Blurring the lines 

1 January 2004

I’m often accused of being too political when I talk about broadcasting; that I am using my study of the medium as a soapbox for personal views – which is bad because ideally, television and radio should be free from politics, politicians or their doctrines. Broadcasting should be independent, impartial, private and free. The very notion that the two subjects of politics and broadcasting can be uttered in the same sentence is often too much for some.

Yet with the world as it is now, I believe that politics is closer to broadcasting than at any other time in its history.

Here in the so-called western or free world, we are somewhat proud of our free media. We consider them – along with other virtues such as democracy and general freedom of speech – as cornerstones in what we see as a basic blueprint of any progressive, civilised, developed society: the kind of blueprint many of our politicians are so keen to ensure, in the long run, exists throughout the world, be it out of benevolence or agendum. The question is, though, are things really that simple – and are these free media we have, virtuous as they may be over censored media, really that worthy of the pride we seem to have for them? For that matter, are they really that free?

I originally came to these questions through a natural cynicism towards much of modern television and radio, which comes with being a Reithian, as I think of myself. As a cheerleader for public service broadcasting, I hold the view that television and radio ought to be instruments of public education and enlightenment: to put it crudely, something that is there to improve the minds, bodies and lives of the masses; using the facilities of mass media at our hands for the purposes of good, and helping humankind evolve – in some way or another, anyway. Naturally, you can see how this would give me reservations towards the wholly commercial forms of broadcasting that have grown in the last 15-20 years, and which already exist in countries such as the United States where there is less regulation.

With the digital ‘revolution’ that took place at the turn of this century, and the changes in commercial television and radio that came with the 1990 Broadcasting Act a decade before, Britain has gone from being a country where most of its television and radio stations work on the basis of service first, profit second, to a state of affairs where the exact reverse seems to be true. It was a significant change in culture over a relatively short period, and a severely underreported fact. Deregulation of both independent television and radio, an explosion of dozens of new commercial television services (helped by the various new platforms and technology), many new radio stations and a significant loosening of the rules regarding who can own what, has lead to this new state of affairs where the very culture of running a television or radio station, the priorities, and the style have all changed so much. I don’t think that it is much of an exaggeration – or even particularly biased – to say that most commercial television and radio stations now operate fundamentally as businesses with the prime objective of providing the highest returns to the shareholders as possible. The actual output seems somewhat of an irrelevance, as long as it is constructive in making money and strengthening a company’s image, position and growth potential. Admittedly there has always been some of this in ITV and ILR since their respective beginnings in the 1950s and 70s, but it was only a small part of the picture then, not as institutionalised a strategy, and not bred into the minds of practically everybody in the industry, as is the case today. Only the BBC and, to an extent, Channel 4 seem to survive from the old public service set, simply because of their public-service-oriented organisational structures, but even they are appearing to make television in the same way as those who make it for money.

So what exactly is my problem? Surely I am just splitting hairs over two means to the same end here? On one hand, you make good television for nice clean ideological reasons and the public benefits; on the other, you start a business offering a product to a market, the market buys your product and result is happy consumers. Not exactly the same thing, but a close enough approximation for many. And after all, it’s only television: it’s not that important, is it?

Well, that’s my problem: I think it is. I am of the opinion that television and radio are hugely important, far more so than most people recognise. With so many people using television and radio as a major – if not the main – window onto the outside world, how can it not have a vast significance in affecting people’s understanding of many things: of the world we live in, what the priorities of our society are, what our culture is, or of who we are as people? A whole chapter of our education, a deep part of our culture and vast amounts of our political and factual knowledge come from what we view and hear over the broadcast media. This means that not only are the powers that control broadcasting carrying a somewhat important responsibility on their backs: there is also a huge opportunity for abusing that responsibility, to effect some level of control of the population at large.

This is what we all know happens in countries which have less-than-free media: China, parts of the Middle East and Africa, and once-upon-a-time, the vast swathes of Eurasia occupied by the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. They all try and control information, culture and education of the masses for their own ends. But the more I know to look for it, the more I notice certain similarities between media there and in the supposedly free world.

The most depressing of traits of a closed, controlled media can all be seen here, despite this supposed freedom. Take news coverage. The closed world offers us bias which is un-countered and made to sound like fact, overt and often excessive nationalism, the exhibition of certain other groups as figures of ‘hate’ (the ‘them and us’ mentality), favouritism towards government or other sympathetic bodies and, of course, complete neglect when it comes to reporting significant stories seen as ‘undesirable’. I can name a few broadcasters here and in the US who are quite blatantly responsible for this, even if in a small and subtle way. Fox News is by far the worse of the bunch in my view, effectively being a United States Government propaganda machine.

During the course of a war, the latest being no exception, broadcasters often use different, loaded phrases for what often seem to be the same things: such as ‘freedom fighters’ for the revolutionaries they like, and ‘terrorists’ for the ones they don’t. And it’s not as if government really seems to care about this lack of objectivity and fairness of hand either. We’ve seen from Blair, and Thatcher before him, the kinds of attacks the BBC has received for what has been dubbed a lack of patriotism and failure to support the government, even when they are not deserved.

And what about the rest of broadcast output? It may be a bit of a cliché to complain of television turning into a monoculture of simplistic, sensationalist, easy-to-watch, easy-to-forget TV, but there is an element of truth here, too. A clear and documented decline in the levels of good factual output, quality entertainment and coverage of the arts – to be replaced with sensationalist ‘infotainment’ – has indeed happened (take for example Tonight with Trevor McDonald versus World In Action ) and of course endless reality TV – which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but when it is covered in such a limiting and soap-opera-like way, you begin to despair – and it’s all interlaced with the biggest and most commonplace example of propaganda there is: the commercial. After all what is an advert, if it is not an extremely clever and highly biased presentation of a particular product with the sole intent of persuading you to buy it. And with broadcasters working primarily on the basis of profit, programmes risk becoming no more than fillers between commercial breaks, attracting people to the sales pitches. It is my slightly cynical view that as a consequence of this, television has deliberately ‘dumbed itself down’ – another cliché – in a bid to attract the less highbrow audience for whom advertising is more likely to be a success. Furthermore, broadcasters have a vested interest in making this less-intelligent audience as large as possible. If anything broadcasting, as an instrument of public enlightenment, is not only no longer a reality: it could be argued just as cogently that the reverse is happening.

To me, it sounds as if broadcasters here in the ‘free’ world are trying to direct just as much self-interested control over us as those in the ‘less-free’ world. More importantly, we are being denied the benefits of a television and radio service that encourages us to become a better-educated and more comprehensively cultured people. Even worse, broadcasters are often losing the objectivity and balance that ought to come with all broadcast journalism, replacing it with sensationalist shock stories and pretty graphics. It may be a subtler, more clever form of self-interested media, but it is one none the less.

Market-driven broadcasting may seem like a good idea on paper, but even businesses are not free from aphorisms on the corrupting influence of power, and there is one hell of a lot of power in broadcasting. It seems as if there might be a hell of a lot of corruption too, and we’re only just finding it out.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Sunday 16 June 2024