Friday, February 06, 2004

Echoes from the past 

Just found a 1979 issue of Encounter magazine, which includes an article on 'the BBC... in a self-critical mood'. The memo printed here displays a strange pre-occupation with socialism, saying that one of the virtues of the BBC is its independence from the prevailing economic system. Indeed, 'you could levy a licence fee under a socialist economic system as well as you do now under a mixed economy' - a recommendation perhaps?

There are some pointed comments on how Britain is united over democracy, but not over its economic order, and a quote from Susan Sontag - 'a capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetise the injustices of class, race and sex.' "One would need to be a rigid Marxist to believe this to be true of BBC Television'. Indeed.

And perhaps there's a battle cry into the future against Mr. Bush et al? 'It is characteristic... of profoundly undemocratic movements to make up for their electoral failure by sensational acts to ensure publicity for their views which they could not otherwise achieve.' So if Florida cut a bit too close to the bone, a bit of pioneering anti-terrorist action should do the trick here... But the BBC has his number, and it knows it must set limits 'to allow it to stay alive against totalitarian forces of various persuasions'.

The memo goes further, though, and later casts itself as an alternative monarch - 'guardian of standards, and defender of the 'independence faith''. A secular faith! Sounds like the Beeb's revolutionary plans are quite advanced, but the writer soon realises he may have said too much and backs down a little, admitting 'broadcasters are poor political theorists'...

Anyway, enough of my own poor theorising. The reason I was reading the article, of course, was to look for things relevant to the current situation. And there are certainly some bitterly ironic echoes. One BBC characteristic praised by the memo was 'security of employment for its staff... short of being found with a hand in the till, an established BBC staff member can look forward to an entire professional career within the BBC'. It also asserts that the BBC must display courage 'vis-a-vis the public when some of its members object to... uncomfortable discoveries of information, critical stances on cherished beliefs, or uncommon and upsetting creative insights'. Not just the public it needs to be careful of there, though, is it?

Regarding editorial decisions, the memo warns (with amazing prescience) that there will be 'times when the broadcasting of certain programmes, which for all sorts of reasons may lack the final authority that makes them safe from damaging counter-attack, will reduce the rights and freedom of other producers to move in the same area because of the resulting opposition of an entire profession or community'. Oh, what wonders can be worked with the benefit of foresight!

But, there's enough to relish for those who are against the BBC too - 'we need to recognise that the BBC institutional interest and the public interest may not always be the same... the institutional interest may in the future have to be made secondary to the public interest... public accountability needs to be made manifest at lower than controller level [not more resignations!]'. You can't accuse the BBC of a whitewash, anyway...

A parting punch of pride - 'all these assertions and arguments are in turn based on the belief that the BBC remains the greatest British cultural invention of the 20th century and that its disappearance would be a colossal disaster. We must see to it that this disaster never occurs'.

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