My first encounter with Raymond was about 30 years ago. It was provoked by a film I’d produced for the BBC, The Big Flame. We discussed the class nature of justice. He continued to show a critical interest in what I got up to – as I did in him. He was the first academic I was aware of having any interest in popular television. Now, of course, they’re all at it.
I hope you will forgive me if I talk this evening about politics as much as I talk about film and television.
If Raymond were here, he wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t.
So what is left? Under the undisputed hegemony of the United States, of Capitalism and Arnold Schwartzenegger? Capital has whipped labour’s ass, the Unions are neutered and the Liberal Democrats are conspicuously to the Left of the Labour Party. In fact, some Tory MPs of my youth would find Labour now too right wing for their delicate consciences – Sir Edward Boyle, an MP for this City, comes to mind. Frankly, there’s not much Left. Morrisonian nationalisation has been a failure. It’s off the agenda. The bond traders rule. Any voice raised against the free market is felt to be embarrassing – naïve and old fashioned. Just how those free marketeers were looked on themselves, a generation or so ago. The swing of the pendulum. Sorry, Raymond.
But let’s get more specific. What of the mass media? What is left there?
Allow me to approach the question obliquely.
In the 70’s there was a phrase made popular by the feminist movement. “The personal is the political”.
So the sub-title for these remarks is “Aston Villa, Rupert and Me”.
Aston Villa is an important historical and cultural force in this City and in my family. Its fortunes have helped, inter alia, to bind together and give a sense of belonging across the generations. My Grandad followed the Villa even before they moved to Villa Park in 1897 (they won the double in 1896-7) and he rarely missed a home game. My sons, who never met my Grandad, are emotionally connected to him. They too are claret and blue. My younger son, brought up in California and London, visits Villa Park as if it were a shrine. His club. His team. His great-Grandad’s club. Ours. Of course, Doug Ellis and his family know it’s theirs, in law. But without tens of thousands of people from my Grandad to my son it would never have become as valuable as it is.
So it is valuable in two senses. Culturally, to so many of us. As property, to a few. This latter value has been enormously increased lately by one man. Rupert Murdoch.
Now, Mr Murdoch is much maligned. He is only doing what a capitalist is supposed to do. He sees an unsatisfied desire and satisfies it. He sees an undervalued asset and acquires it. He spots an unexploited technology and exploits it. And makes a profit. He is entrepreneurial. And, as Adam Smith pointed out to us, the last thing entrepreneurs want is a market. That entails wasteful competition and lower profits. So Mr Murdoch does the sensible thing. He tries to own the market, or at least join with one or two others, oligopoly being better than nothing. All within the law, of course. If the law should inconvenience him, then he persuades the Government – any Government – to produce a more congenial one. What could be more straightforward than that? All you need is a vision, a willing bank and balls the size of the Ritz.
Getting to Villa Park is difficult for me. Mr Murdoch has a solution and I am grateful to him.. I already pay him £300 a year for my Sky Channels, but soon I’ll have the opportunity to pay him more. A dedicated digital channel carrying every Aston Villa game live into my home, plus, no doubt, team news, classic old re-runs and club gossip. A season ticket of the air. Heaven!
So how did all this come about? Let’s step back a little.
If there’s one person, historically, who covets monopoly more than the capitalist, it is the socialist politician. Broadcasting, until recently, was thought of as a monopoly, or near enough, for technical reasons, the scarcity of channels. The Left wanted to preserve the BBC’s monopoly, partly because the Beeb didn’t soil its soul with commerce and partly because the Left chose to believe the hypocritical nonsense that the Beeb was politically independent. It opposed Commercial TV. So did I. But I wanted the Beeb’s monopoly broken. I had worked under it. The arrogance, the take-it-or-leave-it sniffiness, the bureaucratic delay, the inefficiencies. The mandarin air of superiority.
The inward looking, snobbish disregard for the paying audience. There are echoes of all that still in the BBC. So break its monopoly, bring in the cold breeze of competition, give the audience some choice. Dispense with the idea that nationalisation, or socialisation or public service broadcasting has to be monopolistic. Creative entrepreneurs in the public sector, in the public interest, competing against a number of performance criteria, including audience appeal. That’s what I wanted.
The Government capitulated to the commercial lobby, although many on both sides of the House didn’t want the Beeb’s monopoly broken. The Beeb had had a good war. It was a national institution, appealed to conservatives in all parties and was itself a subtle lobbyist. The advertisers wanted Commercial TV, naturally; many newspapers didn’t, naturally. But for the Left, the essential fact is this: commercial broadcasting was seen to be a very risky business. It was a leap into the unknown. The start-up costs would be huge. It was a classical high cost-of-entry business. Would there be an audience? Without an audience, there would be no advertising and no income. Would there be enough creative and technical talent to make all these extra programmes? At first, the Jeremiah’s seemed justified. ITV was derided, audiences were small, losses were huge – one newspaper chain, Associated Newspapers, publishers of “The Daily Mail”, pulled out just before the turn, and lost a fortune. It was a nail biting time. A time for cool nerves. A time for deep pockets. Then it did turn. And it became a license to print money.
Does all that sound familiar?
Rupert Murdoch faced huge losses. At one point, with interest rates high, his debt vertiginous and the cash drain a severed artery, the whole of News International almost went under. The bank refinancing was on a knife edge – and some would say that it was the cash cows of The Sun and the News of the World, post Wapping, which saved him.
When he bought Twentieth Century Fox everyone said he had paid too much. Now, the Studio’s movies feed his TV stations around the world and it looks a bargain. When he bought the Premier League, it looked a silly price. Now it looks so cheap he has had to pay a lot more to renew. Ditto Rugby. Ditto cricket. Apart from rights, it’s a fixed cost business – pass break-even, and every new subscriber is largely profit. BSB is now capitalised at £6 billion. Nice work if you can get it.
So when I say that the essential fact for the Left was that these businesses were thought to be risky, I mean this: Capital embraces innovation, if it can see a return, seeks it and takes risks. Rise-reward ratios, a priori, are not an exact science. Many new ventures go to the wall, as do some old. We all know Schumpeter’s phrase: “the creative destruction of capitalism”. All very social Darwinist and ruthless. What is the Left’s alternative?
In my lifetime I have watched as the Left, underneath a cloud of empty rhetoric it is at last too embarrassed to utter, became the home of dead-in-the-water conservatism. In a period of stampeding change, which I shall come to in a moment, preserving the status quo ante and resisting the forces of history are policies guaranteed to sweep you into the dustbin. Is the Left up to grasping and helping to define the future?
The Labour Party’s response is to sleep with the enemy. Thatcher was a great radical force, ironically frustrated when up against the deep conservatism of this country, but nevertheless the agent of change, a paradigm shift, comparable with Attlee’s Government of 1945. After that we got Butskellism, with the Tories by and large accepting the post war settlement. Now, with the Tories threatening to lurch even further to the right, Blair will cannily try to occupy the middle ground, accepting Thatcher’s project as a fait accompli. The trouble is that this middle ground is well to the right of the middle ground of 30 or 40 years ago.
After ITV started, I changed my tune. Confiscation having never been a runner in this country, there should, I thought, be a sufficient length of licence for the contractors to recoup, plus a period when their initial high risk could be highly rewarded. Without this,, and in the absence of Government’s risking public money, how could risk capital be attracted in the future? But then, retaining the existing regional, federal structure, the licences should be transferred to consortia of local authorities. They in turn would hire production companies, some of them no doubt the existing contractors, to run the businesses and make the programmes on a cost plus basis. It would be up to each consortium to administer its public service remit, and consequently manipulate its advertising revenue. Because all profits would have to be spent on the Arts in each of the regions making up the consortium, it would also set up an interesting tension between the popular audience and the various kinds of artistic minorities – often called elites. So many of us, of course, enjoy both Blind Date and a visit to Simon Rattle, but it would be healthy to have the argument and be forced to make the allocations. No doubt some regional diversity and competition would have resulted. All to the good.
This arrangement would certainly have been better than the Treasury Levy, which the ITV companies wastefully manipulated. And I don’t think the loss of profits to the companies would have resulted in inferior programmes.
It would have been culturally enriching in the widest sense. And it would have devolved power and strengthened regional and local ties. What do we have now? Emasculated local authorities and the notorious Broadcasting Act, where licences were auctioned like North Sea oil patches.
Not much can be done about ITV. There is not the political will. ITV will consolidate, and three men will barter the schedule between them in a figurative smoke filled room, the Network Centre becoming window dressing. The ITC will remain a clucking nanny of a quango, neither use nor ornament, wagging its finger censoriously about sex and ignoring what really matters.
Channel 4 is a unique case. Anticipating the Yuppie 80s, it was advocated by people who felt excluded or suffocated by the existing institutional arrangements. It has, indeed, made a valuable contribution and is an important part of the ecology of television. But it now needs a shake up.
First, let’s remind ourselves how it came about. There are ironies – and opportunities to tease my friends. Many who supported – and fought for – Channel 4 were on the Left. So I regularly get them going by telling them that they wanted it because it appealed to their petit bourgeois fantasies.
The Left arrogantly used to call the Tories the Stupid Party. No-one personified that better than William Whitelaw. The act of a benign county squire, full of sweet reason and understanding, seemingly slow on the uptake – mumbled a lot – what a nice chap. [N.Y. Law firms – crocodile boots – watch out – “stupid as a fox”.] I bet he couldn’t believe his luck when he had the chance to help all these, shall I say, not natural friends of the Conservative Party. Little did they know they were pushing on such an open door, as he listened to their proposals. Did Maggie’s little Willie go running to her rubbing his hands with glee? He should have.
These creative people wanted the freedom to make their shows in their way, free of corporate supervision and bureaucracy. What they got, most of them, was the burden of running an undercapitalised company which was, in effect, a letterhead and a second mortgage, desperate for the next commission. What the Tories got was a major setback for the Unions and a stick to beat the BBC with. Because you can’t create an independent sector and cage it within Channel 4. It needed to grow. Naturally, it asked for more. But whereas Channel 4 was set up to accommodate for independents, was its reason for existing, the whole culture of the BBC was resistant. The independent sector [Dependent/Independent] continues to enrich us with much of the best and certainly the most innovative work. Many of us had known, and some of us had advocated for years, that fundamental changes were overdue at the BBC. It’s tragic that they are being carried out so late and with such lack of leadership. But once the 25% quota was forced on the Beeb, there was nowhee to hide.
Our actions often have unexpected consequences. The creation of Channel 4 has atomised the industry, led to sweat shop employment practices and injected a foreign, dangerous virus into the BBC, threatening its survival. The independent sector grew out of two political acts – the creation of Channel 4 itself and the imposition of the 25% quota. I will argue that we can’t leave it like that. We either rescind those acts, which is not an option, or we take steps to properly consolidate the independent sector.
Channel 4 is of immense value, at no cost to the taxpayer. Privatising would be a one-off treasury benefit and a huge loss to the community. Promises on the remit would be soon forgotten – that’s what has always happened after license applications. Please write to your MP demanding that Channel 4 should not be privatised.
But at the heart of Channel 4 is an anomaly which, I think, is a ticking bomb. It is rights, copyrights, the underlying ownership of programmes, the residual value, in perpetuity, after a programme has been shown (an maybe repeated) on the Channel. Why is this a problem? Well, media companies are valued on a number of criteria. Real estate – studios and so on. Brand name – MGM, Disney, BBC. The strength of their distribution and sales arms. But one of the most important, in some cases the most important, is the library and the ownership of copyrights. Companies are valued on it, can borrow with it, take over others through it. Libraries are valued not on current income, but on quite large multiples. Why? The proliferation of stations, outlets, continues, accelerates – cable, satellites, digital compression, fibre optics. The world is hungry for product, software, programmes, films.
Now Channel 4 is not a profit making company. It says it doesn’t want to be privatised. Then why does it need that library, if it is not being fattened up for sale? The Board can’t have it both ways – although I suspect there are some on that Board who would like to see it privatised. Surely Channel 4 should see itself merely as the broadcasting conduit of the producing companies – a way for them to reach the British public. The advertising revenue should pay for the programmes – most of them in full. All other rights should be retained by the producing companies, providing they are truly independent.
Better to turn those petit bourgeois fantasies into a secure reality than continue a hand to mouth existence. New Labour, at least, should be attracted to a proposal which is initially Treasury neutral, would eventually raise money in taxes and yet promises to provide some leverage for small businesses to grow in the fastest growing industry in the world. When Channel 4 started there was talk of letting a thousand flowers bloom. Now they need some compost.
Our society deserves, and TV thrives on, diversity. There is never one answer, one way of looking at things and it insults us to suppose that there is. Therefore it is important for there to be many different sensibilities at work among those who actually decide what goes on the screen. Not among those who want to make the programmes – there will always be a wide range there – but those with the power to green light.
Unfortunately, the funnels have become few and narrow. These changes are recent and seriously impoverishing. Take the BBC. Except those in charge of big strands, who have some autonomy, every programme decision, often in detail, is made by one of 2 men – the Controller of BBC 1 or BBC 2. In ITV, 3 companies dominate the network and in each programme category 1 person at the Network Centre decides what you may see. A small handful. They could each be Irving Thalberg, and it would still be wrong.
Channel 4 could make a progressive leap by setting an example reviewing its attitude towards Commissioning Editors. We need a systematic increase, over time, in the number of people who offer things up to you, the audience.
Contracts, therefore, should be for a fixed term of 3 years, except drama where long lead times require 5 years. The outgoing editor should be allowed an overlap with the incoming editor to ensure a smooth transition and prevent programmes becoming orphans in the handover. Editors should be paid well enough to attract the best people in the business. The pay would also have to compensate successful people for disrupting their own and their companies’ lives. It would become a matter of pride and of duty to perform a stint as a commissioning editor – and to have your performance clearly on display. Channel 4 is starting to look like any other institution, making a fetish of its own management structure, departmental heads and reporting procedures.
The Channel need to get back to basics. It needs to say: Channel 4 is its commissioning editors, in their relationship with the independent producers. Channel 4 is not in business to find shows which please the advertisers. It is in business to fulfil its remit and get what advertising revenue it can from the programmes which result from fulfilling its remit. It’s a question of emphasis and the more Channel 4 comes to resemble a conventional media company, the more it will get that emphasis wrong and lose its way.
When any brave, innovative company gets to be 15 or 20 years old, it starts to be concerned with perpetuating itself and takes its eye off the ball. It also starts to think that management itself is important, and difficult to replace. It creates a mystique about management. Not surprising really. It’s just management convincing itself and us that management is some arcane ability given to a few. Commissioning editors are not about management. They are about exercising their taste and loving good work out of people.
This reform would refresh the Channel, get rid of dead wood, do away with persistent cronyism and place the creative emphasis back where it belongs, in the producing community.
There is no substitute for throwing Commissioning Editors back on to the street before they become too corrupted by the perks of office and their own sense of self-importance.
The third reform, almost as a quid pro quo for he retention of rights, but certainly needed for its own sake, is an improvement in employment practices. The production companies would have to stop the disgraceful exploitation of all those young people desperate to get into the business. Prepared to work all hours for little or no pay – or even parents paying for the privilege. They would have to take training seriously and offer some dignity and security of employment. Jobs for life are over, freelance contracts are the future – but I don’t want a world of cruel and arrogant employers lording it over workers as though they were dockers crowding round the dock gates, made to fight each other for the privilege of a day’s work. [George Elvin]
All companies over a certain size should take on responsibility for training, for bringing on the next generation. Channel 4 cannot do this, it is not a direct employer. I know people there are concerned and John Willis has eloquently spoken out.
The industry has to have some ground rules and agreed best practice on employment and training – and the independent sector has to shoulder its responsibilities. Training spend, according to Skillset, is .4% of payroll, lower than coal or lignite – industries in terminal decline. Many production companies are concerned – as is P.A.C.T. – and we all know that the industry has changed – is changing – we can’t leave it all to the BBC. The private sector fed off the BBC for too long. [My case – on rights and being a Commissioning Editor] Let’s turn to the BBC. It is an awesome sight. Watching this dinosaur dodge the meteorites and gird its slow and massive frame to the challenge of a new environment. It provides more dramatic entertainment than most of us can put on its screen. It has tried slimming, it has tried self-mutilation, it has invited in host parasites (called Management Consultants). What an odd animal it is. If it didn’t exist, you certainly wouldn’t invent it.
I had some affection for the old BBC, or at least some of the people in it, as I did for Old Labour, or at least some of the people in it – but it is an exasperating place. As long ago as the 60s, for example, I suggested it would be a good idea for producers to negotiate real budgets in real money – not in BBC roubles – be given accurate weekly cost reports and forced to stick to budgets. In short, to know how much things cost. Not much to ask. That was in the 60s. They’re now getting round to it. We all have dozens of similar examples. Some of the changes now underway are necessary and long overdue, others are not. But the BBC will die unless it adapts. At best it will mutate into something else, taking some of its values with it.
The licence fee is probably doomed, at least in its present form. Just think about it. We live in a country where it is a criminal offence – you can be sent to jail – if you own a TV set and don’t pay £90 every year for a licence just to have the set. No matter that you don’t watch or listen to the BBC. They send spies round to catch you. Off to jail. How long will people stand for this? As long as BBC 1 gets more than 30% of the audience – much lower and people will ask their MPs why they should be compelled to pay for a service they don’t want. When the BBC was radio and TV we moaned and paid up. I still think it’s value for money, but in a 2 – 300 channel world in the next century, BBC will probably be financed by subscription (a form of Pay-TV), sponsorship and advertising. It’s difficult to put up a case from the Left. Direct Treasury grant perhaps, but a licence fee? We took to the street against another poll tax. If I want a Sky package, I subscribe. I would certainly subscribe to a BBC package which promised no advertising. How many are like me? Probably not £2 billion a year’s worth, which is nearly what the licence brings.
So in the medium term the Beeb will survive – but you can see the management planning for a very different world even as they deny it. Never believe what they say, just watch what they do.
I would like to see a BBC survive on a combination of subscription, foreign sales revenue and public money – whether the public money comes direct from the Treasury or from a Government Department. Television can hold its head up in any company as a force in education and the arts. Huw Weldon used to say that he was all for giving people what they wanted (which is the supposedly killer argument for the free market) but we don’t know what we want until we have been exposed to it. Two versions of public service broadcasting in the Beeb and Channel 4 would be enriching additions to even the wider multi-channel environment opening out to us.
The Arts always seem to work best when there is a tension between the requirement to satisfy the audience (box office, audience ratings) and the freedom for unconstrained artistic expression (subsidy, public money). That tension should be constantly fought over and disputed, but vigorously preserved.
Much back-slapping goes on among the establishment about the political independence of the Beeb and how it is unique. How the licence fee guarantees this freedom and what an example of the genius of British pragmatism it all is – unlike those Europeans with their vulgar political appointments. Well, remember the British invented hypocrisy and this is a ripe example. The licence fee guarantees no such independence, of course, but it is the Board of Governors we should be looking at. Royal Charter or not, it looks like a Quango, it’s appointed like a Quango and it acts like a Quango. So it is a Quango. Just look at the present vintage. The usual clapped out Labour politician now picking up a few quid in the House of Lords. The usual right wing Trade Union official. It’s called political balance. A couple of City bankers – so that’s all right then. Tescos and lots of other directorships. The chaplain to the Queen in Scotland – he’ll be useful. A retired diplomat. Ex civil servants. Some academics – I suppose they the time and need the money.
All safe Government appointees. All guaranteed to toe the line. No doubt loving their importance. Do you feel safer, sleep better, knowing that these people are in charge of your licence fee? Telling me what I can’t put on the screen for your entertainment? What a deferential, passive, forelock tugging nation we are.
Who the hell do these people think they are?
Why should they, rather than say 12 people culled at random from the electoral register, be in charge of the BBC? If those 12 jurors can decide the issue of my liberty, and it be a device which for hundreds of years has formed the foundation of all our liberties, then I’ll take 12 more to be the Govenors of the BBC.
Either that, or let the Government set clear rolling targets for performance and efficiency, let the Board be made up of worker representatives, and let them face an annual grilling from a select committee of MPs, who are at least elected by the people. And show it on TV, of course.
We live in a political environment where any attempt to democratise our society provokes a patronising smile. No matter. I believe the need to reclaim and extend democratic power are central to a programme for the Left. Our society has been centralised by stealth beyond recognition – our lives are in the hands of unelected surrogates and a new nomenclatura. We must reverse this and begin again the centuries old fight to make the people sovereign in their own land.
So while we’re at it, let me provoke more patronising smiles. The Board of Channel 4 should have an appointee from Government – after all, it occupies a valuable public resource, a waveband. The Chief Executive and other senior management have a right to be represented. The rest should be elected from the membership of P.A.C.T. The people who make the programmes, without whom Channel 4 would disappear, should sit at the table – not be supplicants on the street.
This country has constantly fought and been vigilant against autocracy, against plutocracy, against aristocracy – and now we face a virulent disease which has swept through the body politic – quangocracy. If ever there was a challenge for the democratic Left, it is this. If taken up, however, it would split the Left, because the Left is also riddled with ambitious placemen and women, coveting their little CBEs and knighthoods and hoping for a peerage. All the while feeling smug about their public service. Let’s see what a Labour Government will do. But don’t hold your breath. Labour wants to exclude hereditary peers – what a revolutionary act of political courage that will be. That’ll leave us with life peers. All political appointments. It will be the quango to end all quangos. The mother of all quangos. The ultimate jumbo quango.
An elected second chamber, retaining its delay power over the Commons, could join with all those underemployed Commons back benchers in the public invigilation and supervision of public bodies. That combined with stengthening local and regional accountability would go some way to wresting back power to the people and its representatives.
By the way, I confess to a quango. My arm was twisted to chair the production board at the British Film Institute – the kids there wanted some protection, someone to growl occasionally. But it meant becoming a Governor of the BFI. What a pompous waste of time, a bunch of us appointed b y the Minister (actually some civil servant, the Minister had probably never heard of any of us) in charge of your money – I had no idea what I was doing there, and certainly felt no legitimacy. I couldn’t wait to get out.
Quasi Autonomous National Government Organisations administer over £50 billion of our money and have control over much of our lives.
And we call ourselves a democracy!
What of the future of television? No-one knows for certain and don’t believe those who say they do. We’re only at the beginning of great change. It’s a 7 on the Richter scale. Think of yourselves as rural outworkers facing the steam engine and the spinning jenny.
For Huw Weldon’s generation the possibility of broadcasting attracting the whole nation to a common culture, like a village drinking from the same well, was a sustaining ideal. It was also merely the social manifestation of thetechnology of the day. Technology predicates social change. Be prepared for a bumpy, exciting ride.
Information Technology in the next century will be like petroleum has been in this. John D. Rockefeller realised that it was one thing to own an oil well, but quite another to get it to market. So that if he controlled the distribution, your oil well suddenly didn’t look too valuable an asset and he had you by the balls. Mr Murdoch is in the same bind. He is fighting Time Warner in New York City because they own the cable – and you need cable in skyscraper New York. Here, if he owns the encryption he might get a strangle hold on digital – although the cable companies are merging and moving to cut him off at the pass.
Eventually a handful of oil companies came to dominate much of the economy and the politics of this century. They were called the Seven Sisters.
Something familiar might happen in the Information Age. As Hollywood and the Computer Business and the Phone Companies – the Cable Operators and the Publishers dance around each other, another Seven or so Sisters could emerge to dominate the next Century, by controlling information. Maybe we should call them the Seven Big Brothers.
This literally irresponsible, cross border lock on information represents the greatest challenge to those who believe that power should be invested in the people. Because information is different. It is not only the basis for the economy of the future. It is also the essential nutrient for social and political health. Without it democracy is for the demagogue, not the people.
My generation of the Left blew it. We have to start again in the knowledge that winning the battle of ideas, the ideological battle, convincing people, is the basis of all successful political action.
Attlee won in 45 with a mandate for change because the battle for ideas had been won over the previous 10 years or so.
In the 70s during Keith Joseph’s long march through the Universities, the students threw eggs and refused to take up his challenge seriously. He persisted. While Thatcher was sitting at the feet of Hayek in a London drawing room, the Left was bickering and going its fissile way. When Ridley was quietly planning his revenge on Arthur Scargill for the humiliation of Saltley, the anti-Tory majority was falling apart and opening the way for Thatcher.
That force is spent and the Right is now turning in on itself.
The Left must begin again. Let’s hope it does so facing this amazing future, not repeating and living in the past.
Perhaps the fight for a meaningful democracy, real power devolved to the people, would be a place to start.
I want Raymond to have the last word.
How about these from “Culture and Society”?:
“The struggle for democracy is a struggle for the recognition of equality of being, or it is nothing.”
“The human crisis is always a crisis of understanding; what we genuinely understand, we can do.”