this suggests that a great many Maori’s do not speak the language or routinely observe traditional customs in everyday life. Manifestly evident from the programming is that young Maoris are enthusiastic participants in a global youth culture that is massively influenced by black American music and style. There is a good deal of rapping, hip-hop bodily gesture and hand movements in music video items. Also, young presenters tend to speak in both English and Maori, so I for one could understand what they are saying, which is not true of much of the exclusively Maori-language programmes, where I had no idea of what was being said because they are not subtitled. Perhaps surprisingly, Maori TV does attract non-Maori viewers, who may be peculiarly sympathetic to Maori culture or, perhaps, just sick and tired of the overwhelming commercialism on the other channels. As yet, there is no advertising on Maori TV.

I would like to thank Ruth Harley, Paul Jones and Mohammed Musa for helping me understand what is going on in Australian and New Zealand television with regard to multiculturalism.

SBS Homepage
Maori TV Homepage

Image Credits:
1. Television tower

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Inside the Beeb

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University, UK

BBC Logo

BBC World Logo

The BBC was the first public service broadcasting organization in the world. It may turn out to be the last one as well. When the British Broadcasting Company became the British Broadcasting Corporation under royal charter in the 1920s, it was in order to protect a valuable means of public communication from exploitation by commerce and, also, it has to be said, from possible Bolshevik subversion. In spite of the fear of communism when it was on the rise, most significantly in the longer run, the BBC was invented originally in negative response to the ‘vulgar’ example of the advertising and sponsorship dominated radio system in the USA.

According to its founding figure, John Reith, the BBC was supposed to serve the whole national-public interest, not sectional or business interests, by educating, informing and entertaining audiences, funded by a license fee rather than commercial revenue. Crass commercialism had to be resisted at all costs. As it happened, due to this particular set of arrangements, the BBC was feted as the most reliable and ‘objective’ broadcaster internationally, particularly during the Second World War. It presented an ideal model for other countries to follow, which was not just an imperial bequest of Britain to what were to become its former colonies. The BBC also influenced broadcasting policy throughout Western Europe during the years of post-war reconstruction.

That was then; this is now. In recent years, the BBC has been required by successive neo-liberal governments to operate as though it were a commercial broadcaster. The colloquially known ‘Beeb’, as one of the few surviving corporations in Britain owned by the public, has been saved from privatization mania and even now still does not take advertising money. But, in terms of management, marketing and programme formats it observes and mimics market disciplines. The BBC’s monopoly over British broadcasting ended in the 1950s. It adapted very well to competition from ITV (Independent Television), that is, advertising-financed television, albeit regulated by public service principles, and subsequently commercial radio too, becoming much more populist than under Reith in its programming. Since then, and especially with the proliferation of advertising and subscription-financed channels delivered by cable and satellite during the past couple of decades, the BBC’s public funding and remit have been constantly under attack by the likes of Rupert Murdoch.

Historically, the BBC was a deeply patrician and socially closed outfit, staffed by posh people with posh voices. That has changed to a certain extent. However, intense political paranoia has succeeded the older disdain for popular democracy. In consequence, and in both cases, the BBC has always been notoriously difficult to study and for researchers to deal with. Tom Burns and Philip Schlesinger had trouble gaining access and commenting upon the BBC’s workings back in the 1960s and ’70s. Yet, they both came up with excellent studies: Burns’s The BBC — Public Institution and Private World (1977) and Schlesinger’s Putting ‘Reality’ Together (1978). These books remain classics but they have now been superseded by Georgina Born’s Uncertain Vision — Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC (2004). This is a must read for scholars and, indeed, concerned citizens interested in media organizations.

Georgina Born was given unprecedented access to the inner workings of the BBC. And, before publication, the present Director General, Mark Thompson offered to write a blurb for the book: ‘A unique and intriguing insight into the inner workings of the BBC during a critical and often stormy period in its history’. Born’s initial research was done in the mid-’90s during John Birt’s director-generalship. Burt was renowned and widely castigated for inserting ‘new model management’ methods that were detrimental to creativity and also internal market arrangements, so-called ‘producer choice’, into the BBC. His regime also put in operation the 25% programme quota from the ‘independent’ sector that was introduced as a compulsory requirement under Conservative government. Many of the independents were, in fact, former BBC employees and they used the corporation’s facilities; so nothing much really changed. During that time, enormous amounts of money were spent on management consultancy and the BBC bureaucracy swelled in size. After New Labour was elected to office in 1997, Greg Dyke took over. Some of the earlier changes were reversed and greater resources were put into production, heralding a considerable rise in the BBC’s fortunes. Dyke was forced out over the Kelly affair and the BBC’s questioning of government policy with regard to the reasons for war in Iraq. Dyke was hugely popular amongst the staff and his leaving much regretted. In the early 2000s, Born did further research on the BBC in order to trace these later developments and bring the story up to date.

The research and writing of Uncertain Vision took ten years to complete. The result is an awesome achievement. Born is a trained anthropologist. She gives a thick description, in Clifford Geertz’s term, of BBC processes, concentrating in particular on drama and news. For instance, Born recounts how the BBC failed in its attempt to dramatize Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize winning Midnight’s Children. To be fair, this was not the BBC’s fault. Although there were problems in financing such a lavish production, it was political conditions in India that made it virtually impossible to shoot key scenes there. An interesting feature of the book is that the analytical narrative is broken up with passages from Born’s notebooks in which she comments directly upon what she was observing day-by-day. Born writes beautifully. This is a ripping yarn, eschewing the pedantry and prolix of much academic writing.

Still, Born was patronized — addressed as the diminutive ‘Georgie’ — and treated as a naïve academic by leading figures at the BBC. And, when invited to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, she was told by an official there that her research would only have any impact on policy if she found a government politician prepared to champion its significance. What she knew, then, did not matter so much as who she knew; which is an old feature of the British Establishment, carried on, as before under previous governments, by the ‘open’ governance of New Labour. This is a shame because Born spells out a strategy for the preservation and radical development of public service broadcasting, stressing multiculturalism against the older and univocal representation of national identity and belonging. It is rare for critical analysts to make practical policy proposals that really should be taken seriously. Born makes a brave attempt to do so.

From an academic point of view, the way Born combines detailed ethnography with both critical analysis and positive thinking about policy is extremely impressive. Her book offers a fine model for such work. Born is critical of actually existing public service broadcasting during a period when it has been in near fatal danger and she is optimistic about the potential for reviving its great promise. She draws upon Seyla Benhabib’s notion of a ‘politics of complex cultural dialogue’. In Born’s opinion, public service broadcasting can ‘cultivate commonality, reciprocity and tolerance’. She goes on to say: ‘It does so by providing three fundamental preconditions: not only common platforms for public reasoning and exchange, and astonishingly powerful expressive and imaginative forms which underpin the growth both of empathy and of unified experience, but means for the self-representation and self-expression of diverse groups. For where reasoned deliberation may fail to conciliate, aesthetic appreciation may succeed, in the process building empathetic identification. The dialogical and reciprocal operations of broadcasting, then, are not confined to reason and cognition; its expressive and affective dimensions have both cultural and political value. In these ways public service broadcasting can mitigate the potentially divisive tensions between solidarity and diversity’ (Born 2004, 508-509).

That’s not the kind of stuff you are likely to read in the business plans of commercial broadcasters or, for that matter, in the mission statements of public service broadcasters.

Born identifies ‘five structural forms of mediated exchange’ that may be facilitated by broadcasting organizations retaining a genuinely public service purpose in spite of the forces that threaten to destroy it in our current age of neo-liberal dominance. These are when:

1. ‘the majority hosts divergent and contested minority perspectives’;

2. ‘minority speaks to majority and other minorities [-] inter-cultural communication’;

3. ‘via radio, video, cable and satellite television or the net, minority speaks to minority (or to itself) [-] intra-cultural communication’;

4. ‘territorially-based local and regional community networks’ are facilitated by ‘interactive project[s]’ and ‘experiments in online local democracy’;

5. ‘issue-based, non-territorial communities of interest are linked by point-to-point networks’. (2004, 516)

Born’s list registers the BBC’s pioneering role in the development of online services to supplement conventional broadcast material.

In conclusion, it is important to stress the need for public services delivered online without charge, exemplified by the BBC’s efforts in this respect, as well as through broadcast-scheduled television and radio. Otherwise, the communications field is abandoned entirely to commercial, market-based services that represent the overwhelming privatization and commodification of information, knowledge and culture, which has been taking place and seems, to pessimistic observers, unstoppable.

Image Credits:
1. BBC World Logo

BBC Homepage media profile of BBC
Wikipedia entry on BBC

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The Power of Nightmares

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University

A recent TV documentary series prompted me to reflect upon the intellectual capacities of television, which are more often than not considered fairly limited. The three parts of The Power of Nightmares were shown on BBC2 last October and November. Because it had been so well received, the programme was repeated very quickly in January. The Power of Nightmares was written, produced and narrated by Adam Curtis, whose other work includes the excellent The Century of the Self, a series also made for the BBC. Unusually for such a programme, The Power of Nightmares was not derived from an already published book, like the recent series based on Yergin and Stanislaw’s The Commanding Heights, nor is there a spin-off book to accompany the series. Curtis insisted that the programme itself was sufficient. This is interesting since The Power of Nightmares puts forward a sophisticated and challenging thesis based on wide-ranging research.

It is often said that television is a poor medium for the exposition of complex argument. Print media — and especially the book — are held to be superior in this regard. Such a commonplace assumption needs to be interrogated. Is television supposed to be inherently lacking in intellectual substance for technical or social reasons? Surely, it must be social, since television is a hybrid medium with the advantage of combining spoken words, music and moving images. Electronic recording for domestic use, moreover, has made it possible to flick to and fro through the audio-visual text, like reading a book. Web-based texts, of course, have these properties plus lengthy written elements and potentially endless link options, but that is beside the point for the present purpose, which is to discuss argumentation in an exceptional television programme. This programme deserves the kind of serious response that a book with an intellectually demanding thesis might merit. It is normally thought impractical for a television programme to carry much writing on screen, quite sensibly so and not at issue here. Such impracticality, however, is social rather than strictly technical. Nobody watches television in order to read lots of words; books are deemed better for that. Anyway, it is a deeply ingrained assumption that television should convey meaning in pictures. The Power of Nightmares uses moving images very well and is accompanied, of necessity, by complex argument that is spoken at length, not written.

Each of The Power of Nightmares’ three episodes begins with a summary of the general argument. According to Curtis, politicians no longer promise to create a better world. Instead, they offer us protection against terrible threats to our safety and well being. This is a post-ideological politics of security management in a terrifying world. Power is established by frightening the wits out of people, telling them stories about dangers that may not actually exist. So far, a fairly routine sound bite: ‘be afraid, be very afraid’.

Politics has become nightmarish due to the efforts of two strangely similar ideological forces, Radical Islam and Neo-Conservatism. The Power of Nightmares traces both of them back to the late-1940s and their original gurus: Saeed Qutb for the Radical Islamists and Leo Strauss for the Neo-Cons. The Egyptian Qutb studied for a brief period in the USA where he became appalled by its liberal culture. To him, the land of the free was crass, corrupt and vulgar. In 1949, Qutb went to a dance and saw the licentious behaviour of young American men and women, dancing cheek to cheek. Here we see black and white footage of such outrageous conduct accompanied by ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, which is also the title of the first episode. At the end of that episode, the number is reprised to accompany young Afghan warriors — exclusively men, of course — dancing. This is just one of several witty juxtapositions throughout the series. Qutb returned to Egypt determined to build an Islamic opposition to American immorality and selfish individualism in the world. Later Qutb fell fowl of Gamel Abdul Nasser, whom Qutb regarded as a corrupt leader and inauthentic Muslim. In 1966, Qutb was tried for treason and executed. He thus became a martyr for Radical Islam.

Leo Strauss, the American political philosopher, led a much quieter life than Qutb. His favourite television programme in the 1950s was Gunsmoke and his hero the strong and relatively silent Marshall Dillon, who stood up for Good against Evil, symbolized by the white hats against the black hats. Strauss also liked Perry Mason with its cunning hero prepared to use what were sometimes questionable means to accomplish good ends. Since the late-’40s, Strauss had, like Qutb, also been complaining about the corrosive effects of liberalism on American culture with its permissiveness and encouragement of selfish desires. He believed it led to nihilism. What was needed was a moral rearmament campaign, the fashioning of political myths with the power of religion to cement the heroic nation together. Strauss influenced a generation of students, including Francis Fukuyama, William Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz.

Both Qutb and Strauss sought to form elite cadres to fight the battle of ideas and win over the benighted masses. While the Radical Islamists believed in what they said, however fanatical, the attachment of Neo-Cons to ‘the truth’ was somewhat less than sincere. The Neo-Cons — including the likes of Dick Cheney, Richard Perle and Donald Rumsfeld in various governmental incarnations — cooked up all sorts of inaccurate horror stories with their backroom boys. They created the ‘Evil Empire’ myth of the Soviet Union tooled up to take over the world when, in fact, it was falling apart internally. Even Ronald Reagan was sceptical at first. Henry Kissinger was a wishy-washy liberal in comparison with the Neo-Cons. Once the Soviet Union had been beaten, it was necessary to find a new and equally terrifying enemy. Radical Islam was standing in the wings, though it became difficult, at a much later stage, to draw links between it and the far from fundamentalist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The project – which was to become the Project for the New American Century – did not unfold smoothly. There were ups and downs and setbacks. George Bush the elder, for instance, was reluctant to hunt down Saddam at the end of the first Gulf War; it took another war and his more biddable son in the White House to do so, to complete that part of the grand mission.

The second episode of The Power of Nightmares, ‘The Phantom Victory’, looks at the struggle in Afghanistan to repel the Soviet Union; and, for which both the Neo-Cons and the Radical Islamists claimed the victory, finally ridding the world of communist imperialism. Closely involved, according to the series, was Ayman al-Zawahari, an Egyptian doctor turned leading ideologue for Islamic Jihad in a violent form and mentor to moneybags Osama bin Laden. America supported these ‘freedom fighters’ with military equipment and training when the enemy was mutual and before they turned on the USA itself. Radical Islam became increasingly extreme and indeed terroristic after sending the Russians packing from Afghanistan, in fact, due to the lack of popular support for it in the Middle East. In America in the meantime, the Neo-Cons’ demonization of Bill Clinton and, hence, of ‘liberalism’ went hand-in-hand with the rise of the religious Right, a key feature of the second Bush regime and Dubya’s re-election in 2004.

The third and final episode, ‘The Shadows in the Cave’, deals with 9/11 and all that. Like the other episodes, it uses archive footage and expert interviews, clips from horror and fantasy movies, to drive home the points that make up the series’ thesis. Politics has become thoroughly Bismarckian, dependent upon generating fear and anxiety in the population about external peril in order to legitimize rule in the USA and Britain especially, according to The Power of Nightmares. The series is intellectually impressive and succeeded in attracting larger audiences than is normal for a ‘difficult’ documentary. However, there are problems with it that require critical scrutiny, three in particular to mention briefly: its re-run of the end of ideology thesis; its faulty understanding of modern networks; and, its improper use of the precautionary principle.

First, a politics of fear is said to arise from the end of ideology, in the sense of belief in utopian political dreams. Yet, Neo-Conservatism and Radical Islam are manifestly ideological and both in their scary ways promise a better world for their followers. There is a contradiction in the argument here: either ideology has ceased to be a powerful force or it has not.

Second, the final episode does a very good job in demolishing the myth of Al-Qaeda as a gigantic organized network hostile to and undermining Western civilization as we know it; therefore, requiring authoritarian restrictions on civil liberties at home and maximum violence abroad. The British journalist Jason Burke, author of Al-Qaeda – The True Story of Radical Islam, is the expert witness on mistaken belief in bin Laden’s command over the world’s terror networks, paralleling the old myth of the Soviet Union’s direction of such networks in the past. Burke argues with considerable justification that there is no central authority co-ordinating a bureaucratic organization of international terrorism run like the Mafia, its headquarters once believed to be located in a James Bond-style villain’s lair in Bora Bora. ‘Shadows in the Cave’ documents several fanciful stories of ‘sleeper cells’ in the USA. For one of which the sole evidence was a tourist video of Disneyland, interpreted ludicrously as casing the joint for blowing it up. Furthermore, bin Laden did not even call his outfit Al-Qaeda until after 9/11 when the Americans did so, which was a shrewd ruse to exploit American hyper anxiety. However, as Manuel Castells has argued, modern networks are distinctively de-centred, not controlled by a central authority. It would be better to conceive of them as rhizomatic, characterized by random eruptions of terrorism, rather than simply noting the absence of old-fashioned bureaucratic and centralized authority.

Third, Curtis claims that the precautionary principle of Green politics has been adopted to justify anti-terrorist measures that destroy civil liberties. This is a serious claim and one that needs to be treated with caution. The precautionary principle is defined in the final programme of the series as the assumption that there is no need for evidence in order to take preventative action. Clearly, that does accurately describe the anti-terrorist operations and pre-emptive military strategy of the Bush regime and its allies, but it is not strictly the Green principle of precaution. In Green politics, it is thought that actions should not be taken that are potentially harmful even if we do not have hard and fast evidence of certain harm. In actual fact, there is plenty of evidence that the actions of the Bush regime are certainly harmful, fuelling rather than assuaging the resentments articulated by Radical Islam.

BBC News
Information Clearing House
Guardian Unlimited

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Funny Politics

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University

It is commonplace to observe that television, like everything else, is increasingly global these days. What is happening on the other side of the world is shown and commented upon instantaneously in news programming. There is also a considerable international trade in programmes as well as channels with a world-wide reach and co-productions between countries. The USA, of course, stands at the apex of global television in addition to cinema and much else besides. We are all tutored to some degree in US issues and events seen from an American perspective in addition to its hegemonic entertainment culture. Yet, there is still a great deal of US material that just does not sell abroad. Political satire on television is such an example, although The Simpsons may be, to an extent, a great exception to the general rule. This preamble allows me to move from the American context of Flow to mention an important British television programme that only Britons see, Bremner, Bird and Fortune.

Bremner, Bird and Fortune is the latest manifestation of a great tradition in British television going back to the early sixties with the BBC’s That Was The Week That Was (TW3), political satire. TW3 castigated the Conservative government of the day in comic sketches, parodied news items and cabaret-style routines. It was taken off the air a few months before the 1964 general election so as not to influence the result. Labour won anyway. There were only two TV channels at the time so TW3 had access to a huge audience. This legendary programme may well have contributed to the climate of opinion that voted out the Tories after thirteen years in office. In the 1980s, the puppet caricatures show, ITV’s Spitting Image, poured scorn on Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. Labour did not come off lightly either and the Liberal leader, David Steel, amongst other leading politicians and celebrity personalities, was mocked mercilessly. At its height, Spitting Image commanded an audience of over ten million. Channel Four’s Bremner, Bird and Fortune attracts around two million viewers, which in the present multi-channel environment is actually quite good for such a programme.

It would be surprising if Prime Minister Tony Blair likes it, yet Bremner, Bird and Fortune has met with no political censorship, unlike TW3 forty years ago. The show has had trouble over copyright, however, particularly regarding new lyrics for old songs, though Tom Lehrer has been particularly generous in allowing Rory Bremner and his pals to rewrite his work (‘the Sunnis hate the Shias’, etc.). There is enough American material, especially with such obvious targets as George Bush, US economic and military imperialism, voracious corporations and oil-driven policy. When the company that makes Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Vera, put together a compilation of the American material a couple of years back, there were no takers in the USA.

John Bird and John Fortune performed in TW3 all those years ago. When they teamed up with young impressionist Bremner in the late eighties a direct connection was made between the old and the new in British television satire. Bird and Fortune write and perform an interview sketch, as two typically British ruling-class buffoons, for every episode (these are available on disc). The interview is with a character called George Parr, who is played by Bird, on occasion, as a British army general; and, when Fortune plays Parr and Bird takes his turn to do the interviewing, he is usually a governmental or corporate official. Parr gives convoluted and contradictory accounts of policy and practicalities. Just before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bird as General Parr admitted that the British were not well equipped for encountering the enemy since its tanks, for instance, were designed for combat with the Russians in Northern Europe. They didn’t work so well in the sands of the Middle East. Also, British army boots tend to melt in hot climes. In the most recent series (October 2004), Fortune, playing Parr as a minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, explains how relaxing legal restrictions on gambling for American and South African operators of casinos will bring about cultural renewal and urban regeneration in British towns and cities. Bird and Fortune have also played civil servants in the War Office when Britain invaded and occupied Iraq during the 1920s. Under the direction of Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary at the time, Britain used mustard gas against ‘insurgents’ and set up a constitutional monarchy, which was overthrown in the 1950s when the British were finally kicked out. Shortly afterwards, the CIA hired a youthful thug, one Saddam Hussein, to assassinate the new Iraqi Prime Minister. He failed but was looked after in order to return to the fray later on. Saddam’s subsequent association as friend and then foe with the USA (and, indeed, Britain) is also traced in Bremner, Bird and Fortune. Parallels between the British and the American imperial adventures in Iraq are also drawn with chilling humour and to dispel historical amnesia, a striking feature of both American and British politics. Furthermore, all the questions about weapons of mass destruction, regime change, lucrative contracts for rebuilding Iraq, the ignorance of another culture and effect of Americanism on an Islamic nation, torture and the rest of it are treated with comedy and — as is the case with the best satire — deep seriousness.

The producer and co-writer of Bremner, Bird and Fortune, Geoff Atkinson, pointed out to me recently that the comedic impulse comes first; moreover, he believes it must do so. If it’s not funny it simply doesn’t work. Comedy is not to be reduced to a sweetener for otherwise side-lined political information. Bremner’s early work was not especially political at all. He was a remarkably talented impressionist, normally making fun of TV personalities, such as the sports presenter, Des Lynham. Atkinson himself started out writing for The Two Ronnies, which was hardly a satire show. But, as politics became more and more bizarre, the temptation to laugh at it, perhaps in order to avoid crying about it, was to become unavoidably compelling for them.

As well as his portrayal of the creepy fantasist Tony Blair, Bremner does a brilliant impression of George Dubya Bush. Before the invasion of Iraq, there was a special edition of Bremner, Bird and Fortune, entitled Between Iraq and a Hard Place. Shortly after the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the official though not actual cessation of hostilities, another special was put out in May 2003, Beyond Iraq and a Hard Place. These editions of the programme represented a significant cultural intervention in the public sphere where issues concerning the reasons for invading Iraq and its consequences were hotly debated; and still are nearly two years later. There was always greater scepticism in Britain than in the USA about the linking of Al Qaeda to the Ba’athist regime, disquiet at belligerent strategy in the Middle East and horror at the British government’s craven support for US policy. Blair’s own reputation will never recover from this historical error in his own country. In Beyond Iraq and a Hard Place, Rory Bremner as himself remarks, ‘The war may be over but the battle for hearts and minds is harder. Let’s face it, it’s a bit difficult to win Iraqi hearts and minds when you leave their hearts in one place and their minds in another’. Then Bush (Bremner) speaks on a television programme beamed into a devastated Iraq, Towards Freedom. He begins, ‘My fellow Iraqis…’ Dubya’s talking head is accompanied on screen by: lists of sponsors (Haliburton, Bechtel, etc); news reports such as George Clooney being signed up to play Saddam Hussein in a forthcoming movie; and a count of ‘Oil Barrels This Hour’. He praises Iraq as, in Condoleezza Rice’s words, ‘the cradle of civilization’ and corrects his praise of the ‘many’ to ‘some historical artefacts’. Apparently, there is no intention to exploit Iraq’s oil reserves ‘any more than is strictly necessary under the normal rules of international trade and shareholder value’. As a Coca-Cola sign revolves beside his head, the President of the United States reassures the Iraqi people: ‘Be assured of one thing. We will not walk away from your country, as others have done before. We will not stay in your country, as others have done before. We will do both…’

The audience figures shot up for these specials on Iraq, reflecting a thirst for the expression of more critical perspectives on the state of the world than those routinely purveyed on mainstream television. Whether right or wrong, the well-founded views articulated by Bremner, Bird and Fortune are usually present only in marginal publications addressing relatively small and strongly left-wing constituencies; and are hardly ever present on television where a much wider audience can be addressed. Nowadays, the place where they are most likely to crop up on television is in satirical comedy shows. Perhaps that is because comedy is not supposed to be serious and, therefore, doesn’t have to be taken seriously. Historically, license has been given to the court jester to say the naughty things for casual and ineffectual entertainment. Bremner, Bird and Fortune is not, however, merely a safety valve. It is extremely funny and politically astute in its carefully researched material. Rory Bremner, the two Johns — Bird and Fortune — and the programme’s producer, Geoff Atkinson, have published a book of their stuff recently, You Are Here – A Dossier. It provides a good idea of how and why Bremner, Bird and Fortune is such a nodal point of the cultural public sphere in Britain.

BBC – Comedy Guide to Bremner, Bird and Fortune

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What Can We Still Learn about Television from Raymond Williams?

by: Jim McGuigan / Loughborough University

When I was invited to write this column for Flow, I wondered where to start. So, I turned to Alan O’Connor’s edited collection, Raymond Williams on Television – Selected Writings (1989). Williams died in January 1988. One of his last acts of publishing was to write a preface to O’Connor’s collection. Williams dated his signature to the preface, December 1987. The collection is largely made up of short articles from Williams’s monthly column in The Listener between 1968 and 1972. There are a few later pieces as well. The now defunct Listener was a BBC weekly publication of discussions and occasionally transcripts of what was going on in broadcasting. Its demise might suggest that television has become less the focus of urgent public debate now than it used to be. That’s unfortunate.

Williams wrote surprisingly little about television. The first edition of his book Communications, published in 1962, concentrated on the press. Much of the material was drawn from adult evening classes that Williams taught in the 1950s when video tape was only coming into use in television programme-making. Later, of course, domestic video recorders were a huge boon to education about television. In fact, they made it possible from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. However, Williams must have made notes when watching the uninterrupted flow of TV before the advent of domestic video recording. His observations became copy for The Listener, some of which also appeared in the third edition of Communications, published in 1976.

The Listener column effectively ended in December 1972. A couple of later pieces from The Listener, dated 1974, are included in O’Connor’s collection, but Williams never did resume his column on a regular basis. What had Williams been up to between suspending his column at the end of 1972 and the few afterthoughts he added in 1974? He went to the USA. While at Stanford in California, Williams began work on Television – Technology and Cultural Form, which was published after he had returned to Cambridge in England. Williams watched a lot of American television in a state of bemusement, especially with regard to the incessant advertising’s surreal interruptions of editorial content, and learnt about cutting edge technological developments in the medium at Stanford’s Department of Communications. In his book of thirty years ago, Williams not only commented on the form and content of television but also its developing technologies, including video-cassette recording, satellite transmission, large screen receivers and cable distribution. The cultural critic had become, to an extent, a political economist of televisual technology.

Williams concluded Television – Technology and Cultural Form prophetically. Permit me to quote the key passage, a passage that I am fond of quoting and have done so before:

Over a wide range from general television through commercial advertising to centralised information and data-processing systems, the technology that is now or is becoming available can be used to affect, to alter, and in some cases to control our whole social process. And it is ironic that the uses offer such extreme social choices. We could have inexpensive, locally based yet internationally extended television systems, making possible communication and information-sharing on a scale that not long ago would have seemed utopian. These are the contemporary tools of the long revolution towards an educated and participatory democracy, and of the recovery of effective communication in complex urban and industrial societies. But they are also the tools of what would be, in context, a short and successful counter-revolution, in which, under cover of talk about choice and competition, a few para-national corporations, with their attendant states and agencies, could further reach into our lives, at every level from news to psycho-drama, until individual and collective response to many different kinds of experience and problem became almost limited to choice between their programmed possibilities (p151).

So, thirty years ago, with trepidation, Williams spotted what was likely to happen. Conventional wisdom tells us that the reason television has developed in this way is due to technological advance. It is indeed to do with technology but not only technology. Instantaneous satellite communications, channel proliferation, digitalisation and convergence of television and computing are all important but their deployment is a matter of decision-making, a matter of politics and economic pressure, as Williams always insisted. Profitability, not social use, is the driving force. This has put enormous pressure on the European tradition of public service broadcasting, a tradition that has barely existed at all in the USA. Even the most illustrious organisation of public service broadcasting – the British Broadcasting Corporation – behaves these days like a business in a competitive market. Yet, the public service aspect has not been entirely obliterated. There is still a debate to be had.

How does the situation differ now from thirty years ago when Williams sought to comment on the ordinary output of British television and theorised the development of the medium? Then, television in Britain was governed by public service principles, including commercial television. The Independent Television (ITV) network was established in the 1950s as a federation of regionally based companies, with regional responsibilities, under the supervision of the Independent Television Authority (ITA), which became the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) with the subsequent advent of commercial radio. The regional franchises were once described as ‘a license to print money’ since the ITV companies had a monopoly over broadcast advertising revenue in their regions and could, therefore, sell time and audiences at exorbitant rates. The Wilson Labour government of the 1960s put a cap on ITV profits. The companies were left swimming in money, which could be lavished on production and high wages for staff, technical and administrative, not only managerial and creative. The so-called ‘golden age’ of British television – the 1960s and into the 1970s – was exceptionally well funded by advertising and license fee revenue. This was when Williams was writing about television.

The Thatcher Conservative government of the 1980s seriously considered the introduction of advertising to the BBC, not uncommon in public service broadcasting elsewhere. The ITV companies successfully protested against such competition that would inevitably force down rates. The competition came anyway, from cable operators and Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB satellite service, which really took off with satellite sport, especially live Premiership football, in the 1990s. Channel proliferation, then, and segmented audiences. All of which entailed extra payments by the viewing public, in addition to the BBC-funding license fee and the costs of advertising in the shops. Until then, the viewing public had been getting its television on the cheap. Now, they were paying through the nose for it, though with greater ostensible ‘choice’.

In the meantime, labour conditions in the business had changed dramatically, involving a shift from Fordist to Post-Fordist arrangements. Outsourcing product, de-unionisation, casualisation and career insecurity all grew apace. There were still huge rewards but only for the very few. Some young entrants to the business were working for virtually nothing. Making programmes for BBC4, the ‘intellectual’ digital channel, originally named BBC Knowledge, is a form of philanthropy that is, no doubt, appreciated by its viewing public (normally counted in the tens of thousands).

What does all this mean for the programmes? Here, it is necessary to avoid – or, at least, be sceptical – of two tendencies. First, there is the celebration of cornucopia and choice, which simply repeats the industry’s PR and marketing rhetoric. Second, there is the nostalgic comparison of the present and the past when things were supposedly so much better. There is some justification for the latter, particularly in Britain where the public service and market compact of the 1960s and ‘70s was, indeed, a notably successful way of organising TV and enabling creativity to flourish. Williams, however, complained about it at the time. He and other critics attacked the ‘consensus’ TV that suppressed deeply felt differences. Marketisation may well have contributed to opening up representations of difference. Enthusiasts for the present find plenty to praise, most remarkably in terms of changing social mores, such as openness to sexual differences, an openness that was inconceivable, frankly, when Williams was writing about TV. Multiculturalism has had a significant impact too. Nevertheless, let’s be realistic, ultimately the bottom line rules now more so than ever, in a way that would have stifled great innovations of the past at birth.

As an armchair critic, Williams was fascinated by television’s representation of the world in factual and fiction forms. I believe that for him television was a democratising medium in a fundamental sense, already contributing to what he liked to call ‘the long revolution’. The mobile access in a private space to so much that was hitherto unavailable on a daily basis had to be acknowledged by intellectuals who might otherwise write television off as beneath them. In his Listener column, Williams offered an immanent critique of television that is a critique on the grounds of television itself, registering its successes and identifying its failures, in the hope, against the odds, of making it better.

Links of interest:
1950s British Television Nostalgia
TV Resources – British Shows
TV Museum: Raymond Williams
Pop Cultures: Raymond Williams
Raymond Williams

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