MAY’S MINIATURES – S.01 E.06: Walter Benjamin – ‘In a Big Old City’ [fragment] (c.1906-12)

Imagine yourself back in Vienna in the early years of the twentieth century. This is a city with historical Celtic migration and which suffered a plague in 1679 which wiped out a third of its population. It has been known for its composers – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. The BBC has reported that in 1913, Adolf Hitler, Leon Trotsky, Josip Broz Tito, Sigmund Freud and Joseph Stalin all lived within a few miles of each other in central Vienna, some of them becoming regulars at the same coffeehouses.

Walter Benjamin is best known for his philosophical history writing which is favoured by intellectual left-wingers. No syllabus seriously aiming to analyse culture is complete without his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. This German Jewish writer committed suicide in 1940 while on the French-Spanish border and trying to escape the advancing Wehrmacht. The rooting of this short fragment in Vienna cannot be random. This was both “Red Vienna” known for its socialist agitation and also the home of the “Austrian School” of liberal capitalist economists, the most famous of whom was Friedrich August von Hayek. They saw economics, jobs and money, being governed by the motivations and actions of individuals and they saw a regulatory state as oppressive. This story consists of two individuals. How do they choose to spend their time? Are they part of a society?

Broadcast on YouTube on Tuesday 14 July 2020 here:

More detailed analysis and thoughts on this story will appear here later.

Defend the BBC and democratise the BBC

I have just had a piece published here that makes the case for the BBC as a honest broker and guardian of pluralism, able to cut across binary divides of left/right, Leave/Remain, Labour/Tory and provide a public sphere for all. A subscription model – which is currently unfeasible, as it even its supporters admit – would destroy opportunities for intra-cultural communication and understanding in the UK.

Within the constraints of that piece, there was no space to include crucial additional arguments about the regions and nations of the UK and the reforms that the BBC is crying out for in terms of how it is governed. So, here they are, among other no doubt Utopian ramblings!

BBC PURPOSES #1: a political honest broker?

Firstly, what is the licence fee? Author of a Dictionary of Journalism, Tony Harcup (2014) defines it as the means ‘to fund the BBC as an independent entity’ and as a ‘mechanism to provide public funding for the main public service broadcaster without drawing on direct taxation or coming under the direct control of the government of the day.’

Much of the political left feels, erroneously, that it the BBC is directly controlled by the government of the day. However, its present animus is at least partly well-grounded: the BBC did little to challenge lies spread by the right-wing press, uncritically relaying untruths in how it reported the events of 9 December 2019 when Matt Hancock was reported as being “punched” by punched by a Labour protester who did not such thing. Tweets were deleted, but the memory remains, to paraphrase Metallica featuring Patti Smith… The BBC remains shackled by its own dependence on the government to renew the licence fee every ten years.

While it seems true that BBC may have not fully understood Brexit (1) and has displayed unconscious ‘Remain’ bias, claims that the BBC is biased towards the “liberal-left” do not bear close examination. For every Adam Curtis or Jonathan Meades documentary, there have been several David Starkey documentaries or cantankerous guest-spots and more than several hundred hours of John Humphrys… (2) The Moral Maze and Question Time panel composition repeatedly overemphasises right-wing commentators.

It takes chutzpah for the Cummingsite Tories to vandalise a BBC which has granted Brexit spokespeople significantly more airtime than the Green Party; a recent count gives Farage a total of nine more Question Time appearances than Greens’ Caroline Lucas MP, who has been repeatedly elected to the House of Commons since 2010. The BBC has done immeasurably more to popularise science than Cummings’s rambling blog missives. His boss Johnson should be grateful to the Corporation for how it popularised his performed “loveable buffoon” persona via no fewer than seven Have I Got News for You (BBC1) appearances. 

As the likes of Steven Barnett and Andrew Curry (1994) and Tom Mills (2016) have documented, the Director-Generals Michael Checkland and John Birt remodelled the previous pluralistic, ‘One Nation’ paternalism of the BBC into a more market-driven, business-fixated neoliberal institution. It had a populist obsession with programmes’ headline ratings in place of their impacts. However, it remains a public institution which contains within it the potential to be fairer to those of all political views in Britain, whether nationalist, internationalist, left-wing, right-wing or liberal. Or even green, heaven forbid we fail to listen to a global scientific consensus.

Should we see any merits in a putative subscription model? Well, to reconcile differing levels of public commitment to the BBC, we might consider a system of levy payments for ‘public media’ after the recent German model. To try to accommodate the pro-subscription perspectives, maybe an element of gradation in payment could be considered, in addition to some reductions and inceases depending on council tax banding. For instance, BBC “partisans” could pay £35 a month, to get all BBC output and access to more archival material, encompassing iPlayer, BritBox, BBC Sounds and the incredible Box of Broadcasts, only available currently to University card holders. Then, BBC “objectors” could opt to pay £3.50 a month to get the basic channels: BBC1 and BBC2. BBC “fence-sitters” could keep paying the current £12 monthly rate to maintain access to iPlayer, all radio and TV channels and the unwieldy BBC Sounds.

I will leave whether this would work out financially to the BBC’s (understandably many) accountants – but it seems to me that it might be the only model that could feasibly accommodate an element of ‘choice’ but which might financially enable the BBC to maintain its current level of services and role as the national broadcaster. Even this reform would be made impractical by the fact that most homes have Freeview, and this model would require the sort of consistent broadband access across the UK which does not exist and is unlikely to for a long time. Ironic, considering how Labour was planning free universal broadband!

Better, surely, to maintain a straightforward, universally accessible utility. While certain rabid BBC critics may often shout the loudest, they just expose themselves as aggressive, cultural wreckers. The more intelligent of them may call themselves “sovereign consumers” but in their cussed individuality they seem not to grasp the concept and reality of the ‘public’, and thus do not appreciate a national broadcaster which can cater to myriad audiences. The whole of the public should be the BBC’s masters, not Tony Hall or successor, and certainly not Boris Johnson.

BBC PURPOSES #2: Education and Programming

Furthermore, the BBC also has a vastly important role in the field of education. I propose wider public access to existing services like Learning on Screen. The BBC should have a greater role in the classroom from secondary level upwards; why not, when it has produced not just BBC Bitesize but programming as responsible and challenging as The Ascent of Man (BBC2, 1973), Muslims Like Us (BBC2, 2016), its Open University output since the early 1970s and BBC Bristol’s Natural History Unit’s programmes with David Attenborough?

The last decade has seen big-hitting dramas like Line of Duty (2012- ) and Call the Midwife (2012- ), comedies of the calibre of Peter Kay’s Car Share (2015-18), Detectorists (2014-17) and Mum (2016-19); as well as the masterly, currently under-publicised anthology series Inside No. 9 (2014- ). Outstanding documentaries have included Liza Williams’s probing, corrective-to-history The Yorkshire Ripper Files: A Very British Crime Story (2019), and one that Dominic Cummings might learn from: Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal (2019).

But, it is critical to get away from my own preferences – to see things not just from in terms of “me”, but the wider “we“. Clearly, others deeply value programmes that aren’t my cup of tea like Mrs Brown’s Boys, The One Show or Countryfile. I don’t begrudge them their pleasures. I will however assert that it is time that EastEnders be replaced with a soap opera that tackles social issues like Julia Smith’s creation used to, but also inject some much-needed humour? What about basing it in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a place more culturally aligned with Glasgow than London? The great Tyneside writer Tom Hadaway had a similar idea of a soap set around Newcastle’s Central Station in the 1990s, but his idea was regrettably not realized, as James Leggott (2016) has detailed.

Yes, it is vital to protect the BBC in Joan Bakewell and Nicholas Garnham (1970)’s characterisation of it as a pluralist church. So far, so Peter Hitchens. It is just as important that it be licensed to be in a composite of a Weimar cabaret venue and a national theatre: in which any ideas can be vigorously and sometimes irreverently contested. Still further, not quite so Peter Hitchens!

We need to learn from Jonathan Coe and Chris Morris’s wise comments on the licensed fool nature of satire these days: it currently serves the right in politics for politicians as a whole to be denigrated. Satire that does not take into account fundamental truths about power is toothless and banal. Of course, all Chris Morrises and Peter Cooks need their Ken Dodds or Les Dawsons and, unfortunately, neither the BBC nor ITV has not done enough to sustain these national traditions of dissident satire and music hall.

All of us benefit when in drama and comedy all different ideologies are rigorously scrutinised and dramatised – an example from my PhD study would be Robin Chapman’s Play for Today – ‘Come the Revolution’ (broadcast 1 week before ‘Abigail’s Party’ in late October 1977). Play for Today has been lazily stereotyped by Dominic Sandbrook as constituting ‘left-wing propaganda’. Yet, Chapman’s play is a complex dissection of a small, left-wing company akin to Portable Theatre being infiltrated and taken over by a doctrinaire Workers’ Revolution Party-like hard left sect. To me, the play signifies that left-wing people should develop the legacy of Theatre Workshop and be cautionary about an agitprop theatre that is a means of power accumulation for sects. It is brilliantly written and has magnificent performances from Vivian Pickles and Kenneth Colley as a pair of smooth, culturally influential sectarians. I sense it is not the only PFT that, in the wake of the IMF and Winter of Discontent “crises”, anatomised the left…

BBC PURPOSES #3: SERVING A DIVERSITY OF NEEDS?

Some on the political right want to destroy broadcasting for all minority interests other than their own. What would they have to say if the political left aimed to end The Last Night of the Proms, Antiques Roadshow, Songs of Praise, Royal family coverage and Test Match Special? I am only enamoured of the last of these, but can see that other people deeply value the others and they share the same country (, so I respect their traditional pleasures. More intelligent and emotionally sensitive Conservatives realise they should permit programmes and stations that younger or more left-wing people value. Football fans, regardless of their team allegiance, can surely agree that 5Live provides immeasurably richer coverage than Talk Sport?

Rather than the government – ironically led by an unelected bureaucrat – taking an axe to a century of accumulated wisdom, triumphs and failures, what about taking away the government’s power to renew or abolish the Royal Charter every ten years? What about placing the BBC on a permanent footing so that it is truly – and not quasi – autonomous from political interference? In addition, we should enact the Media Reform Coalition’s recent proposals that the BBC Board of Governors be comprised of 50% from those elected by staff and 50% from those elected by licence fee payers. It is surely better to democratise the BBC BOG rather than having most of them appointed directly by politicians in government or their appointees. It is about time that the Corporation’s Governors became a corpus reflective of the country at large, and not in the debt of government. It is encouraging that Rebecca Long-Bailey has endorsed these proposals: I await with interest what the other Labour leadership candidates have to say…

When the UK frays, the BBC gets caught in the crossfire; as with the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 when it came under heavy fire from the ‘Yes’ campaign for its perceived pro-Unionist coverage; a coverage inevitable given the ‘British’ third of the BBC’s name. The BBC is incredibly vulnerable now to claims that it just represents the two main national ‘capitals’: London and environs and the Unionist but ‘Remain’ voting stronghold of Edinburgh. It needs to show it cares just as much about the people of Belfast and Basingstoke, Glasgow and Liverpool.

OUR BBC’S FUTURE: SOME MODEST PROPOSALS

As Tom Hazeldine rightly argued in the New Left Review in 2017, much of the northern and midlands Brexit vote was down to resentment that investment and economic resources have been concentrated around London and the South East. Most northern and midlands towns and cities have proportionately lost out due to the Cameron-May governments’ economic policies of austerity. There is also much-documented English resentment at Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales having a degree of devolved autonomy and at the Barnett Formula. Now, the drive is rightly on for the BBC to broadcast more from and in the voices of the regions. We need to consign the sort of attacks that Steph McGovern received from those inside and outside the BBC who objected to her fine Teesside accent firmly in the past.

2027 is when the real battle over the Licence Fee will be won and lost; surely, democratic political parties must advocate a reformed, democratised BBC to consign Dominic Cummings’s elitist idea of a neutered, subscription-only BBC to the dustbin of history.

(1) Who has, though?! It could be argued that the government has a questionable grasp of the economic aspects of a No Deal Brexit, just as FBPE-rs have a doubtful grasp of the plurality of Brexiters’ positions: there are indeed thousands of personal private Brexits living in people’s minds across the country… The Yaxley-Lennon minority will be entirely unsavoury, but most will just be a quiet patriotism that does not necessarily want to Other minority groups. I want to hear from British Asian Leavers in Luton, Bradford or Slough, just like I’d want to hear from Remainers in the Brexit central of Lincolnshire… The media has had a role in creating prevalent visions of what ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ are like, based on partial readings of electoral geography; this is regrettable and yet another reason for improved public service broadcasting.

(2) In The Conversation blog piece, I link to John Humphrys without highlighting how he is now being paid to purvey his right-wing, traditionalist views within the pages of the Daily Mail.

(3) Some might say, like Guy Shrubsole, that they don’t share enough…