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Some things never change

We should not forget, here in the UK, that dislike of the state-financed broadcasting network of the BBC has been going on for some time. Here is Kingsley Amis, the author and lecturer, writing in 1984:

“In television, as in other departments of national life, the consumer, the customer, the purchaser, is faced wiith a semi-benign semi-conspiracy to foist on him what is thought to be good for him, what other people consider he ought to have, instead of what he naturally prefers. In short, the public is brought education when it wants entertainment.”

The point, however, is that the focus on entertainment has arguably increased since the late Mr Amis wrote those words back in the era of Mrs Thatcher. As a consequence, the paternalistic intentions of the creators of the BBC have been frustrated to a remarkable degree. When Amis commented on the BBC, he at least was part of a country in which it was assumed that the BBC’s controllers felt that they had some sort of mission to educate and inform – not that this justified coercive funding even then. But the paternalism was at least fairly blatant. Now even that sense of mission appears to be more evident in the breach rather than the observance. The contradictions posed by the BBC’s funding model are unendurable.

The quote is taken from The Amis Collection, page 257, published in 1990. I am not sure if the book is still in print.

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16 comments to Some things never change

  • Robin Goodfellow

    It’s amusing, and saddening, that this mistake (the monarchy/monopoly mistake) keeps being made again and again and again throughout history. The form it most often takes is that a monopoly of some sort will form (either through regulation, state creation, pseudo natural economic forces, or other means) and through some combination of luck or good will by the founders it will be a thing of quality that people defend. People will say, “well, it may be a monopoly, but it’s ok, ’cause it’s run well”. People say that a lot about Dubai, for example. It may be a monarchy, it may have a strict caste system, but there is (or there was) a shit-ton of money being spent there, many foreign workers live very comfortable, affluent lives there, and the monarch is a mostly benevolent ruler, so it’s ok.

    But this is a naive world view, because things change. Concentrated power has a tendency to remain concentrated far beyond any institutional tendency to remain benevolent. That is the lesson that history has taught us about the value of democracy over monarchy, and the value of competitive markets over monopolies (state-backed or otherwise). Sure, democracy may not be perfect, far from it, but the misery-floor in a functional democracy over the long term tends to be significantly higher than the misery-floor in a monarchy, even if there are occasional bouts of benevolence. The same goes for markets as well. The US is far better off today with its cacophony of cellular, voice, and data networks than it was under the state-backed suffocation of ma-bell.

    The BBC may at one time have been superlative amongst broadcast television operations, and it may yet still be a quality enterprise. But the characteristic dynamics of monopolies will assuredly bring it to ruin eventually with the same inevitability that the 2nd law of thermodynamics will hold in a closed system.

  • MarkE

    Now even that sense of mission appears to be more evident in the breach rather than the observance

    I don’t think you have to look very deeply to find evidence that the BBC still feels it has a mission to educate. We see the plot line in soaps taking implausible turns so the producers can highlight whichever social problem is currently troubling the government (oh, lets be honest, the Labour party). We see drama being used to present an orthodox view (have you not noticed how so many dramas involve Christian fundamentalists since 7/7? Comedians still see Mrs Thatcher as the enemy to be attacked at every opportunity (supporting a Labour party that has been in office 13 years is a very establishment act; are there many people still watching who can remember when comedians were proud to be considered anti-establishment?).

    The BBC sees its mission as educating the British electorate to understand how Social Democratic politics are the only acceptable view. It does this only partly through overtly “educational” programming; most of its propaganda is included in the scripts of what should be pure entertainment.

  • cerebus

    Presumably the paternalist reponse would be that these intentions have been frustrated due to the proliferation of private markets in television breaking the BBC’s monopoly and giving people the freedom to choose stupidity.

  • pete

    The government tells us we shoud do more exercise and get fitter. At the same time it generously funds huge amounts of brain-rotting trash TV like Eastenders and Casualty which is watched by an ever more obese audience slumped on their couches.

    95% of what the BBC does is harmful to the nation’s physical and mental health.

  • Question ?

    I heard that sometime in the 1980s, Mrs. T cut a deal with the Tory wets that she would leave the BBC alone if they would go along with her defense spending program.

    Is there any truth to this ?

  • Jerry

    People, please help to educate a a poor dumb American.

    I’ve heard all sort of things about television in the U.K. such as you have to pay for it whether you use it or not, there are only 5 stations, you can be jailed for having an ‘illegal’ receiver, on and on etc.

    How does it REALLY work ?
    What about satellite reception ?
    What are the financial costs etc. ?

    Over here, if I could get my wife to go along with it I would scrap ‘cable/dish’ and go back to the 8-10 local free/over-the-air channels I can get. I simply detest commercials/ads ( STOP taking small pieces of my life trying to sell me something I neither need nor want)
    and having to PAY to watch them is almost
    intolerable !!! It’s so bad now that the average one hour program has almost 20 minutes of ads and I recently watched a 130 minute movie that spanned 180 minutes of clock time – break for another string of ads about every 7 to 9 minutes !!

    Thanks in Advance

  • Rich Rostrom

    The paternalist attitude about such things is very old.

    Lee De Forest invented the vacuum tube and pioneered radio broadcasting. De Forest was an ultra-conservative Republican, who grabbed for every possible penny of profit from his inventions. But 1940 he ranted vehemently against broadcast entertainment:

    What have you done with my child, the radio broadcast? You have debased this child, dressed him in rags of ragtime, tatters of jive and boogie-woogie.

    Much of it, I think, is about status. “Education” is noble and dignified; “entertainment” (outside of designated “quality” material) is low-rent and vulgar. Supporting one over the other allows people to feel they are showing high-status attitudes.

  • Steven Groeneveld

    In this internet age it has become totally unecessary to have a television at all. Most things I want to see are available online or I get the DVD’s for a series. That way I can avoid all the adverts and watch shows at my convenience rather than some arbitrary broadcast schedule.

    Some of the shows I have are very old but timeless like the Monty Pythons etc but the BBC still collects more money for these things already payed for several times over by the taxpayer (licence payer). This level of triple gouging by this coersive monopoly makes me less morally concerned about the amount of bittorrent downloads etc which the internet has now made possible.

    However in spite of my voluntarilly avoiding the iniquitous TV tax there have been moves in Germany (where I used to live for a time) to impose it for all those with an internet connection. I couldn’t avoid licence fees entirely there either by not having a TV. I had radios in the cars that were obviously visible to licence inspectors and had to pay the fee for a radio licence, which was at least half of what the TV licence costs.

    I have been living in Canada for the past year and have seen the fiasco of the CBC trying to coercively (by demanding a law to the effect) get payment for their content from cable providers, and thus ultimately from all TV owners. I hope this comes to nothing for at least all over North America there is sufficient cultural resistence to the concept of paying for open air broadcast media.

    But back to the point that television , like newspapers, is a dying medium that I and many others manage quite well to do without. Ultimately, even with a coercive monopoly, their market is declining at a rapid rate and that is something they can ultimately do little about.

  • Alice

    Jerry asked about the BBC’s funding: “How does it REALLY work ?”

    Jerry, there are many on this site who can give you the up-to-date version.

    All I can add is my personal experience from working in the UK some years ago. I decided not to get a TV. After some threatening official correspondence about my not having bought a TV “licence”, I had to go down to the Post Office and “register” as a non-owner of a TV set. Sort of like registering as a sex offender, I imagine, only without the social cachet.

    A pox on the BBC!

  • “The BBC sees its mission as educating the British electorate to understand how Social Democratic politics are the only acceptable view. It does this only partly through overtly “educational” programming; most of its propaganda is included in the scripts of what should be pure entertainment.”

    Absolutely. On another thread I pointed Alice to an example that would more or less fit in there (but I got smited) – the 1984 BBC production of “A Passage To India”. Summary: the British Empire was nasty and rude, everybody made a fuss about protocols, but they all had lovely hats, coats and dresses. So yes – a pox on the BBC.

  • MarkE


    Picking up from a later thread here, what are the chances of a plotline in casualty soon where someone gets carried away sprinkiling salt on his chips and is being carted off in an ambulance within minutes?

    They will be a bit more subtle than that, but it will be there somewhere.

  • Holby city/ Casualty are two of the worst offenders, propaganda-wise.

  • watcher in the dark

    The BBC’s self-imposed remit to teach us to be better socialists never wanes. The prevalent idea at the beeb is that we are all weak little things who need to be taught the error of our non-submissive ways, so various global-warmists, champagne lefties who yearn for a new world order and even off-the-wall islamist sympathisers are given free rein to air their views unopposed.

    Jerry from elsewhere asks how does it work? Well, it works because the people at the top need a state-run propaganda machine (to prove this you only have to look at the still pictures of Broon the beeb uses, which invariably show him in approved-Che mode with the man resolutely looking forward to a golden future all of his own) so no questions are asked of it. If you go to a shop and buy some item related to the receiving of television broadcasts you are reported at once to the ‘authorities’ so you can be taxed (aka the licence fee) and threatened with jail or a fine before you actually pay up.

    But this suits our NuLAb masters; having ordinary people worried by the law is why they exist. It makes socialists get a warm, wet feeling in their underwear that ordinary people can be threatened. And while some clever folk do evade paying for the beeb to send squads of correctly-thinking sycophants anywhere they choose (obama-fests being one of them), most have to pay up and shut up and take what’s given.

    The money required from us however does allow us to watch and listen to a lot of people shouting at each other (Eastenders), or telling smutty jokes (Wossy) or not even telling any jokes (Brigstocke and Hardy, etc) and above all listening to interviewers not asking our ‘leaders’ the questions we might want an answer to.

    And yes, they know where you live, too…

  • Mm… or iDave goes for a salt tax on Ghandi’s birthday and introduces new regulations for everything from fish fingers to margaritas so that the waitress has to listen to some dirty old sod asking her to measure his “salty rim” carefully lest he fall afoul of the new rules.

  • Paul Marks

    It is not rocket science to know what to do about the BBC.

    As nearly everyone around here has suggested many times ……….

    Abolish the television tax (the “License Fee”) and allow people to voluntarily donate money to keep the BBC running if they wish.

    If people really support “public service broadcasting” (and remember most people who say they support it are rich) then the BBC will continue – if not, it will not.

    Sadly the Conservative party leadership does not seem to understand the above and is committed to not abolishing the license fee.

    So when the BBC effort to undermine the next Conservative party govenrment starts (i.e. the day it comes into office) I will have no sympathy whatever.

    Those who think they can make friends with the BBC deserve all they get.

  • Paul Marks

    Rich Rostrom.

    Lee De Forest may have lost out to CBS (rather dubiously) – but he just went and invented other stuff (he was what is called a “great man”, I am NOT one – but I know the type and admire them).

    And as for radio – his time came.

    After Ronald Reagan allowed it “talk radio” proved that serious political talk (the sort of thing Lee De Forest wanted) DOES attract people.

    Rush, Hannity, Glenn Beck, Brian and the Judge – they all prove this.

    As for entertainers – Glenn Beck produces “Fusion” a magazine which is combination of humour and serious poltics (I think that this is also a nod at the late Frank Meyer’s “Fusion” of Conservativsm and Libertarianism – but I have never asked Mr Beck) and his radio and television broadcasts follow the same philosophy.

    As does Jerry Doyle – a successful actor (Babylon Five) who has become a conservative talk radio person and author.

    Lee De Forest would not be displeased.

    By the way – should anyone wish to sneer at the above people.

    All of the above have endured years of the most savage and disgusting threats – not just to themselves but to their familes.

    They are also lied about and sneered at by the “enlightened elite” – and yet they fight on.

    They are great men.

    As Ayn Rand was fond of saying – the type does exist, one just has to open one’s and look around. They are there.