The BBC and its Tory critics

cruel-sea-poster

One of the most vociferous critics of the BBC is the Daily Mail columnist Simon Heffer. He has routinely attacked the public service broadcaster for its ‘lefty bias’ and he’d like to see it emasculated. He presents his general view in this column written for the Telegraph. To be fair to Heffer, his is a fiercely independent voice rather than a mouthpiece for the Conservative Party, but even so it is strange to see so partisan a commentator given what is effectively carte blanche on BBC4 (a channel he would like to see closed down) to explain his own take on a specific issue about British film culture in ‘Fifties British War Films: Days of Glory‘.

BBC4 specialises in documentaries of various kinds, often using archive film materials and sometimes, as in this case, introducing a season of films. Heffers’ programme, which he wrote himself, follows a familiar pattern with ‘straight to camera’ presentation by the man himself plus clips from the films he wants to discuss and interviews with actors, directors and experts. The experts here are Peter Hennessy, well-known historian of post-war Britain, and Matthew Sweet who has built a reputation through books and TV programmes like this as a popular film historian. They provide useful observations on Britain and British films in the 1950s but neither of them engage with the central question of how representations of national identity might work in a specific film culture. There are in fact no alternative voices to challenge Heffer’s own simplistic notions.

Heffer has just one strategy to nullify criticism. He mentions the critics of the 1950s war films and then simply re-asserts his own position without actually engaging in debate. Then he moves on. In the Independent today, TV critic Tom Sutcliffe suggests that the programme was most enjoyable because it was so amusing – and that this was all down to Heffer’s presentation. Sutcliffe suggests that it isn’t subtle but “I suspect that Heffer may think that subtlety is subversively un-British in itself”. It’s true that it was amusing in this uncomfortable way, but that doesn’t make up for the lamentable analysis. It’s unlikely that BBC4 will broadcast a more carefully prepared analytical essay about British national identity as represented in its war films – but it might be interesting to see an opposing ‘personal view’ of what representations of 1939-45 in British films might mean to British audiences.

Some of the films Heffer discusses are showing on BBC4 over the next few days. The films themselves are certainly worth watching. What Heffer doesn’t say is that there were other films that featured wartime narratives (and what happened to service personnel after they were demobbed) but that overall the numbers of war films have been over-emphasised in the histories of the period.

History, Media and Memory

Ginger (Elle Fanning) worries about the bomb with a family friend played by Annette Benning in ‘Ginger & Rosa’

Ginger & Rosa, the new film from British director Sally Potter is set at the time of the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962. Most people in their 60s today will remember the event – when the world came closest to the possibility of a nuclear war between the West and the Soviet Union. Whether there was a real possibility of war or whether this was just the most dramatic period in the game of brinkmanship between US President Kennedy and Soviet Chairman Kruschev, is something for historians to argue about, but in media terms this was one of the major global events of the period at a time when television in particular was beginning to become an important part of people’s lives, not just in the US and UK but all over the world.

BBC Radio 4 invited Rosie Boycott (born 1951), ex-editor of British newspapers and magazines and a ‘media personality’ in the UK, to review Ginger & Rosa. She remembered the Cuban missile crisis and she also referred to the Kennedy assassination. Kirsty Lang and Rosie Boycott both claimed that as children they had been terrified by the prospect of nuclear war. Boycott also said that she remembered being told about the Kennedy assassination at school. She went to Cheltenham Ladies College – I’m assuming as a boarder, in which case her story makes sense since Kennedy was shot around 6.30 pm UK time. My point here is that the telling of history has changed.

This ‘remembering of historical events’ has now become a modern media phenomenon. The beginnings of ‘live TV news’ was around this time with the Telstar satellites linking North America and Europe. The events of the mid 1960s such as the Six Day War in 1966, the Prague Spring in 1968 and then the war in Vietnam were media events on a scale and immediacy not seen before. ‘Memories’ became live or near live media memories.

But shared though these memories were as media events, the meanings weren’t necessarily equally shared. In her review of Ginger & Rosa, Boycott also asserts that the Sixties decade was a time when people became more selfish and more concerned with ‘self-expression’. This is a familiar observation, often a pejorative comment on social behaviour, but it’s also a very metropolitan statement, applying to a relatively small group of people in London. Elsewhere in the UK, the Sixties change in attitudes and behaviour was a much later phenomenon. Media coverage of major events and changes in social behaviour has been greatly extended since 1962 and media archives preserve a great deal of contemporary material. But how they relate to personal memories is still quite complex.

One twentysomething asking older audience members for Ginger & Rosa about what it was like in schools in the UK in 1962, said “Did you have drills for nuclear attacks?”. Presumably he had seen those US newsreels and public information films about what to do if the missiles came. My memory tells me that we took little notice of the possibility of nuclear destruction – perhaps I’ve repressed that memory? The UK government followed British practice and compiled advice on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack but intended to release propaganda only when an attack was imminent. Wikipedia has quite a good entry on the Protect and Survive materials eventually forced out for public scrutiny  in 1980 and immediately lampooned on TV and then in a more subtle way via a famous graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982) by Raymond Briggs.

Storms and News Values

Clearing up the damage in Cuba (from the Guardian website)

The devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy in the North East US and especially in Manhattan has dominated UK TV and radio reports for the last 24 hours. It’s a big story and the people affected all need our support. For media students taking a ‘distanced’ view, however, the reporting also demonstrates some of the factors governing how news reports are constructed and how different events are given different priorities.

In each edition of the Media Student’s Book we have focused on ‘News Values’ and the Hurricane Sandy story displays virtually every one of the factors that will make it the No. 1 story in global news reports. So, for instance, it is predictable – the news agencies can track the storm, knowing that it is scheduled to reach  New York at a certain time. But it is also unusual because New York is not often in the path of the storm – hurricane stories in the US usually involve the South East. The story involves glamour and celebrities in danger. New York is a ‘known’ city, an important place where ‘important people’ live. The timing is also coincident with the US presidential election, so the story gets bigger by association with the election and with earlier stories such as George W. Bush and his poor handling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The scale of the event is important (sometimes referred to by theorists as reaching the threshold of newsworthiness). Immediacy is another factor – we can see and hear the news live, since New York is also the main base for much of the US news media and foreign news agencies have offices there. Perhaps most of all, is the familiarity with iconic images of New York for audiences worldwide. Which news editor could resist images of New York landmarks under attack from violent storms?

And yet . . . Hurricane Sandy’s ‘attack’ on the Caribbean began several days ago with death and damage in Jamaica, followed by increasing death tolls in Cuba and Haiti and the destruction of crops in Cuba and temporary dwellings in Haiti where recovery from previous disasters (earthquake and disease) has not yet been completed. Why didn’t these events receive the same coverage? Many in the UK will have been on holiday in Cuba in the last few years, others will have family and friends in Jamaica. Aid agencies have been trying to remind us about the situation in Haiti. Shouldn’t the BBC have given equal coverage to the impact of Sandy in these countries – or are they not ‘glamorous’ enough? Clearly it is more difficult to obtain footage and there are not as many journalists immediately available to feed stories to global media, but there are interesting stories here too. Cuba is usually very well-prepared for hurricanes, but Sandy seems to have overwhelmed even the Cuban plans in and around the South Eastern city of Santiago de Cuba. Cuba’s fragile economic production outlook looks to be severely damaged by the impact on coffee and sugar crops. Trying to find information about this, it is interesting that the first source on Google’s news listing was the South African newspaper website Mail & Guardianwhich led with the storm in the US but included a section on the Caribbean.

Hallyu goes Anglo – Gangnam Style is UK’s No 1

It’s taken a long time, but the ‘Korean Wave’ or hallyu has finally reached the UK with Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ and his ‘horse dance’ officially recognised as the No 1 single in the UK. The hallyu began in the late 1990s with the successful export of South Korean TV shows to China and other East Asian territories. High quality programming, cheaper than US product and more attuned to local cultural trends, the TV programmes were followed by the spread of K-pop, a regional competitor for Cantopop and Mandopop in the Three Chinas and J-pop. Korean films have also been part of the hallyu.

Fans of visiting K-pop star Kim Jae-joong of the band JYJ in Turkey where hallyu is popular. Photo from Korea.net and Korean Culture Service taken in February 2012.

According to the 2012 IFPI Report on Digital Music, South Korea has risen from being the 33rd placed national music market in 2005 to the  11th in 2011. More significantly perhaps, 70% of K-pop revenues in South Korea come from digital sales – well above the international average. The success of a K-pop act in the UK and US marks K-pop’s recognition in the other two major international markets – Japan is the second biggest market and the hallyu arrived there with TV drama serials in the late 1990s. But alongside recognition in major markets, K-pop is also finding its way into many of the world’s smallest markets where there is little industry as such. You can find its influence across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Olympics in the age of corporatism

The industrial revolution arrives in the UK in an Olympics Opening Ceremony depicting Milton’s Pandæmonium. (Image from UK Government collection accessible on flickr.)

So, who watched the Olympic opening ceremony? According to the BBC the UK audience was 27 million and the global audience was ‘guesstimated’ to be anything from 1 to 4 billion. All these figures are notional of course – I suspect that the actual number of viewers for the full four hours was a lot less. The ceremony itself was interesting I think for two reasons. The first was the way in which it engaged with national typing – both in the selection of  ‘British’ images and, to a lesser extent, the ‘self-typing’ of the various national sporting bodies that selected the outfits their athletes would wear. The second aspect was the sense of fun that Danny Boyle and his team injected into the whole thing and how much it helped to shift the emphasis away from the horrible corporatism of the whole event. The politics of the opening event are well-covered in Anthony Barnett’s impressive essay on the Open Democracy website. He says most of what I would want to say about how the opening ceremony undercut the corporate capitalist imagery of the rest of the games. I’d only add that in all the praise for Danny Boyle, it’s worth pointing out that one of his most astute decisions was to invite Frank Cottrell Boyce on board as the show’s writer. I’m sure that those children on NHS beds were a product of collaboration between Danny and Frank.

After a week of watching snippets of coverage from many of the different Olympics events, my overall feeling is that the enthusiasm of the support and the performances of the athletes has so far managed to lift the games above the negativity many of us felt given the corporate nature of the event. The branding requirements of the official sponsors is one of the worst crimes but it was at least some relief to learn that campaigns to shame corporations like McDonalds and Coca Cola into foregoing some of the tax breaks they might have exploited as part of their sponsorship.

We’ve used the Olympic Games as a case study for various media studies topics in previous editions of The Media Student’s Book. It’s almost as if each games signals a new development in media use. The London Games is smaller in scale than those of Beijing, but arguably bigger in terms of media coverage. Here are a few observations that media teachers might follow up:

Too much coverage?: How do media outlets balance the games coverage with other news and entertainment material over the fortnight? The BBC has coverage on four TV channels plus three radio channels – and its website. Place the front page of the Guardian next to the front page of its Olympics Sports Supplement and each day the same or similar full page images mean that you have to look carefully to distinguish which is which. Civil war in Syria? – you need to look carefully inside.

News/sport commentators – are they the same?: The BBC got a bloody nose over the Jubilee coverage because it was deemed to have used ‘entertainment’ presenters without the knowledge or skills to deal with outside broadcast events. The Olympics coverage has meant some ‘news’ journalists fronting sports programmes and some sports journalists appearing on breakfast TV in ‘news/current affairs’ slots.  So far this seems to have worked out very well. I’d pick out four women who are having a great games. Hazel Irvine is an Olympics veteran and the ultimate professional sports journalist. Breakfast TV improved immensely when she co-hosted this week. Gabby Logan and Clare Balding have nothing to prove as presenter/interviewers and it’s time that they permanently replaced some of the less dynamic male sports presenters (on Match of the Day for a start). The real surprise for me has been to see one of the BBC’s top newsreaders Mishal Husain doing a very good job fronting sports coverage.

Fans – how far can they go?: The corporate nature of the Olympics extends over a wide range of issues. One concerns the relationships between fans and athletes. Bringing professionals earning millions into the Olympics in sports like tennis, football and basketball inevitably brings with it the scandals and celebrity gossip attached to millionaire players. At the same time, prominent track athletes and cyclists are now celebrity figures in the UK are now sponsored and their image is exploited in advertising contracts. However, the Olympics also implies a more personal relationship between athletes and fans and a sense that “they are doing it for us” or “for our country”.

Twitter is one of the relatively recent innovations in Olympics coverage and it features heavily in in commentary and interviews with athletes. Does this improve coverage? Perhaps, but the Twitter bullying of some athletes is unacceptable. Most of the victims in British sports this year have been millionaire footballers who perhaps bring it on themselves, but others (Fabrice Muamba?) deserve protection. Diver Tom Daley has a celebrity profile – does he deserve abuse?

Facebook and Twitter are distractions for athletes – one Australian swimmer has blamed her lack of concentration and focus on ‘over-indulgence’ in social media. How much privacy should athletes have – and how much attention should they pay to the fans who have paid so much to see them? This is the basis for the media story about the swimmers with their headphones who block out the noise of the crowd with their own choice of hip-hop or other music. A sensible aid to focus, an insult to the fans or simply a function of the modern corporate games?

British athlete Maureen Gardner at the 1948 Olympics in London – in the era before corporatism and designer kit. From a collection of photos from the Daily Herald Archive, held at the National Media Museum and accessible on flickr

Is the UK media ‘out of balance’?

Steve Bell’s jubilee mug – restoring balance in the UK’s media landscape?

Three issues converge in the UK over the next few weeks and together they raise questions about the partiality of UK media. One of them, the Leveson Inquiry has been running since November 2011. Why haven’t we commented on its recent findings? Partly, I think it’s because from my point of view I don’t want to cheer about the fall of Murdoch until I’m convinced that he has actually lost any of his power. But this last week has raised questions about the attempt at balance operated by the BBC – which is required to be impartial as part of its charter.

The Leveson Inquiry this week interviewed Tony Blair and explored his relationship with Murdoch. Blair’s position  has always been that it was important to have Murdoch ‘on side’ because that was the only way of trying to shift the built-in bias of the UK press against Labour. Polly Toynbee in the Guardian commenting on Blair’s performance agreed that the UK has by European standards a completely unbalanced press with 80% of circulation controlled by right-wing proprietors and editorial staff. Whether this excuses Blair’s strategy is another matter.

The press of course is not required to be impartial – but public service broadcasters in the UK certainly are. On this score, Leveson has also been important. Its exposure of phone-hacking by Murdoch’s News International has implicated the current Conservative-led government in a cosy relationship with Murdoch on several levels. Earlier this week the right-wing political blogger ‘Guido Fawkes’ posted a video which shows an off-air argument between a Tory spin doctor and a BBC reporter. Fawkes (aka Paul Staines) presumably thinks that the interview shows the BBC to have a left-wing bias since the reporter, Norman Smith is being asked to defend his reports on Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt which suggest that the minister has got questions to answer about his support for Murdoch during the attempted purchase of the rest of BSkyB. (Hunt was supposed to be responsible for overseeing this process ‘in the public interest’.) Perhaps Staines was just being mischievous in posting this? However, it has attracted the usual wave of comments about the ‘left-wing bias’ of the BBC so perhaps it has worked for him?

We don’t necessarily want to promote Guido Fawkes but you can find his stuff for yourself if you want. Wikipedia offers a background on his blog.

While all of this is going on, the UK media is preparing for two public celebrations. The first this weekend is the Diamond Jubilee – 60 years since the accession to the throne of Elizabeth Windsor as constitutional monarch. According to various polls around 30-40% of the UK population is Republican yet you would be hard-pressed to recognise that from the media coverage. Certainly there is far less coverage of opposition to the scale of the celebration than there was in 1977 when the ‘Silver Jubilee’ took place. Those who are not interested in street parties and flag-waving may be keeping a lower profile. Is that because the presence of so many millionaires in Cameron’s cabinet (Hunt is one of them) indicates an increased deference for wealth and aristocracy? It seems unlikely.

The third challenge to balance comes with the Olympics. The issue here seems to be the attempt to convince everyone in the UK that the games held in London are a national event and part of that is the coverage of the torch relay around the country. Balance in news reporting isn’t just about ‘left’ and ‘right’ – it should also be about the mix of news items. I felt that the coverage on flying the torch to the UK from Greece was probably over the top, but I’m interested now in the stories emerging about the progress of the torch around the country. Particularly interesting are the complaints that not enough local people are involved as torchbearers. The UK media has tended to become ever more metropolitan-focused and reporting of events outside the M25 (the orbital motorway around London) is often not necessarily ‘un-balanced’ but just generally uninformed. On the other hand, we do expect to receive far too many stories about travel chaos in the capital. We all pay the same BBC licence fee and the papers cost the same wherever you live!

Before the Olympics comes the European Football Championship. Perhaps because England aren’t thought to be very good at the moment, the flag-waving has been muted so far. The latest coverage seems to have converged on stories about Ukraine as an unsuitable host nation. Since this is partly based on reports that Ukraine is a dangerous place for British Asian and African-Caribbean supporters, it will be interesting to see how some of the more xenophobic voices in the UK tabloid press handle the next few weeks.

Showing and studying the film Green

Just wanted to follow-up a post from last year about the wonderful ‘wildlife-as-you’ve-never-seen-it’ film Green, viewable at www.greenthefilm.com and screened recently on Al-Jazeera TV. The research project which led me to discover the film has produced a website which readers of this blog may find useful.

The Al Jazeera screenings led to this article and comments in the Daily Mail.

Good to see both the film being shown more widely, and the decision to circulate the article, and the responses to it, in the Mail.

Activists from SOCP (Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme) carry an injured orangutan away for medical treatment. The dedicated workers aim to save as many of the primates as they can during deforestation.