Posted tagged ‘BBC’

Television and nation building

October 18, 2011

Travelling between Ireland and Scotland recently. I was struck by one aspect of Irish life that may not, or at least not yet, be part of the Scottish experience in the same way: there is a shared conversation that accompanies Irish national life and that reaches into the community; and its fuel is television. Apart from the ongoing soul searching about the recession, national insolvency and the attempted economic comeback, the national conversation involves analysis of the current presidential campaign. This is not because the campaign has caught the public imagination; if anything, the conversation is often about how the candidates fall short. But the campaign is being fought over the airwaves, and the various live debates have been a major talking point. It helps that one or two candidates seem to be self-destructing in public, but generally the coming election is a shared experience of the national community, made possible because it is being broadcast to the country as it unfolds.

In fact, the shared experience of television is part of Ireland’s recent history. Almost everyone has some reference point, whether that is the iconic Late Late Show, or the political magazine programmes over the years such as Today Tonight and Prime Time, special series such as that on Charles Haughey, or just the Nine O’Clock news. Even as hundreds of channels became available through cable or satellite, the main national channels (and RTÉ in particular) stayed there as the focus of national conversation. This shaped the country’s identity: who can deny that Gay Byrne’s Late Late made modern Ireland what it is much more than any politician’s manifesto?

Over here in what is now my home in Scotland there is also something of a national conversation, but it is not securely anchored in the same way. Interestingly the key topic of that conversation is nation building, in the setting of the anticipated referendum on independence. But even as this topic is developed, it lacks the compelling support of national broadcasting, lacking in part because the broadcast media are part of a wider United Kingdom heritage. The BBC has a good bit of Scotland-specific programming, but is interspersed between the dominant shared British output. The same is true of STV, which is still on the whole the Scottish arm of the UK’s ITV. The iconic programmes are mostly British. Of course the national debate about Scotland’s future gets along fine anyway, but I do miss the immediate and compelling nature of the  national conversation I am used to in Ireland. I suspect that Scotland needs this also to secure its identity. Perhaps the time has come to consider a genuinely Scottish television station, to share the airwaves with the undoubtedly excellent BBC and other broadcasters.

Anti-grunt technology

June 30, 2011

I am genuinely so glad that technological work is being done to protect the more sensitive television viewers; more precisely, to protect viewers of the Wimbledon tennis tournament who blush, or otherwise react in a way to suggest that smelling salts are called for, whenever a tennis player is heard to grunt.

But first, let’s have a look – or a listen – at what this is all about. Let us go to the champion grunter, Ms Maria Sharapova. Here she is. This is indeed distracting. Then again, recently I heard someone say that the tennis was distracting him from her grunting, so maybe not everyone feels the same way.

But for those who do, the fiendishly clever technological experts at the BBC have come up with something. Here’s what we’re told: they have invented something that will leave your Wimbledon enjoyment grunt-free. Yes indeed.

‘The noise reduction programme, called Wimbledon NetMix, allows people to fade out the sound of the players grunting on court, and turn up the volume of the commentators.’

Yes, human progress moves ever onwards. Every year our life is made a little better.

The news that matters

June 1, 2011

If you happened to be listening to BBC Radio 4 yesterday at 5 pm, at the start of the station’s PM news programme, you will have been dismayed: not because of the arrival of General Mladic in The Hague, or even because of the nefarious goings-on in football governance body FIFA, but because the usual ‘pips’ leading up to the hour were missing, inexplicably. Yes indeed, this is a news item in its own right on the BBC. God bless them.

Debating with the extreme right

October 16, 2009

An issue which has been the subject of some heated discussion in the United Kingdom over recent weeks is how to, or whether to, engage in public debate with the far right British National Party (BNP). For those who may not be familiar with it, the BNP is a party that bases its political outlook on what it says is the need to ‘secure a future’ for the ‘indigenous peoples’ of these islands. In other words, its raison d’être is a racial one: to advance the case for what we call ‘white’ people, and therefore by definition to oppose non-white immigration and policy measures to protect the rights and liberties of all those who don’t come from the racial groups it supports. This is reinforced by the fact that, until now at least, membership of the party has been restricted under its rules to those whose ethnic origin is ‘indigenous Caucasian’.

The BNP also promotes a number of other policies, some of which are also race-related, and some of which are presumably intended to resonate with those who favour traditional or semi-mystical views of the British people. It seeks a withdrawal from the European Union, deportation of immigrants who commit crimes, the restoration of traditional weights and measures, and so forth.

The BNP has been able to gain some electoral ground in Britain, albeit only in certain settings and locations. It entered the European Parliament for the first time at the elections earlier this year, and it has been able to gain seats on some local councils. The approach of all the established parties in the United Kingdom has been to denounce it and to oppose its policies as racist and unacceptable.

The current controversy has arisen because the BBC’s Question Time has invited BNP leader, Nick Griffin, to join the panel on next Thursday’s programme. After some uncertainty as to what the Labour Party would do (it has had a policy of never sharing a platform with the BNP), all the established parties have agreed to be represented on the programme; the government will be represented by Justice Secretary Jack Straw. This in turn has been condemned by other Labour Party politicians, and more generally there has been a very lively debate about what the right approach to the BNP should be.

One thing we all know, or at least should know if we have read and understood European history, is that the extreme right in politics makes use of economic uncertainty and in such a setting sows the seeds of racism, intolerance and bigotry, and that this can translate into major social unrest. It is I believe the duty of our societies to protect the values and principles that we have taken from the 20th century experience with fascism. However, when we encounter those who don’t share those values, what do we do? Do we ignore them? And if we take them on, do we allow them a pubhlic platform so that we can debate them?

I confess I am not sure what the correct answer is. I am uneasy about parties such as the BNP being given the respectability that an appearance on a prominent political television programme may suggest. On the other hand, I also hope that those who appear with them may be articulate enough to demolish them and their views. I think I shall be watching the programme, but will probably do so with a deep sense of uneasiness.

Profiting by the news

August 30, 2009

This week on August 28th, something happened that could yet change the way we think and determine what we know and how we know it. It received news coverage, but I suspect not enough. So what was this event? It was the delivery of this year’s MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival. It was given by James Murdoch, son of Rupert Murdoch and chairman of News Corporation of Europe and Asia. And why was this lecture so important? Well, let me say a little about it, and leave it to you to judge.

First of all, while the lecture has, as I noted, received some media attention, the summaries of it in the press do not altogether do it justice. So I recommend that you actually read the whole thing, and you can find it here. There are a couple of recurring themes in it, which can be summarised thus: (i) media regulation is bad (I was going to say, ‘mostly bad’, or even just ‘often bad’, but I have re-read the lecture and cannot see anything in it to suggest that he thinks it is ever good); and (ii) always let the media develop through customer choice, which in turn should never be influenced, guided or constrained. In explaining these principles Murdoch argues that his company’s free market approach is intellectually to be seen as an application of Darwin’s evolution theory, while those who favour or apply regulation are the media equivalents of the followers of creationism.

But it is clear that Murdoch was delivering a story with a punch line, so we may as well come straight to that, the very last sentence in the lecture:

‘The only reliable, durable, and perpetual guarantor of independence is profit.’

In many ways you have to admire the Murdoch empire, which has prospered despite early disasters and near-bankruptcies. It has delivered some very smart media strategies and, I have no doubt, a number of popular media products. It has also gained a position in global media markets in English that give it an awesome power. But it seems to see one huge threat to the onward march of its corporate success, and that is the BBC. The BBC, Murdoch argues, is a broadcaster owned by the state and regulated by it, and subject to all sorts of rules and restrictions he clearly regards as barmy (including, as he points out, the requirement to give equal air time to opposing political or other viewpoints). But most of all his complaint is that the BBC has too much money, and is able to use its resources to expand its services and crowd out the competition. It is not driven by what customers want, he suggests, but by what regulators and ministers and various do-gooders want them to want. He sees this as particularly threatening as the previously separate media of broadcast and print start to merge, and in the light of the growth of the internet as a news medium. This is how he sees the BBC’s operations in this new world:

Most importantly, in this all-media marketplace, the expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy.
Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet.
Yet it is essential for the future of independent digital journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it.
We seem to have decided as a society to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market and then get bigger to compensate.

‘Most importantly, in this all-media marketplace, the expansion of state-sponsored journalism is a threat to the plurality and independence of news provision, which are so important for our democracy. Dumping free, state-sponsored news on the market makes it incredibly difficult for journalism to flourish on the internet. Yet it is essential for the future of independent digital journalism that a fair price can be charged for news to people who value it.

We seem to have decided as a society to let independence and plurality wither. To let the BBC throttle the news market and then get bigger to compensate.’

So what are we to make of all this? Is state-owned public broadcasting an assault on freedom of expression and independent news gathering, as Murdoch asserts? Is the idea that an organisation like the BBC represents impartiality just an illusion? Would an unregulated broadcast market still be selling independent journalism and programming? Murdoch’s answer to the latter, by the way, is to point to the growing arts coverage of Sky TV as proof that for-profit broadcasting does not slide into the gutter.

So, is the era of public service broadcasting over, or should it be? What does or would this mean for RTE? And what does the punter really want?

Television drama

July 2, 2009

One of the major cultural influences of the 1970s – well, at least one of the major cultural influences on me – was the BBC’s series Play for Today. These were one-off TV dramas, written by people who were, or who became, household names in serious creative writing for the screen; they included cultural giants such as Dennis Potter, Mike Leigh and Alan Bennett. The series tackled political, social and moral issues, as well as providing hugely memorable stories. Beyond that, the series demonstrated the capacity of television to be a genuine cultural force, rather than just a medium of light entertainment. It is arguable that, in its early years in the 1980s, Channel 4 picked up the baton (only to drop it with a clang later).

I was reminded of the sheer power of Play for Today when, recently, I came across an audio tape recording I made of one of the episodes in 1976; and although this may sound daft, even without the video the sound recording still transmitted the sheer intelligence of the play.

Television of course can and should serve a number of different purposes, and this certainly includes entertainment, and even entertainment pretending to be culture (as in the case of costume dramas and so forth). But one of these purposes should be to push the boat out through the genre of drama, to ask awkward questions and, occasionally, to refuse to answer them so that viewers are forced to engage their own minds. I wonder, however, whether television still does that in any consistent way. There are drama series which, at one level at least, manage to be innovative and occasionally provocative, including the really wonderful West Wing series that aired for much of this decade. I even find that the medical drama series House – practically the only TV show that I am watching consistently at the moment – has the capacity to stir up at times. But unless I am not properly reading the TV guides and the reviewers, there really is no contemporary equivalent of Play for Today. And indeed what there is in serious television (though the same is true, I would have to say, for trivial TV) tends to come from the US rather than from the UK.

The BBC was the great cultural influence of my youth. It is really time that it returned more deliberately to its original mission.

The wireless (bless it)

March 7, 2009

In a recent conversation I made a passing (and as I thought, quirky) reference to hearing a news report on ‘the wireless’. Two of the people I was talking to looked completely baffled. As far as they were concerned, the ‘wireless’ was WiFi, or cable-free internet access; whereas what I was referring to was the radio. 

As I was growing up, the radio played a huge part in my life. As a teenager I used to keep my transistor radio (yes, another baffling expression for the young people of today, I suspect) close to my bed and, last thing at night, would listen to Radio Luxembourg; my favourite DJ was Tony Prince, or ‘Prince Tony’  (or ‘your royal ruler’) as he liked to call himself. The quality of the medium wave broadcast was terrible, but that was how we expected it back then. And on Sunday afternoons it was Alan Freeman on BBC Radio 2 (or was it even still the ‘Light Programme‘?) with ‘Pick of the Pops‘. And at other times I would listen to radio plays. And on Radio Eireann (later to become RTE, the Irish national broadcaster), I would get a particular thrill from the ‘sponsored’ programmes, which as the name suggests were short (15 minutes, I think) programmes, each sponsored by some company or other. Some of them were totally absurd, with incomprehensible corporate advertising slogans interrupting the music. But great fun.

Nostalgia is almost always self-deception, but I do think fondly about the sense of community that you could get from radio back then. But I also know that radio today is far from dead. Indeed, from the computer at which I am sitting I can get live radio streams from just about any part of the world. Talk radio in the US has a huge (if not always honourable) role in political life. And classical music stations are sometimes quite extraordinarily good.

What I won’t get any more, though, is the thrill of the old wireless sets, with the names on the front of odd places like Droitwich from where the BBC transmitted its radio signals, or Athlone which was home to the RTE transmitter. I still have one, though in the vintage context rather a high-tech bit of equipment. My parents bought it, I think in the early 1960s. It is a Philips radio, and it is a stereo hi-fi machine (a bit of technology that was nearly useless as there was pretty much no stereo programming or broadcasting). It still sits in my house and, when switched on and warmed up (a process that takes a minute or two) it still transmits programmes from those channels that its particular technology can pick up. And it looks really good.

Yes, I must be really old!

Public service broadcasting

January 26, 2009

If anyone from somewhere other than these islands is reading this, they may not know what I am talking about in this post, so a quick explanation up front. Jonathan Ross is a radio and television presenter on the BBC; his regular Friday night TV show on BBC1 draws millions of viewers, and he has gained great popularity with his quick wit and irreverent manner, and his somewhat risqué approach to some topics. Russell Brand is a comedian with an unusual style in comedy and clothes. They are good friends, and in October 2008 they created a scandal when they made some prank telephone calls (broadcast on Brand’s radio show) to a respected actor suggesting that one of them had had sex with the actor’s granddaughter. There was significant fall-out as sections of the public protested. Brand had to resign from his slot on the BBC, and Ross was suspended from his radio and TV programmes for three months.

Last Friday Jonathan Ross returned to his regular show, and opened it with an apology for his misjudgement in the prank calls – before returning fairly quickly to his irreverent interviewing style, before an audience of some 4 million.

I confess I am a regular viewer of the television show, and felt the gap in the schedules during his enforced absence. I also rather like Russell Brand’s quirky style of comedy. And yet, there seems to me to be something of broader significance in all this – evidence of the evaporation of a shared understanding of what the broadcast media can and should, or cannot and should not, do. Whether we may have liked it or not, in the 1960s – when there were just a handful of stations – there was a fairly clear consensus of the limits imposed on broadcasters, who by and large were in the business of providing a public service that focused on education, culture and drama, even when the programme was about entertainment. Nowadays of course we have hundreds of stations, and we will shortly have thousands and thousands as virtually anyone can broadcast over the internet. Can we still hope to maintain some sort of code of conduct in those circumstances, and do we need to?

It is sometimes argued that for those who were able to view it the BBC was one of the most important and positive cultural influences of the second half of the 20th century. It more or less defined the concept of public service broadcasting. And many (sometimes including me) express the view that this key mission must not only be protected but enforced.  But is there a public appetite for, or even tolerance of, a broadcaster that concerns itself solely with high-minded and educational programmes?

Actually, I suspect there is, though I am not sure that it needs to be focused just on one media organisation such as the BBC. When multi-channel TV first made an appearance in this part of the world, the majority of the new channels contained programmes that were almost entirely rubbish. Games shows (with ridiculously low intellectual standards), pulp music, more games shows, low budget soaps, and of course games shows – these were the standard fare. Twenty or more years on, many of the huge selection of channels serve up educational topics, culture, the arts, history, politics, and so on. Public service broadcasting may be more dispersed than previously, but it is still alive and well.

I suspect we can cut the BBC some slack. Let it have Jonathan Ross and even some games shows – and then let it also continue to fly the flag for public service broadcasting. And when someone gets something wrong, let us not pretend that this is a global disaster that requires a government to fall. Let us have high standards, but let us also relax a little.