I Want My BBC
British television has increasingly become an arm of the Conservative Party — yet many on the Left nostalgically remember an earlier, more open media landscape. Was the BBC ever ours?
During this year’s installment of the annual Open City Documentary Festival in London, the leftist painter and writer Laura Grace Ford presented two television programs from 1990, under the common title “An Act of Unforgetting,” a phrase borrowed from Mark Fisher. These consisted of an episode of the four-part Summer on the Estate, set on a drastically underfunded public housing estate in Hackney, East London, and Battle of Trafalgar, a detailed account of the demonstration that year against Margaret Thatcher’s poll tax.
These were depictions of politically charged moments that would totally disappear from public discourse for the rest of the 1990s and 2000s — one, the evisceration of the welfare state that Thatcher inflicted on working-class communities, and two, the mass movement on the streets that brought her down. But today it seems extraordinary that they made it onto mainstream commercial television at all.
Battle of Trafalgar resembled the sort of engaged “citizen journalism” that would be used in organizations like Indymedia a decade later — an account of a “riot” from the alleged rioters’ perspective, forensic in its criticism of police tactics. For viewers accustomed to recent, crasser programs on similar subjects like Benefits Street, what was noticeable in Summer on the Estate was the absence of commentary, condemnation, or even musical score — no softening of the harsh but humane account of people forced into extreme circumstances. Both were shown on Channel 4, a commercial channel set up at the start of the 1980s that now specializes in game shows and reality TV.
The year 1990 was around the last time you could do something like this and expect it to be shown on mainstream British television. As the decade went on, the BBC shifted decisively to a neoliberal “internal market,” and Channel 4, eager to shed a reputation for being worthy and arty, moved toward a new populism.
Nearly thirty years later, Britain’s resurgent left has started to occupy televisual spaces again — but rather than making these sort of politicized documentaries, members of the Left are invited on an individual basis as pundits. They appear as lone “voices” on a TV landscape that has been purged of any left-wing presence at the level of production. Unsurprisingly, Corbynist circles obsess about the profound and increasingly undeniable media bias against Europe’s largest political party, but in so doing, they mostly focus on the places where the “voices” appear — the news, current affairs, the discussion program Question Time.
Owen Jones or Ash Sarkar now show up on television to criticize neoliberal policies, and this is, to anyone that remembers the 1990s and 2000s, a huge improvement. But there was never any possibility of a Battle of Trafalgar about the London riots of 2011, or a Summer on the Estate about the bedroom tax.
For the Corbynite left, there are two ways of looking at British broadcasting. One is mostly associated with Mark Fisher’s writing, and focuses on the more experimental and politicized programs that had been made by the state broadcaster, the BBC, and the commercial channels, ITV and Channel 4, between the 1950s and 1980s. In the blog posts and essays posthumously collected in the anthology K-Punk, or in Reclaim Modernity — a 2014 policy paper cowritten with Jeremy Gilbert — Fisher lamented their disappearance and replacement with a “populism” that viewing figures suggested wasn’t actually particularly popular, run by Oxbridge-educated producers who condescended to the alleged stupidity of their working-class audience.
The other is best associated with the influential work of Tom Mills, and it focuses on the structures of the BBC. Hostile to any nostalgia for a BBC of old, Mills’s The BBC: Myth of A Public Service (2016) traces its emergence out of the 1926 General Strike, as an instrument of the Conservative government in its battle with the Trades Union Congress. If Fisher lamented what was once possible, Mills insisted that socialists should expect nothing from the BBC.
Fisher looked around at the Channel 4 and BBC of the 2000s, where deliberately vapid content was presented as the result of the popular will, and compared it with an earlier generation of programs, particularly original television plays, that were produced roughly between the 1960s and the mid-1980s. This era is usually associated with people like Peter Watkins, Nigel Kneale, Dennis Potter, Trevor Griffiths, Alan Clarke, and Jack Rosenthal, mostly writers rather than directors, many of them from working-class backgrounds. Sometimes, these would focus directly on socialist politics — Potter’s Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (1965) and Griffiths’s Bill Brand (1976) dealt with young, socialist, working-class firebrands aspiring to become Labour MPs, and the bitter compromises they had to make along the way. But, more often, these plays were not about politics. They were political because they depicted with subtlety, sympathy, and — in Potter’s case — surreality how profound changes in Britain’s social makeup were affecting ordinary men and women.
Moreover, explicitly Marxist intellectuals could be found actually fronting and writing documentaries, such as John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), Stuart Hall’s The Spectre of Marxism (1983), or Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City (1979). In the culturally barren 2000s, Fisher wrote about how these plays and documentaries became part of everyday life and were talked about at work the next day, much as an appearance on Top of the Pops or a memorable football game. This was real popular culture, with a real respect for the intelligence of its viewers.
Fisher himself, from a working-class background in the industrial East Midlands, would recall that his route to radical philosophy and avant-garde art and film went via television and the music press, as there was simply no other way for someone like him. Much of the rage in his writing comes from the awareness that this link was decisively broken in the 1990s.
This doesn’t itself affect Mills’s argument as such — the positions at the top were still filled by reliable members of the British establishment, and giving access to writers and producers from working-class backgrounds was not the same thing as giving them democratic control. Many of the writers above would see their work banned by the BBC, such as Potter’s allegory of fascism, Brimstone and Treacle, or Watkins’s depiction of a nuclear aftermath, The War Game. Commercial channels, which had no pretensions to moral uplift, were behind some of the most politicized or daring programs of the era, like Bill Brand or The Prisoner.
What is undeniable, however, is the depths to which the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4’s programming have sunk. Though the odd original comedy or drama like Fleabag or Utopia does manage to cut through, arts programming invariably consists of an Oxbridge academic “going on a journey” through history of some kind, always as smug, simplistic, and safe as possible. BBC Four, the designated digital arts channel, intersperses these with repeats of Top of the Pops programs from the 1970s and ’80s. A tiny handful of survivors from the older generation, such as the documentary director Adam Curtis, or the writer-presenter Jonathan Meades, still make programs for a niche audience, shown on BBC Four in the graveyard shift, but Bill Brand was in a prime time slot on commercial TV.
Comparing the postwar generation to the socialist voices who appear on television today is in many ways flattering to the contemporary British left. Rather than a list of angsty white men, we have Ash Sarkar, Dawn Foster, Grace Blakeley, Maya Goodfellow, and Faiza Shaheen, along with Owen Jones, Aaron Bastani, and James Butler. Each of these people has done hugely important work in presenting a socialist case in the face of constant ridicule and sneering.
But they aren’t invited because the BBC or ITV or Channel 4 or Sky takes their ideas seriously. What they do take seriously is the new media ecology of takes, clicks, and likes, in which controversial ideas play especially well. As Jones, the first of these commentators to come to prominence in the early 2010s, has tirelessly pointed out, they are incessantly patronized and given political designations that other pundits don’t receive — Andrew Neil is a “journalist,” Jones is a “left-wing journalist.” They are always commentators on a given political event, but never behind the camera, never getting to set the agenda themselves. This is particularly extraordinary given that Novara Media, where Sarkar, Butler, and Bastani all work, is itself a production company. Yet aside from the delightful bizarro-world moment of Sarkar presenting a short clip on communism in Bologna, they never get to actually produce for television.
But then, much of what Novara — and the many podcasts that have followed them — produces on its own is a matter of politics as “current affairs,” responses to the particular issues of the day, basically in the form of talk radio. This is a curious reversal of the postwar era, where left-wing voices are much better remembered as writers of fiction than as political pundits. The problem with this isn’t just that it marginalizes political debate itself — because we appear on their terms — but more important still, because it limits the ways we think about politics. Rather than something that affects lives, affects the way we think, act, love, work, the way we relate to each other as human beings, politics remains a niche, adversarial pursuit where, at best, our people get to “own” their people.
The British left’s entirely justified rage against the BBC is not something that itself should be criticized or lamented just because it once made The Singing Detective. As controversies around its news editors like Laura Kuenssberg and Nick Robinson make clear, it is essentially the televisual arm of the Conservative Party. The proposals made to the 2019 Labour Party Conference by the Media Democracy Collective, which includes Mills, to democratize the BBC are to be welcomed. Away from the cameras, there are hints that young socialist voices are starting to tell stories rather than merely comment — the plays of the Salford Community Theatre, which draw on the innovations of the postwar era without repetition or nostalgia, are one example.
One could dismissively point to the fact that broadcast television has become another form of legacy media, increasingly ignored by anyone under forty — but as the rise of Netflix and its ilk makes clear, the line between television and the internet is becoming blurred. The most interesting aspect of the Media Democracy Collective’s ideas comes in its acknowledgment of this, with the replacement of the BBC’s license fee with a digital license fee, and its current structures with democratically accountable cooperatives, which would be “independent of both the government and the market.” Then, finally, we could think about production, rather than trying to cram our voices into someone else’s structures.
In these laudable proposals, though, there’s a significant omission — what will those cooperatives actually make? Here’s where there needs to be much more ambition on the Left. We should expect to see our voices in the mainstream, not as pundits, but as producers. When the police beat up protesters, we should expect Novara to be able to make something like Battle of Trafalgar. When our communities are under attack, we ought to be able to tell the world outside, as did Summer on the Estate. But we should go deeper than that. We should expect to see Ash Sarkar making a twenty-first-century The Country and the City, and the Salford Community Theatre making TV plays.
Socialists are now in front of the camera, which is great. Now it’s time to get behind it, too.