MT's essay
#31
The Great Renunciation
What I would like to argue here is this: what is suggested by the media coverage of the Ramsey story and others like it, this escalating dynamic that we have witnessed in the past two decades or so, is what I am going to call the Great Renunciation. What is being renounced, as a necessary part of the reorganization of global political economy, are ways of thinking about the purpose of the making of culture, most potently in broadcasting, that are informed by a concept of public interest and public good.

Those ways of thinking are, necessarily if mischievously, presented by the ideologues of the market as remnants from a time before. Remnants that are deemed to be not just anachronistic, but seen as toxins in a body politic that needs to ‘modernize,’ better to confront the challenges of global capital. It is as if the only way they can validate the present, their present, is to invalidate the past.

It is an ideological tendency brought to the fore by Ronald Reagan’s first Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Mark Fowler, who announced in 1981 that henceforth the public interest would be that in which the public was interested. Those people around the world and in the United States who argued that there were certain profound values that needed to be protected (and I include myself in that number, having spent the best part of two decades studying, writing and lecturing about public service broadcasting all over the planet) were treated as suffering from the affliction of either a rheumy-eyed nostalgia which was no longer relevant or a stubbornness that was, for the financial well-being of the company, dysfunctional. Either way, they had to go.

I can understand the latter argument better than the former. If there is an honest claim that what matters is the bottom line and the profit margin, while I may not agree with that at least I know what it means. The argument that cultural values as traditionally understood are not quite relevant or modern or useful to the society is something that mystifies me. What exactly is it that is no longer relevant? Creativity, diversity, quality, standards, serving a citizenry, balance, intelligence, curiosity, innovation, not pandering to a superficial mass taste, being optimistic that the audience can discover pleasures and understandings that they otherwise might not have known, independence from pressures that dilute and corrupt the process of the creative act, that erode journalistic standards, that diminish insights that the broadcaster can have when allowed to do so? Are these not relevant, are these passé, do we no longer need such things, such commitments?

There is running through the commentaries of the new modernism in cultural production a terrible conceit, an arrogance that avoids, because it has to, what Yeats called the “ancient questions’. It is for this reason that we must in the first instance fess up to the fact that the world has become, again, not just a dangerous place, but in those realms that strut their economic and populist significance, a vulgar reality. We need, indeed, to resurrect the very idea of vulgarity, loutishness, moral and intellectual impoverishment, to acknowledge the sourness and bile, resentment and fears of much of contemporary life. Let’s be honest, do any of us know very many happy and grounded people?

I remember only too well when David Mills and I were negotiating, with Channel Four and then ITV, budgets for our documentaries. The sense one had was that many of the people we were dealing with lived and breathed in terror. Their faces had the shadow of strain of a man who has just been told that he has cancer. It isn’t that they weren’t decent people, or that left to themselves their creativity would not pour forth. It’s just that they functioned in indecent circumstance. They were surrounded by circumstances in which to fail was anathema, where to take a risk was to court failure and where, ironically, the forces of competition made failure all that much more likely.

This is not how it should be. This is not healthy either for the individuals involved or the society they are supposed to serve.

What the ideologues of this new age of consumption have done, and will continue to do with ever greater relish, is to take the stuff of the vulgate and present it as if it were the equivalent of Rilke and Joyce, Greene and Hemingway, Picasso or Dali, the Beatles or Beethoven, Rowling or Tolkien, Hancock or Pynchon, Attenborough or Murrow, Tony Garnett or David Chase, Paddy Chayefsky or Dennis Potter. Well it isn’t, and the suggestion that it is, mouthed by apparently highly intelligent individuals, is simply stupid, so lacking in substance that there has to be an explanation.

And there is: self-interested cynicism, with an IV drip of greed. The emerging ‘culture’ of television is the twin of that other corporate culture in which preen the exquisite, perfectly formed grotesques of Enron and WorldCom, of Global Crossing and Arthur Andersen, the oil companies and their brethren elsewhere in the world of modern capital (I do not by the way subscribe to the chic, tad optimistic, notion of “late-capitalism”; It’s just beginning. I’m with Max Weber: “Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness.” Weber went mad and looking around one can begin to see why – the madness, as well as the pessimism).

Basic Moral Values
I came to know and think about the culture of broadcasting through the writing of a biography of Hugh Greene, Director General of the BBC from 1960 to 1969. If there was one bone of contention which Greene gnawed away at it was the question of the relationship between the need for creative freedom and a wider social responsibility. He explored the theme brilliantly in a speech in Rome in 1965, in which he spoke of his concern about attempts at censorship of broadcasters

“which works by causing artists and writers not to take risks, not to undertake those adventures of the spirit which must be at the heart of every truly new creative work…historically, the greatest risks have attached to the maintenance of what is right and honourable and true. Truth for ever on the scaffold, wrong for ever on the throne…”

In the same speech, he continues:

“Relevance is the key – relevance to the audience, and to the tide of opinion in society. Outrage is wrong. Shock may be good. Provocation can be healthy and indeed socially imperative. These are issues to which the broadcaster must apply his conscience.”

In the first draft that Charles Curran had prepared for Greene, he had written, “shock may not be good.” Greene literally put a red line though ‘not.’ There was no brighter star in Greene’s firmament than the creative mind, in whatever genre. And there was no greater responsibility that he possessed than to try and find, nurture and protect that mind. And for this the need to be “truly independent” was crucial because without that one could not be truthful, accurate, impartial, creative, one could not court failure and therefore one could not take risks. Truth for him – which involved the truth of journalism as well as the truth of art – was like a constantly endangered species that one needed to breed and then protect, all the better to sustain what he called “basic moral values – truthfulness, justice, freedom, compassion, tolerance.”

I refer back to Greene for two reasons. Those values and commitments – which invoke the “ancient questions” – remain vitally important to the maintenance of a mature, vital, creative, humane (the thing that troubles me most about large amounts of culture today is its lack of common humanity), democratic society. The second reason is to point up how such reasoning has all but disappeared from the landscape of public discourse, which is obsessed with the material, the consumed, the pragmatic, “inward investment,” as if the making of culture was like asking Toyota to build a car plant in Toledo. The generation which now rules the roost seems decidedly uncomfortable in using such language – bad career move maybe, bit old fashioned, so yesterday.

At the heart of that debate about culture in general, and broadcasting in particular are two elemental questions: what actually do we mean by standards, “great” programs, television as an art form but also infused with other, even larger, social, democratic purposes; and if we can assume that whatever the definitional problems, we all do recognize that, as John Donne wrote, “no man can draw a line twixt day and night, tho’ light and dark are tolerably distinguishable,” then what exactly were the arrangements – institutional as well as philosophical – in which such moments of excellence happened?

And can those arrangements live on in a market led world?

Even as one types that last sentence the silliness of the proposition feels all too clear. Of course, there will be moments of great television, and even more of great radio, which seems to me to be a potentially more resilient medium partly because in economic terms it is less important than television. That, however, is not the point, since the real question – given the fact that even deserts have the occasional tree – is what will the overall landscape of television look like: will there be original, edgy long-form documentaries that explore issues of magnitude?; will there be dramas that are literate, that challenge and needle and provoke, that linger in the memory because they made you think?; will there be news worthy of the democratic project, providing for the political life of the society in ways that serve it well, that feeds the needs of the citizen, that pushes and jostles its way onto the stage of public discourse because to ignore it would be foolish and perverse?; will there be children’s programs that are worthy of the colossal importance of raising our children well, of seeing in them the future, rather than a market to be sold to?; will there be comedy that works because of the brilliance of the performer and the fineness of the writing, in no need of a laugh track to simulate humor?; will there be the quirkily original, the eccentric, the lateral thinking and creativity that springs, unbeckoned but welcomed and applauded, from the folds of imagination?; will there be those moments when we watch not alone, but as part of an integrated culture, drawn together through the mysterious alchemies of communication?; will there be refinement, range, diversity, integrity, professionalism, courage, the ability to make mistakes?Will we have a culture of which we can be proud, and about which we will feel no shame? And can we do this within the same universe of social practice as the market, all the while regulated with the lightness of a snowflake?

I hope so, and if we can then fears about what is unfolding will have gladly and delightfully proven to be unwarranted. But then I think of the beast, looming and lurking, threatening, ravenous, uncaring – at least of others – dangerous, America, Britain, the planet as a cultural Jurassic Park, governed by the canny intelligence of velociraptors. There is, then, only one way to deal with the beast: the whip! The lash!
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MT's essay - by jameson245 - 09-11-2020, 11:53 AM
RE: MT's essay - by jameson245 - 09-11-2020, 11:54 AM
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