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Monthly Archives: July 2011

Zola and Dickens

“I am little concerned with beauty or perfection. I don’t care for the great centuries. All I care about is life, struggle, intensity. ” —Emile Zola

‘In the mid-nineteenth century critics routinely checked out novels for literal accuracy, as if this was understood that this was one of the products advertising promises and the novelist had better make good on it.’ He continues, ‘Novelists routinely accepted the unpleasant task of doing reporting, legwork, “digging,” in order to get it just right. That was part of the process of writing novels. Dickens travels to three towns in Yorkshire using a false name and pretending to be looking for a school for the son of a widowed friend – in order to get inside the notorious Yorkshire boarding schools to gather material for Nicholas Nickleby.

‘Social realists like Dickens and Balzac [you should read Balzac’s Le Père Goriot (1835) for a better understanding of the social and literary background of the time] seemed often to delight in realism pure and simple that it was held against them throughout their careers. Neither was regarded as a literary artist in his own lifetime (Balzac was not even invited into the French Academy). From the 1860s on, literary people – as well as critics, I should add – began to develop the following theory: Realism is a powerful device but is of trivial interest unless it is used to illuminate a higher reality … the cosmic dimension … eternal values … the moral consciousness … a road that lead them right back to the classical tradition by and by, to the idea that literature had a spiritual mission, that it “speaks to men unborn,” that it is magic, fable, myth, the mythos. By the 1920s in both France and England, the novel of social realism already seemed gauche.’ —Tom Wolfe, p55, The New Journalism, Picador, London 1990.

Naturalism and the Experimental Novel

‘New writers found the Victorian tradition both aesthetically and morally constraining, an they looked elsewhere, above all to Paris – where, in 1880, two writers well known to [Henry] James published highly influential works. Guy de Maupassant brought out his frank tale of a fat working–class girl, Boule de Suif, and Émile Zola his sexually scandalous Nana, as well as the essay Le Roman expérimental [The Experimental Novel], a literary manifesto for the rising trend of Naturalism. Zola used the term “experimental novel” in a different, more scientific, sense than we would now expect. His experiment was sociological and deterministic; he urged that, using laboratory–style methods and documentary and journalistic techniques, novelists should explore systems and processes, the laws of economics, heredity, environment and social evolution, to determine the fate of the typical, representative characters. “A symmetry is established,” he claimed, “the story composes itself out of all the collected observations, all the notes, one leading to another by the very enchainment of the characters, and the conclusion is nothing more than a natural and inevitable consequence.” This was realism schematised; individuals were subject were subject to universal systems, typified general laws; as Zola noted, “A like determinism will govern the stones of the roadway and the brain of man.”’ —Malcom Bradbury, p21, The Modern British Novel, Secker and Warburg, London 1993.

Naturalism and Realism were the emerging forms of literature. Tom Wolfe compares these forms to the emergence of the New Journalism and points to similar criticisms levelled at both. The Naturalist view is that man is simply a part of nature and as such there is no need to seek explanations of man’s existence outside the physical world. This goes against the tradition of magic, fable, myth and mythos Wolfe talks about which came out of the Romatic period of literature. The Naturalists refuse to accept cosmological, religious, or super-natural explanations for man’s behaviour. Both Dickens’s and Zola’s work is predominantly a study of the working–class in a very real sense. They went out into the world and observed, condensing what they saw into novels such as Hard Times, Bleak House, Nicholas Nickleby by Dickens and Nana, Thérèse Raquin and Germinal by Zola. Their work coincided with a general increase in literacy that allowed their novels to reach a wide audience. Both worked as journalists and Dickens’s fiction first appeared as serials in the periodicals of the day. So as far as research is concerned their methodology was very similar. However their narrative techniques are quite distinct, though neither was readily accepted during the authors’ lifetimes.

Zola

Zola saw himself as what today we might call a ‘social scientist’. In his preface to the second edition of Thérèse Raquin he says: ‘I had only one aim, which was: given a powerful man and an unsatisfied woman, to seek within them only the animal, to plunge them together in a violent drama and then take scrupulous note of their sensations and their actions. I simply carried out on two living bodies the same analytical examination that surgeons perform on corpses’ — p2, Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola, Oxford University Press, 1992.

The introduction to the French edition sums up the portrait he paints: ‘Violence, fureur impitoyable, cannabalisme, sauvagerie, passion vivent cachés, nichés au plus creux des viscères de l’homme, de l’homme qui se targue justement (et pourtant) d’être supérieur, voire l’être supérieur. Mais qu’un petit grain de sable, qu’un vent chaud, qu’une passion vienne malgré les interdits de la société et de l’éducation, qu’une passion vienne à affleure jusqu’à la lumière des lèvres ou du cœur, c’est alors un raz de marée, un cataclysme qui s’empare du bipède le plus convenu, le plus dressé soit–il.’ — p5, Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola, Le Livre du Poche, France.

Zola often suffers in translation to English because of his creative use of the wide variety of tenses of French prose. However the consistency of his technique can be demonstrated by comparing two sections from the begininng and middle of the book. Again this works better in French.

French p19-20, ‘Au bout de la rue…’ p99-100, ‘Laurent se donna…’
English p7 ‘At the end…mahogany boxes.” p74-75 ‘Laurant gave…grim laughter.’

Zola’ smain device is the massive use of metaphor. Germinal (Émile Zola, Penguin Books, London.) is itself one big metaphor for life with the miners being the ‘seeds’ planted in the ground to germinate. For example: p67 – the metaphor of ponies for miners, p47 – trains as phantom animals, p28 – the mine as a best devouring the miners.

‘Then, with the quiet skill of a good workman who has carefully thought out the job, he set to work. He began by sawing a panel out of the partition separating the escape shaft from the main winding shaft. By the short-lived flame of one or two matches he was able to ascertain the state of the lining and the extent of recent repairs.

‘Between Calais and Valenciennes the sinking of pit shafts met with appalling difficulties because they had to pass through enormous subterranean lakes that lay at the level of the deepest valleys. The only way to hold back these gushing springs was to construct linings of pieces of timber joined to each other like the staves of a cask. These linings isolated the shafts in tunnels through the middle of the lakes, the dark and mysterious waves of which lapped against the outside of th orlds. When Le Voreux was sunk two distinct linings had to be made; one for the upper part of the shaft where it went through the shifting sands and white clays found near chalky soils, and these were riddled with fissures and soaked with water like a sponge; and the other lower down, immediately above the coal measures, through yellow sand as fine as flour, flowing like liquid. Behind his lower lining was the Torrent, the underground sea that was the terror of the pits in the Nord department – a sea with its own storms and wrecks, unexplored, unfathomable, the black rollers of which heaved more than three hundred metres below the ground.’ p432.

When Souvarine is about to destroy the pit the detail adds to the tension:

“Look at these hands of mine – if they could do so they would take hold of the world like this and shake it into little pieces so as to bury the lot of you under the wreckage.” Souvarine – p383.

Catherine is suffocating in foul air: ‘She knew all about this foul air – dead air, miners called it – heavy asphyxiating gases at the bottom, light, explosive gases at the top which can blow up all the teams in a mine, hundreds of men, in one thunderclap. She had swallowed so much of it since early childhood that she was surprised to be taking it so badly n, with noises in her ears and a burning throat.’ p296.

Jeanlin after his accident – “he undressed the child himself, unfastening his ca, pulling down his trousers and lifting off his shirt with the skill of a nurse. And the pathetic little boy came into view , as thin as an insect, soiled with black dust and yellow earth and mottled with bloody stains. It was impossible to see anything; he had to be washed as well. The sponging seemed to make him thinner than ever, his flesh was so pallid and transparent that the bones showed through. It was pitiful to see this last decadent specimen of a race of starving toilers, this mere wisp of suffering, half crushed by the rocks. (p.189)

Dickens

By the nineteenth century the serfs had become the ‘working class’, the aristocracy remained but a new ‘business class’ had arisen and were dubbed the ‘middle class’. The working class itself could be divided into the agrarian and urban, those who still worked on the farms, and those who had moved to the cities in search of work in the new industries that were being founded at this time. The only problem with this definition is that at times the distinction between the upper-middle-class and the upper class or aristocracy becomes blurred. Dickens concentrates on the plight of the working class. Hard Times was one of his more successful novels after a low patch in the 1840s despite the success of A Christmas Carol (1843), and Dombey and Son (1848). It has been said in Hard Times and his other writings Dickens captured the contemporary popular imagination ‘as no other novelist done’.

‘The chapters of the novels Dickens wrote for weekly serial publication, like Hard Times and Great Expectations, are much shorter than those in novels like Dombey and Son or Bleak House, originally published in monthly parts. The magazine instalments often had to meet a very precise and uniform length requirement.’ — David Lodge, p167, The Art of Fiction, Secker and Warburg, London 1992.

Dickens is a very visual author. This is his description of Jacob’s Island in Oliver Twist (1838): ‘To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of the waterside people … The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman’s door, and stream form the house–parapet and windows … he walks beneath tottering housefronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half–crushed, half–hesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginabel sign of desolation and negelct.’

One accusation leveled at Dickens is that his characters are somewhat two dimensional but they are made three dimensional and given colour by the environments they inhabit which are described in rich detail. Dickens also uses symbolism as in Dombey and Son when describing the railway: ‘The power that forced itself upon its iron way – its own – defiant of all the paths and roads, piercing through the heart of every obstacle, and dragging living creatures of all classes, ages, and degrees behind it, was a type of the triumphant monster, Death.’

Description weather can play an important role when aided by metaphor in setting the mood and aiding the description of the scene as in Bleak House: ‘London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting at Licoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets, as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, [a possible biblical reference] and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, [a reference to Darwinism] waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft balck drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in the mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umberellas, in a general infliction of ill temper, and losing their foot–hold at street corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.’ p49, Bleak House, Charles Dickens, Penguin Books, London 1985.

This continues: ‘Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it lows among green aits and madows; fog down the river where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollution of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all around them, as if they were up in a balloon , and hanging in the misty clouds.’ p49 Bleak House.

‘The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest, near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation: Temple bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord high Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.’ p50, Bleak House.

But Dickens is whimsical too: ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in the course of time, become so complicated, that no man alive knows what it means.’ p52, Bleak House.

He also uses the device of repetition. For instance in Bleak House describing the death of the crossing sweeper: ‘Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, Right Reverends and Wrong Reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with Heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.’

Dickens uses realism to good effect but it can become strained. This is the scene in Hard Times where Stephen Blackpool refuses to join in a Trade Union strike on conscientios grounds, note the use of vulgar speech: ‘“Stephen Blackpool,” said the chairman, rising, “think on’t agen. Think on’t agen lad, afore thour’t shunned by aw owd friends.”

‘There was a universal murmor to the same effect, though no man articulated a word. Every eye was fixed on Stephen’s face. To repent of his determination, would be to take a load from all their minds. He looked around him, and knew that it was so. Not a grain of anger with them was in his heart; he knew them, far below their surface weaknesses and misconceptions, as no–one but their fellow labourer could.

‘“I ha thowt on’t, above a bit sir. I simply canna come in. I mun go th’way as lays afore me. I mun tak my leave o’aw heer.”’ — Hard Times, Charles Dickens, Oxford University Press, 1989.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Literature

 

Nomadism

“We see in order to move; we move in order to see.” —William Gibson

Nomadic herding takes place throughout North Africa and much of Asia in areas where the climate is too extreme to support permanent settled agriculture. There are two forms of nomadism; Total nomadism, where the nomad has no permanent home, and semi-nomadism, where the nomad may have a seasonal home.

The Sahel, a semi-arid belt of tropical grassland and desert shrub land on the southern edge of the Sahara is home to 25 million people. Most of the land is used by pastoral nomadic herdsmen. The nomads live in individual tribes and raise herds of cattle, sheep, goats and camels. These herds provide them with meat, milk, skins and transport. They camp in one place until the pasture is exhausted and then migrate in search of fresh vegetation.

Good pasture depends upon rainfall. There is no clear migratory pattern but migration routes increase in size under adverse conditions. In the Sahel the drought which began in 1968, providing less and less water and grass, has meant that the animals are the source of life. In dire conditions, the nomads will not part with their animals.

As the Sahel drought got worse the nomads drifted southwards, competing for water and pasture with livestock of the farming villages. This created shortages for nomad and farmer alike. Other factors aggravating this problem are increases in the number of people and livestock due to the spread of medicine and veterinary services. The population increase created a demand for more food. The increase in livestock made water and pasture necessary. As pasture shrinks overgrazing becomes inevitable.

In northern Kenya the Rendille nomadic herders find that rainfall is too low and unreliable to support settled agriculture. The Rendille have learnt how to survive an extreme environment. They rely on their animals for everything. Once they hear there is more rain elsewhere they pack their limited possessions and move on. Camels and to a lesser extent goats can survive for the time it takes to reach this destination, however this cannot continue indefinitely.

Their way of life is changing because land is becoming overpopulated and resources over-stretched as the numbers of people and animals increase. Consequently as droughts continue, pastoralists are forced to move to small towns.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Society

 

From the Birth of Tragedy to the Heart of Darkness

“When I do a novel, I don’t really use the script, I use the book; when I did Apocalypse Now, I used Heart of Darkness. Novels usually have so much rich material.” —Francis Ford Coppola

Nietzsche’s theory was new and innovative in terms of the age in which he published it. He had hoped to gain respect from his peers from it and, despite high praise from the Wagner family, it was generally poorly received.

His theories in Birth of Tragedy went against strong held beliefs of the day. God was not dead as far as his contemporaries were concerned. Nietzsche questioned the whole outlook of the society in which he lived and he found it to be stale.

He is not the sole originator of the ideas in Birth of Tragedy. He is strongly influenced by Schopenhauer who “has described the tremendous dread that grips man when he suddenly loses his way amidst the cognitive forms of appearance, because the principle of sufficient reason, in one of its forms, seems suspended.” (BT p.16)

Here the reason is that of Apollo. Suppress reason and you are left with the chaos and irrationality of Dionysus. Frazer tells us: “The god Dionysus or Bacchus is best known to us as a personification of the vine and of exhilaration produced by the juice of the grape.” (GB p.386)

Nietzsche quotes from Schopenhauer: “Just as the boatman sits in his little boat, trusting to his fragile craft in a stormy sea which, boundless in every direction, rises and falls in howling, mountainous waves, so in the midst of a world full of suffering the individual man calmly sits, supported and trusting the pricipum individuationis” (WR p.352).

Might not that same boatman be Marlow on his journey up the Congo or Willard on his way to Cambodia? It is quite possible that Conrad is referring to Nietzsche’s BT (p39); “True understanding, insight into the terrible truth, outweighs every motive for action, for Hamlet and Dionysiac man alike. No consolidation will be of any use from now on, longing passes over the world towards death, beyond the gods themselves; existence, radiantly reflected in the gods or in an immortal ‘Beyond’ is denied. Aware of truth from a single glimpse of it all man can now see is the horror and absurdity of existence; now he understands the wisdom of Silenus, the god of the woods: it repels him”

Thus Marlow says in HD (p112) “Destiny. My Destiny! Droll thing life is – that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself – that comes too late – a crop of unextinguishable regrets.”

Nietzsche’s theory embraces the WILL and the IDEA, which can also be compared to the Dionysiac and the Apolline, and he applies this dichotomy to art and music. This leads on to his idea of the “will to power” where the weak hold back the strong.

The closer you get to the WILL, the purer the art form. Therefore music is the purest form as it requires no intellectualisation to get its message across. However Nietzsche had a high regard for painting, though not as high as music.

The film, had it been around at the time, might concievably have topped the list as it is an ‘immersion’ experience, it draws you in. It is quite possible to follow Apocalypse Now without understanding a word that is said. Admittedly you are left with the ‘reality’ while you lose some of the insights.

Apocalypse Now is full of symbolism of the rationalisation of the Dionysiac. It is impossible to conquer the chaos and so it must be brought into the fold. For instance, the river is described by Conrad as a winding snake. This motif is carried into the film in the tattoo on Chef’s shoulder. The jungle is filled with insects, possibly dangerous but it is the giant insects, the helicopters, that bear the words “death from the sky”.

There is a fine line between the law and chaos and in Nietzsche’s view of the theatre, the Greek tragedy held the Dionysiac and the Apollonian in the correct balance. For instance in Sophocles immortal tragedy Oedipus Rex Apollo is represented throughout but Dionysus is represented through the chorus.

In Apocalypse Now this relationship can also be explored through the music, being the voice of Dionysus. When all is still the music is calm and flowing, like the mouth of the river, but when the destruction begins or when Willard is in internal turmoil there comes a change. The strains of the orchestra are replaced by the raucous sounds of the Doors.

At other times we here the Rolling Stones but one place in the film where music is used to particularly good effect is at the bridge where there is no longer a command. Without Apollo, Dionysus rules and Hendrix plays over the radio. Of course the most obvious reference to Nietzsche in the film is through Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries as the helicopters begin their attack on the rebel village.

Robert Duval’s Colonel Kilgore is an interesting aside. Throughout the film ritual is rife, from the service for the dead soldiers to the barbaric rituals of Kurtz’s tribe. However no where is it better portrayed than in the ritual of surfing. It is also interesting to note the modern widespread use of the phrase “Charlie don’t surf”. It appears that Apocalypse Now has entered the modern mythos.

Kilgore also represents the two forces in balance. Of course he appears totally insane but in the heat of battle he alone remains calm, surveying the beach while shells explode around him—sure in the knowledge that he cannot be killed.

Here the film is disturbingly accurate to life. “I am a general. No one would dare shoot a general.” – Sir Michael Rose, British commander of UN peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, on why he didn’t flinch when a sniper bullet came close to hitting him last week. (NW)

Then again this could be a reference to Nietzsche as quoted by Camus: “What is more pessimistic than the Greek maxim: ‘Happiness lies in not being’?” (YW p.141) This refers to the idea apparently accepted by the Greeks that it was far better to live a short and glorious life than a long and tedious one thus they gravitated to the Dionysiac.

The central character in Apocalypse now is Willard but his foil is Kurtz. Again they represent the oposite sides. The regimented soldier moving towards chaos, and the “man-god” ruling by absolute.

In Heart of Darkness the manager says; ‘”We must save it at all events – but look how precarious the position is – and why? Because the method is unsound.” “Do you,” said I, looking at the shore, “call it ‘unsound method’?” “Without doubt,” he exclaimed hotly. “Don’t you?”… ‘”No method at all,” I murmured after a while.’ (HD p102)

However Kurtz has gone beyond method. “It is surely undeniable that we take pleasure in dreaming, that we enjoy living in an imaginary life a hundred times more beautiful than reality. This is because we feel the need to forget our individuality and to identify with humanity as a whole” (YW pp, 139-140) Unless we take method to mean rhythm, the control of the Dionysiac. “They disciplined mystical frenzy by means of cadence.” (YW p. 141)

In Frazer’s Golden Bough there is an interesting comment: “a tradition of human sacrifice may sometimes have been a mere interpretation of a sacrificial ritual in which an animal victim was treated as a human being. For example at Tenedos the new-born calf sacrificed to Dionysus was shod in buskins, and the mother cow was tended like a woman in child-bed.” (GB p.392) Despite the insaninty of Kurtz the world of his creation is one of order and so the fine balance is retained. When Willard kils Kurtz he replaces him but he cannot rule because he has come back from the edge and so he must call in the air-strike.

Endnotes:
In this essay the following abbreviations apply:

BT: Birth of Tragedy
GB: Golden Bough
HD: Heart of Darkness
NW: Newsweek
WR: The World as Will and Representation I
YW: Youthful Writings

Selective Discography:

Jimi Hendrix
Richard Wagner
The Doors
The Rolling Stones

Bibliography:

Apocalypse Now by Francis Coppola – American Zoetrope 1979
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – Penguin 1989
Newsweek – May 30, 1994
Poetics by Aristotle – ?
The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche – Penguin 1993
The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer – Penguin 1993
The World as Will and Represenation I by Schopenhauer – ?
Youthful Writings – Cachiers II by Albert Camus – Vintage, pub.

Lecture Notes – Peter Storfer

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Literature

 

Moral Panics

“Perhaps more than any other disease before or since, syphilis in early modern Europe provoked the kind of widespread moral panic that AIDS revived when it struck America in the 1980s. ” —Peter Lewis Allen

A moral panic, according to Barrat seems to be directly related to deviance. In the form I have chosen to display it, it is also an instance of deviance, of the so called ‘youth culture’ deviance. Since the Second World War, Britain has had to face a changing youth culture. This dramatic change, from a seemingly general passiveness and conformity, to a consumer with freedom, financially and socially. Teenagers, after the war found themselves earning a wage closer to that of the generation above them which ultimately ended up in their dependence upon the older generation as less important, therefore they had more freedom and were more able to express themselves as they wanted. This change in the nature and quality of life for the younger generation consequently resulted in various other culture groups forming within society among the younger generation. I am attempting to explain the nature of society with regards to deviance in ‘youth culture’s’ as it is directly relevant to the example of a ‘moral panic’ that I am to give. I shall be using the upsurge of ‘Acid House’ parties in the late eighties, and shall try to explain this in the form of a moral panic as Stanley Cohen did with the ‘Mods and Rockers’ phenomena.

Acid house parties really came into the limelight in the late eighties, especially 1989/90, when they received much popularity and publicity due mainly to the mass media. It must be stressed that a ‘moral panic’, a social phenomena which causes a public outcry amongst ‘right thinking members of society’ due to second-hand information being passed on is directly related to the media. People’s knowledge and opinion of certain events or trends are generally influenced greatly by what they read in papers, what they see on television, and by what they hear on the news. Consequently, it is the mass media that generally creates a ‘moral panic’.

The ‘sceptical’ revolution in criminology and the socially of deviance is different from the older style which was ‘canonical’ in the sense that it saw the concepts it worked with as authoritative, standard, accepted, given, and unquestionable. Cohen describes the new tradition in his book ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics”, as ‘sceptical’ because when it sees terms like ‘deviant’, it asks ‘deviant to whom?’ or ‘deviant from what?’; ‘and when certain conditions or behaviour are described as dysfunctional, embarrassing, threatening or dangerous, it asks ‘says who?’ and ‘why?’. In other words, these concepts and descriptions are not taken for granted.

One of the major problems is that of ‘labelling’. The ‘labelling theory’ states that their is a good chance of those being labelled, derogatively or otherwise, will meet the prerequisites of the status they have been assigned by others, normally a representative of the establishment, e.g. teacher’s, politicians etc. This self-fulfilling prophecy seems to be a very important part of the creation of ‘moral panics’, the mass media being the major instrument of voicing a general view of what the ‘right thinking members of society’ ‘should’ think. Thus creating a one-sided view of the situation, and with regards to the popular press, we know that information is often used in a way to help spice up a good story, whether it be placing more attention and space to it, or making it one sided by leaving out the major opposing arguments. The biggest problem can lie in what is left out of a report, as David Glover said: ‘Though it is fairly easy to recognise prejudiced or loaded phrases and questions it is harder to identify ‘incompleteness’ in a news report or a current affairs programme.’

The papers also use ‘social experts’ and other professional people and people in authority. The good part of the public usually accepts these views without question, whether because this is what they want to believe or because society has taught them to be submissive and accept authority without question. These people in ‘authority’ also seem to be the furthest people from the particular problem and have no first hand experience of the situation. Cohen says that the information the public receive is second-hand, and it is another point to add that the papers usually receive the information second-hand themselves, therefore when the public does receive the information, a lot has been lost along the way.

In order to explain the creation of a moral panic, I am going to use the prevalence of so called ‘Acid House Parties’ in the late eighties. The term ‘Acid House Party’ comes from the appearance of many songs using the words ‘acid’ or ‘aciiiid’, the yellow smiley faces which were common on such records at the time, which became a symbol of this particular youth culture for a while. All these references refer, of course, to acid or trips, the drug which was and still is very cheap and widely available almost everywhere in the country. The mass media hooked on to the term, and consequently, almost any type of party or whether it had been officially organised or not, came to be known as ‘Acid House Parties’. The media had caught on to the present dance and drug scene, which probably wasn’t much worse than it was previously, but the prominence of the ‘smiley face – acid song’, as well as an upsurge of so called ‘raves’ at the time.

The ‘scene’ received much bad publicity from the popular press and thus led to a public outcry for the police to clamp down on illegal raves and drug dealers etc. The acid house parties were seen as deviant, and those who organised and attended the parties were condemned and regarded as deviants. The media distorted and exaggerated the facts, which led to the public concern of ‘something must be done’. The authorities are put under pressure as they are seen to be doing nothing, therefore they intervene. Obviously there were illegal occurrences taking place, selling drugs for example. This situation leads to what is called by sociologists as ‘deviancy amplification’. The hype in the paper etc. lead to the ‘scene’ becoming more popular amongst certain youths, it is seen as exciting and larger than life. The more people getting involved in the scene obviously leads to more and larger parties being thrown. ‘Dodgey’ promoters hold ‘rip off’ parties as a result of the media claiming that large profits are being made. Drug dealers are attracted to the parties as the media emphasise the drugs being taken. Thus the acid House culture becomes more popular and widespread.

This particular youth culture, like any other has its own symbols and trademarks. The Mods have their Parker jackets, scooters etc., the Rockers have their swastika’s, studs etc., skinheads with , obviously shaved heads, and bovver boots etc. The Acid House Culture also had theirs, as with other groups their are different strata’s within this group as well. However, it was easy to identify a ‘raver’, there were dungarees and surreal ‘acid’ jumpers, at the beginning there was the obvious ‘smiley face’ badges, T-shirts etc., BodyGlove, a make of clothes was very popular and very expensive, and there was the very popular bandanna which were seen everywhere at ‘raves’. Obviously not all people wearing these particular clothes were ravers or drug takers, but the scene and its members had been labelled.

To continue, this ‘amplification’ led to more news coverage, increased police activity and further public concern. The Government intervened here and passed the ‘Graham Bright Bill 1989’, which imposed heavy fines and sentences on promoters of illegal parties, and the police intensified their raids. Legislation had been passed because of the ‘moral panic’ that had arisen from the massive negative publicity that this scene received. Lots of arrests were made, action was being taken to confirm the validity of the initial reaction. This is the moral panic as illustrated through the ‘Acid House’ scene.

It seems as though these episodes of ‘moral panic’ are part fabrications and part exaggerations. David Barrat, in his book ‘Media Sociology’ tells us that moral panics not only appear on a national scale but also within local communities. He states that local media, newspapers and radio, often run campaigns on issues ranging from ‘juggernauts’ to ‘gypsies’. Most people are aware of local issues that have created a local outcry, such as new-age travellers or drug dealers in their community. These can also lead to moral panics. Barrat gives us five things in particular to look out for: 1. Distortion and exaggeration, inaccuracies in reporting and language (‘military’ and ‘animal’ analogies are common). 2. The classification of unconnected events under the umbrella of the ‘deviant’ label. 3. Evidence of ‘official’ responses (societal reaction) and policy changes. 4. The relative space given to different groups (hierarchy of access). 5. Evidence of ‘effects’ on the behaviour and self-concepts of those who are labelled.

It is this sort of activity, according to Barrat, that we should look out for to possibly identify the occurrence of a moral panic. Barrat emphasises various aspects of the factors that create a moral panic. He says that, as Cohen and Young (1981) have argued, the “‘moral panic’, unlike a rumour, is not a process everyone can join in ‘democratically’, contributing their own slant on the message like a game of Chinese whispers.” This is partly the result of mass communication, which is a ‘one-way’ process of communication. As Barrat states, there is no equal access, and the views of the powerful occupy a privileged position in the media. In the case of reports of ‘deviance’, as already mentioned, the view aired is usually that of professionals, e.g. opinions of “judges and magistrates, of members of parliament and senators, of police chiefs and senior officers, and of those public figures who claim a mandate as the ‘moral guardians’ of society.” We rarely receive a first hand account from ‘deviants’ themselves.

Much of the problem with regards to ‘moral panics’ seems to be the lack of communication between members of different groups of society. Most post-war youth cultures seem to have been ostracised by the mass media, and consequently, those ‘right thinking members of society’ who seem to believe everything they are told by the establishment, even when hyped up and exaggerated.

These ‘youth cultures’, according to Cohen (Folk Devils and Moral Panics), find a solution to what they see as a problem. For example, the Mods were bored and disillusioned and wanted to be free to do what they wanted, therefore they hit the road. They went to Clacton, Brighton etc. and were ostracised and condemned without total justification. Obviously there was trouble, but a lot of this seemed to happen after they had already been labelled as ‘a bad group’, and they were consequently turned away from cafes etc. They found a solution to their problem but were condemned for it. It does seem that moral panics will continue, and it is unlikely that they will ever disappear, therefore Cohen’s ‘folk devils’ will continue to be created: “This is not because such developments have an inexorable inner logic, but because our society as present structured will continue to generate problems for some of its members – like working-class adolescents – and then condemn whatever solutions these groups find.”

Bibliography:

All quotes and information regarding Stanley Cohen from – Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Chaucer Press, 1972.

All quotes and information regarding David Barrat from – Media Sociology-(Society now), Tavistock Publications, 1986.

The Sociology of the Mass Media, David Glover, Causeway Press, 1984.

Policing the Crisis-Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, Stuart Hall et al, The Macmillan Press Ltd., 1979. (background)

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Society

 

The Red Tops

“News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.” —Lord Northcliffe

The story of the Daily Mirror begins in 1903 in Fetter Lane, Fleet Street, London, EC4 at Geraldine House (named after Northcliffe’s mother). To this date Alfred Harmsworth had known only success. He had bought the Evening News in 1894 and it was making money. He had created the Daily Mail and it had expanding profits. The Daily Mirror was an historic mistake.

“I advertised it everywhere,” said Harmsworth,”…if there was anyone not aware that the Mirror was to be started they must have been deaf, dumb, blind or all three.” And so on Monday November 2 the paper ‘produced by women for women’—the Mirror went on sale for 1d.

Its aim was to “present in new ways; cookery, fashion…”. It aimed to be entertaining but not frivolous, serious but not dull. Later said he was wrong in launching “so mad a frolic as a paper for ladies.” The first issue sold 265,217 copies, the second 143,000 and the third less than 100,000. After 3 months the circulation was down to 24,000 and Harmsworth said that he had learned that “women can’t write and don’t know how to read.”

The Sun began life as the Daily Herald. The International Publishing Corporation acquired the paper when they bought a number of profitable publications from Odhams Press in 1961. It was a socialist newspaper tied to the Trades Union Congress and had been the country’s biggest selling daily in the 1930s. When IPC got it was rather puzzled about what to do with it. They already owned the Mirror and did not want to run in competition with it but the had a commitment to the TUC to keep it running for seven years.

To cut their losses in 1964 IPC relaunched the Daily Herald as the Sun, the broadsheet ‘born of the age we live in’. Its circulation fell from 1.5 million to 850,000 by the spring of 1969. IPC decided to sell. Robert Maxwell, who had already lost the News of the World to Murdoch, offered to take the paper from IPC and keep it running but after his job cut plans were announced IPC was threatened with union action against the Mirror. Needless to say that Rupert Murdoch jumped in and bought it.

Back at the Mirror in the early 1900s there was about to be a change of staff. Northcliffe sent for Hamilton Fyfe who became editor, succeeded by Alexander Kennedy in 1907. “To Fyfe fell the distasteful task of sacking the women, and the rape of the Sabines wasn’t in it. ‘They begged to be allowed to stay,’ he recalled. ‘They left little presents on my desk. The waylaid me tearfully in corridors. It was a horrible experience, like drowning kittens.'”†

The paper was revamped and the use of pictures made a real impact in its sales as did the cut in price to a half penny. From here on things improved remarkably. By 1906 the Mirror staked claim to be “The morning journal with the second largest net sale”

Northcliffe sold the paper to his brother Harold (later Lord Rothermere) for £100,000, apparently the loss he had made on the paper originally. On 18 November 1949 the paper printed “Latest certified circulation more than 1,000,000 copies per day.” By 1918, “Certified Circulation larger than that of any other daily picture paper.”

February 3, 1921 and the Daily Mirror is the first to get pictures back from Australia of the Cricket test series. January 23, 1924 — Ramsay MacDonald leads the Labour Government and the Mirror leads with “Socialists Take Over the Government.” It is now 1926 and the Mirror continues to print through the general strike. June 29, 1927, the Daily Mirror leads with photographs of a total eclipse of the sun [Murdoch later hoped that the Sun would totally eclipse the Mirror]. And so the Mirror continued under Rothermere and later Bartholomew. It had achieved a circulation of over 7 million with its coronation day issue but its real peak came in the late 1960s, just as Murdoch turned the Sun into a tabloid.

Murdoch hired Larry Lamb to be the editor. He was working on the Daily Mail at the time but he had only recently moved from the Mirror. After the relaunch sales reached one million within 100 days. IPC had mad a fatal mistake. They had failed to see the market and then given it away. Indeed in 1978 sales of the Sun finally overtook those of the Mirror.

There was at this time a distinct difference between the Sun and the Mirror which is much less evident today. The Daily Mirror had been ‘the’ paper to work for, having the highest circulation and some of the most notable journalists on its staff. You might even say that it had become a paper ‘run for journalists by journalists’. Its alumni of columnist include; Godfrey Winn (1936-1938), Cassandra (William Connor, 1937 until his death in 1967), Peter Wilson (1935-1972), John Pilger (1962-1986) and Keith Waterhouse (1970-1985).

The Mirror was the quality tabloid. It lost readers because of the fact, but it had a ‘mission’. “Forward with the people” had been its motto and it had tried to bring culture to the average reader in an easy and understandable form in the ’60s in the shape of Mirror-Scope. It was a total failure but it illustrated the Daily Mirror’s commitment to do more for its readers.

The biggest change came in 1984 when Robert Maxwell bought Mirror Group Newspapers (MGN). Until now there had been a difference in style between the two papers. In 1982 the Sun would lead with the ‘GOTCHA’ headline on the sinking of the Belgrano. This simply would not happen at the Mirror. The Maxwell take-over saw the war heating up. Bingo was introduced but more than ever the two papers could be seen to be alike in the respect that they were both reduced on many occasion to being voices for their proprietors. This was not to change at the Mirror until Maxwell’s death. However the similarities are still there.

I would like to end with a comparison of Monday’s 29 November 1994’s copies of the Daily Mirror and the Sun. The Daily Mirror is about an inch taller than the Sun but apart from that it is difficult to see their differences. They both have a bright red and white banner. They both have an ‘Aladdin’ offer.

The Daily Mirror’s Headline is “MAJOR’S LIES PUT PEACE IN PERIL”, the Sun’s is “HYPOCRITE! Two days after IRA killed my son Major talked peace to them” The Sun has the more grabbing angle but they both condemn John Major.

Page two reveals the political slant to some extent where the Sun is more lenient on Kenneth Clarke’s tax plans than the Daily Mirror. Page three of the Daily Mirror is about Madonna with another article on ‘Di’

Page four and five carry the ‘exclusives’. The Sun on Major’s lies and the Daily Mirror on Peter Lilley’s niece, an unwed mum.

Page six carries the comment. This is where political bias is usually most evident.

The layout and content are startlingly similar, so much so that a foreigner unfamiliar with British politics would find it hard to judge which paper was supposed to appeal to which audience. Perhaps this is because they both seek to appeal to the same audience – the working man. The Daily Mirror reader is more likely to belong to a union and vote Labour but a recent ICM poll found that a surprising 36 per cent of Sun readership claimed to have voted Labour at the last election.

Year
(July-December)
Sun
sales (millions)
Daily Mirror
sales (millions)
1969
0.65
4.92
1970
1.51
4.70
1971
2.08
4.38
1972
2.63
4.29
1973
2.93
4.26
1974
3.30
4.19
1975
3.44
4.02
1976
3.64
3.84
1977
3.72
3.84
1978
3.95
3.83
1979
3.71
3.65
1980
3.74
3.63
1981
4.14
3.46
1982
4.18
3.21
1983
4.14
3.27
1984
4.08
3.50
1985
4.13
3.03
1986
4.05
3.14
1987
4.05
3.13
1988
4.22
3.16
1989
4.02
3.09
1990
3.85
3.05
1991
3.75
?

Source: Audit Bureau of Circulation. Average daily sales over a six-month period ending 31 December of each year unless otherwise stated.

Latest Circulation Figures:Sun – 3.78, Daily Mirror – 3.32
Note – the Mirror figure is incorporating Daily Record.

† Publish and be Damned!, Hugh Cudlip, 1953.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Media

 

Liberty in the Post-Industrial Society

“We must plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no other reason than that only freedom can make security secure.” —Karl Popper

Do the ideas of 19th century philosophers on ‘liberty’ have any relevance to society following the advent of the ‘technological revolution.’

“Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”(1) So speaks Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times by Charles Dickens.

The character Gradgrind expresses the Utilitarian view held by ‘philosophical radicals’ of the nineteenth century such as Jeremy Bentham, a friend and close political associate of one James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill.

What is particularly interesting about this admittedly loose connection is that Theodore Roszak in Cult of Information (1986) begins the chapter entitled ‘The Politics of Information'(2) with this same quote and lends weight to my argument that the ideas of 19th century philosophers, and John Stuart Mill in particular, have a direct relevance in today’s society and the society that we may find ourselves in tomorrow.

Allow me to elucidate. Roszak’s work, subtitled ‘The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking’ deals with the rise in the status of ‘information’ through three decades of rapid technological advancement and puts forward the view that “like the unfortunate emperor in the parable, the computer has been overdressed with false claims by those with something to gain by it-elements in our society who are making some of the most morally questionable uses of computer power”.

The abuse of technological power is rife in today’s society and there are many examples of computers being used as a tool to control the masses rather than as an aid to the advancement of society and the benefit of the individual. It is particularly sad that those who have set out to subvert the development of technology in an effort to bring it to the people have generally failed.

In 1984 with its Orwellian overtones a company started by two college ‘kids’ in a garage launched a new computer; “Apple announced the Macintosh’s arrival with the most famous advertisement in the history of the high tech industry. Into a dismal workhouse full of inmates with shaven heads, being harangued by the magnified face of Big Brother on an oversized screen, runs a brave young woman athelete who hurls a sledgehammer at the screen, shattering the image of Big Brother. The symbolism may seem overblown now but at the time it represented the way Jobs [Steve -, then head of Apple] fel about himself, Apple, and the Macintosh. IBM then seemed to be an unstoppable force, and Jobs saw himself and his computer as instruments of liberation and democracy”(3)

The two ‘kids’ were Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak. The computer was the Apple, it was built out of surplus chips from the aviation industry and along with the Altair was one of the first ‘personal computers’. But, I hear you cry, where is the argument concerning liberty? Liberty, in at leat one form at any rate, is concerned with freedom, and Jobs and Wozniak brought a stake in the computer revolution to the man on the street.

There is always the possibility for corruption unless society ceases to exist. Therefore, perhaps Jobs’ view that he was bringing ‘liberation and democracy’ to people was founed on the belief that the big corporations were treating their users as if they belonged to them and were under obligation to support them. This is typical of IBM’s attitude to business in the 1970s.

Generally speaking, most major technological developments are related to the military, usually through research grants etc. This means that a situation occurs that Marx would have attacted as strongly as he did capitalism. Technology is power. In capitalism the means of production are held by the few and the proletariate are shackled to the system. In a society where the military has all the computers it is not difficult to envisage a police state.

In Singapore today computers pervade every part of daily life. Any transaction that takes place, all the work of government and its services, including the police and military, is monitored and controlled by computer. Every citizen carries an electronic identification card. The possibilities are terrifying. The British government wants to introduce a similar identity card scheme. It has said it will not force people to carry them but once retailers start asking for them, then the police, they will become a requirement.

In the past there have been many views of liberty but there are two that arise on a regular basis; the negative and positive ideas. The positive holds that a man is unfree to do something when is prevented by his passions. However, in today’s society this is seldom the case. Governments have legislated against most known drugs with no other function than to induce good feelings and they the British government have made it clear that were alcohol introduced for the first time tomorrow they would ban it. This may sound like a good idea but then you are unfree to do as you wish, to ‘shoot up’ on heroin, ‘drop’ ecstasy, smoke ‘dope’ or just get plain old drunk.

It then becomes clear that we live in a society where the negative view of liberty becomes prevalent. This states that a man is unfree to do something if another preventing him from doing so. The government is preventing you from being free by introducing legislation. If freedom then is the specific liberty to ‘do as you please’ (Plato) then the government would probably rather stamp it out so that everything you do would be covered by some legislation. With the introduction of technology they now have the means to do this.

Did you know, for instance, that many of the automatic teller (cashpoint) machines that you use on a regular basis have hidden video cameras behind them? They are there to catch fraudulent card users but in a society that already has a declining level of freedom, some would argue, how far down the line is it until the government is using these cameras to monitor suspected dissidents etc.?

After the Hegelian period of thought follow Marx, Mill and Bakunin and others. Mill argues for absolute freedom of action. The freedom to do what you want, but with the proviso that no one else must come to harm because of your actions.

. Marx argues that liberty does not come from being free to do as you wish but from society.

In his lecture on Individual liberty J.P.Day points to the generally accepted view of liberty. Day is only concerned with individual liberty and he defines this by what it is not, i.e. collective liberty of religious organisations, individual liberties (as separate entities) etc. Individual liberty then is the freedom of the individual and it is this ‘moral right’ that he argues must be safeguarded. It may only be restrained, he argues, “if the moral obligation to respect the right is overborne by some stronger moral obligation”. By this he means that for example C1 is free to do X where X does not impinge on C2 and should C1 attempt to do X if it does then R has a moral obligation to prevent C1 from doing so (where C1 and C2 are subsets (individuals) of the group C (citizens), X is an act causing harm to any C (e.g.. murder) and R (Rex) is the government). Thus if I am free to do as I please I may choose to kill you but this would cause you harm and so the government has a moral obligation to restrict my freedom to prevent your harm.

Day starts out by defining two concepts of liberty, 1) the intrapersonal concept (A is unfree to do X because he is a slave to his passions), and 2) the negative or interpersonal concept (A is unfree to do X because A is restrained by X from doing B; as in the previous example). Day selects the latter definition as the more accurate and goes on at some length to explain it.

He argues for the right of liberty of tastes and pursuits pointing out “R injures each individual C if R deters or prevents him from his pursuit of happiness”. He carries on by essentially summing up the U.N. declaration of HUMAN RIGHTS;
liberty of association (to belong or not to any group of your choice) etc.

Finally he mentions the differences between moralistic, ‘good Samaritan’, and paternalistic legislation. For instance you can legislate to ensure a person’s right to live (moral) and this is acceptable to all, it is negative in that it prevents an ill action from taking place. Also you can legislate to ensure a person’s right to shelter (‘good Samaritan’) however where the person receiving is CN, the group that must support this right with their income is all C. Finally (this time I mean it) You may make paternalistic legislation designed to prevent C from self injury by doing activity X (Day gives the example of taking heroin). Through paternalistic instincts R can seek to protect C from himself based on a ‘moral’ right to do so. However where do you draw the line at self abuse – drinking is bad for you so therefore is not morally right to ban it and set up punishments for those doing so?

Quote from Alduos Huxley, “But if you want to be free, you’ve got to be a prisoner. It’s the condition of freedom – true freedom”. He also discusses ‘Freedom and Liberation’ by Benjamin Gibbs whose main conviction lies in the belief that a free society is “one that makes its people do what is right and good…[while also] making them desire to do it understanding it is right and good”. Again we get the subjective moral judgement of the majority over the minority (see other lectures).

Flew claims Gibbs is quite critical of Mill’s theories of liberty, almost a ‘mirror image’, but Gibbs responds to this claim in the following lecture. Flew criticises Gibbs’ terms of liberty but he does not give the whole picture. The main argument is over whether a person who sells himself into slavery is free because he has chosen to do so. Flew argues he is not, Gibbs that he is.

Gibbs states that Flew has made a ‘grotesque misrepresentation’ of ‘Freedom and Liberation’ and that he was misguided to couple his views of freedom with the phrase from ‘1984’.

Gibbs notes that freedom has different meanings and tries to correct the ‘damage done’. Gibbs’ work is concerned with the rights and wrongs of slavery (see above). He also argues that liberty is not necessarily violated when people are coerced to conform to a given set of moral standards, he raises the examples of life style , alcohol abuse etc.

In Liberty & Compulsory Education, P. Gardner presents the argument that we treat children as having fewer rights than adults and that this is the reason we treat them the way we do. He refers to Mill’s ‘Subjection of Women’ and likens it to our treatment of children. He also points out that it is not usual for unruly adults to be sent to corrective schools (while they remain inside the law), or for illiterate, inummerate and otherwise socially handicaped grown-ups to be sent to institutions to correst their problems. Why then, he asks, do we force our children to go to school.

He continues to argue that children have as many rights as any other group of individuals and it is only because society as a whole refuses to think in this way that the process of ‘subjecting’ children is legitimated. In other words the ‘moral’ majority has control over the minority (children) and while the intentions may be good the result is a restriction of freedom. This refers back to arguments for individual liberty (see previous lectures).

Shelly’s ‘Prometheus’ shows another idea of freedom, the stoic, as the man enchained by the ruler of the rulers and discusses the idea of ‘Promethean Freedom’ which I cannot claim to fully understand. He goes on to show that the true spirit of freedom that cannot be shackled (as in the quote) is that of inner sanctum. You still remain free to some degree until they take away your life.

He refers to Marx’s view that materialism reduces freedom. He also mentions Thomas Mann’s ‘Dr Faustus’, “Law, every law, has a chilling effect, and music has so much warmth anyhow, stable warmth, cow-warmth…that she can stand all sorts of regulated cooling off–she has even asked for it”

D. A. Lloyd Thomas discusses the relationship between property and liberty and Mill’s arguments about property rights and freedom. The simplest way to sum up Mill is to say ‘Do what you like’-Plato, ‘but don’t harm anyone’. First part fine, last part subjected to moral judgements (if you kill yourself do you harm your family?). One argument runs you are only free if you have the means to do what you want to do. I’m free to travel to Mars. No-one is stopping me from going. The problem is I am earthbound because space travel costs money. However, it could be argued that money itself is a restriction on freedom quid pro quo ‘all property is theft’-trad.

1) page 1 Hard Times by Charles Dickens (Oxford University Press 1989)

2) page 180 The Cult of Information by Theodore Roszak (Paladin Books 1988)

3) ‘The Computer Wars’ – James Fallows, published in the New York Review of Books, Volume XLI, Number 6, March 24, 1994

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Politics, Society

 

Profile: John Birt

Despite what many would consider a liberal background at LWT, when John Birt became Director General of the BBC people realised he was there to put the Government’s proposals into action.

In the 1980s Thatcher, angry about coverage of her government, had intended to scrap the license fee, make the BBC carry advertising and effectively privatise it. Fortunately this did not happen but her complaints; that there was not enough choice, that pay was excessive, that the trade unions had the BBC in a vice-like grip, and that news and current affairs coverage was anti-government were effectively incorporated into the BBC’s Charter when it came up for renewal. It was Birt who would do the streamlining.

In 1989 Birt was promoted from Deputy Director General to the top position. Change came quickly. He stripped down the organisation, merging the News and Current Affairs operations to a great degree and putting Documentary and Current Affairs in one building. To help justify this he brought in a series of consultants. This cut the amount of money available for ‘minor things’ like floats to virtually nothing.

Birt introduced the concept of ENG (Electronic News Gathering) into regional news. The idea, borrowed from north America, is that a news crew consists of two people. One is the cameraman, who also does sound, lighting, driving, and sometimes editing. The other is the reporter who also does the directing, research, and the job of the Production Assistant.

The BBC had been a vertical organisation with jobs for life in a duopoly with ITV. But, just as Thatcher had hoped, Birt smashed the unions. Ideas such as ENG which merged jobs were dubbed ‘multi-skilling’, but they amounted to de-skilling. The days of 3-month paid holidays ensured by BECTU (the broadcasting technician’s union) were over. Massive redundancies followed and it was also the end of internal training so now the employee has to pay.

With the renewal of its charter the BBC had to commission 25% of its programmes from independent producers. Birt pushed for far greater reliance than the charter requirement. He also made BBC an internal market. The ‘internal market’, where everything is priced and producers are given a budget has proved virtually unworkable. There was also a levy known as the “John Birt Tariff” of 20% to pay for consultants (such as John Birt as it later emerged). Producers who had spent their lives working at the BBC had never had to do costing before. This was a disastrous mistake which is only now beginning to be undone.

Due to the reliance on independent companies the BBC now buys many of its programmes from the ITV companies who are busy swallowing each other whole. At the other extreme stars have their own production companies which must be employed to get the star in front of a camera. For instance, if you want Lenny Henry to do a show, you have to hire his production company too. This means stars can dictate programming to a degree.

When Birt was promoted from Deputy DG to DG in 1989 he was faced with revenue problems due to the low license fee (which is not linked to inflation), and facing the prospect of having to re-equip every three years he decided that the BBC would focus on what he called “distinctive programming” to justify the continuation of the license fee.

Birt was about instituting authoritarianism on the BBC because of past programmes that had been critical of government and because it represented a large, public, high-cost, bureaucratic organisation that could not easily be privatised. He was determined to do something about “radical” programmes such as ‘Panorama’. Birt’s hopes to streamline the BBC made it amorphous. It was no longer financially inefficient but it stifled creativity. It was broken up into different department heads who made programmes but didn’t broadcast them.

The main drive of Birt’s changes came in factual programming. It was summarised by the ‘mission to explain’. In practical terms Birt aimed to remove the divide between the TV and radio branches of the news organisation. Birt thought the BBC didn’t explain enough about what was going on in the world. The emphasis was placed on being less populist than World in Action (to be “distinctive”). Current Affairs programmes were more analytical, often backgrounders to a news story. They were inevitably boring. As Panorama became less investigative it also became less challenging to do. The reasoning was to differentiate from ITV with Weekend World, On The Record, Public Eye, the return of Costume Drama.

The argument was “Current Affairs is emotive but has no context or background.” Birt went on to make the BBC’s current affairs all the same. Worse than that, the structure was set up before filming. With a pre-shooting script you are supposed to know what your interviewees are going to say before you interview them. This saves money but journalism it is not.

The other bone that caught in the throat of journalists was the emphasis on “good news” that was probably responsible for putting the Queen’s speech in front of the M40 motor-way crash.

Birt’s overriding mission was to pacify the BBC. He managed it but viewing figures dropped and journalists deserted it. Today the BBC tends to hire people who have already made it on ITV/C4 rather than taking chances. Cable and satellite TV were introduced as part of Government policy but they did not intend to hand Murdoch a monopoly.

As the situation stands the BBC now does deals with BSkyB, negotiating for second showing rights to major sports events. And while the corporation is running World Service TV on tax-payers’ money it is also seeking to buy in more American drama to compete with Channel Four’s ‘ER’ and ‘NYPD Blue’. One of the biggest producers is Fox TV, of ‘X-Files’ fame, so ultimately there are very close ties between the BBC and Murdoch. Unless legislation is put in place to secure major sporting events such as Wimbledon and people become more reluctant to pay the license fee, the future of the BBC seems increasingly uncertain.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Media, Profile