Friday, October 31, 2008

Only 85 years ago

Twenty years before I was born, the Manchester Guardian sent a reporter out to investigate this very new-fangled thing called broadcasting.

"Within the last month" he wrote "some important speeches have been broadcasted (sic) ..... seeking to know what the "listener-in" is getting for his money (I) went to a house with a receiving set. There must still be millions of people who have never had experience of picking up news out of vacancy, so I will tell what happened." (29 October, 1923)

From that point to where we are now is an extraordinary arc of transition.

Now I can post this from my boat and could (if I wanted) use the little ordinary computer on which I am writing as a video-phone to communicate with Australia or America - from the boat, without any direct connection with anything at all - even if the boat were on the move at the time.

I can also read, view and download the opinions of extremists, bigots and idiots world-wide, at any time of the day or night and find monstrously grotesque and outspoken comments and materials on YouTube, MySpace and in other recesses of the net.

What happens next? What communication devices will my grand-daughter, Milly Ann, get to see and use? What freedom of expression will she enjoy?

And how will the debate about taste and sensibility in broadcasting be conducted in the future?

Can we control the flood of materials, sometimes unsuitable, which now swills around the world. And should we try to?

At the time I write this, there's been a huge fuss about broadcasting standards and free speech. By the time you read this, it will probably have been almost forgotten but it is important. It raises issues.

What should people be allowed to say on the radio and the television and how should their freedom of speech be rationed, controlled, moderated by their bosses or by the public?

Jonathan Ross (a well known British broadcaster) was at the centre of the affair.

Ross always reminds me of a comedian called Max Miller - loud suits, brash, gobby.

Max is dead now, but he was lovely - great fun to listen to and a lot of mischief in his voice and his patter. He liked putting people's noses out of joint and I always approve of that.

The beloved Max was often in trouble with the BBC. Bureaucrats agonized about everything he said and should be allowed to say, just as they are agonizing this week about what Jonathan Ross and that half-wit Russell Brand have done to the actor, Andrew Sachs (an old friend of mine, as it happens).

Typically, Max Miller would start to recite what appeared to be a harmless comic verse:

"When roses are red, they are ready for plucking
When girls are sixteen they are ready for ...."

And the band came in, playing loudly and suggestively, and the BBC practically had a corporate fit. That was Max Miller at his best, it was always your dirty mind that did it, that transformed his mild-mannered badinage into something naughty. It was nothing he actually said, it was what his words made you think. How could he be blamed for your wicked thoughts? The late and much lamented Humphrey Lyttleton (purveyor of high class filth to the gentry) got away with the same trick for years in a BBC radio programme called "I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue".

The genuine revulsion that people feel about Ross and Brand and their un-feeling and cruel and pointless comments on Andrew Sach's answering machine should not blind any of us to some very important issues:

a) "I hate what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Unfortunately, this applies to Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand as well as to more important people, topics, issues.

b) Everyone is banging on about how witless and unlicensed British broadcasting now is. But it is not, it is extremely tame. We have no equivalent to Spitting Image or That Was The Week That Was or even Monty Python. There is nothing with any genuine cutting edge being broadcast at this point, even if some of it is much ruder than it used to be and there are a lot more four letter words.

c) The BBC Trust is now going to review the 'trust and decency guidelines'. When I worked for the BBC I was unaware of any such things - common sense and enlightened self-interest were used instead. Refer upwards, if in doubt, to make sure that you weren't the one who got sacked if there were a problem. But referring upwards (of course) only works if your boss still possesses some backbone and integrity and is prepared to stand up to a highly paid presenter or performer on a point of principle and to support his or her more junior staff - this is not always the case, either within the BBC or elsewhere.

d) Many of the press comments pick up on Andrew's age - he is 78, which seems extraordinary. I can only remember him as that agile, inept and alarmingly lovable character, Manuel in Fawlty Towers and he will for ever be crawling under a restaurant table looking for a rat called Basil, in my mind at least.

So would the comments about Andrew's grand-daughter, aimed at hurting him and embarrassing her, have been any more acceptable if Andrew had been 48 or 58 and they had been aimed at his daughter or some other member of his family? What has age got to do with it?

The comments were rude, crude, thoughtless, hurtful and unnecessary. Public revulsion has been startling (and welcome). Nothing like that should be said in the first place or, still worse, recorded and broadcast without the explicit permission of the person at whom the abuse was aimed (and, in this case, the permission of the young woman whose name was bandied about). Surely that is clear enough, it is common sense and ordinary politeness. But it is crucial to remember one final point:

e) The presenters thought the remarks were funny and acceptable. So, apparently, did the young producer and at least one of his more senior colleagues. So did the audience at whom the programme was aimed, because there were only two complaints about it before the Mail on Sunday publicised the whole affair more widely. The gulf between Middle England (or perhaps most of England) and some members of the radio audience has never been more clearly emphasized or has led to a greater fuss about very little.

If Ross and Brand are chastened, so much the better. If mindless disk jockey chat is a little more restrained, very good.

But it is worth being be careful about encouraging censorship of any type, at any time - the next Spitting Image or Monty Python could be killed off by administrative caution even before the viewing public gets a glimpse of what might have been possible - Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand brought free speech itself into disrepute when they exploited it totally without regard to common sense or common decency.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

In Just One Lifetime

When I was young, in Britain, if I wrote a play, I was expected to submit it to the Lord Chamberlain for censorship before offering it to a production company for consideration. At that time, the word 'fuck' could not be printed in a newspaper or spoken on television. Homosexuality was illegal between adult males. A man's whole life could be ruined if he touched another man in a sexual way - even if both of them very much wanted it. Lady Chatterley's Lover could not be published. Far too rude. Roman Catholics, in Northern Ireland, were often done out of votes, jobs and housing to which they ought to have been entitled. Blair Peach was beaten to death in the street by a British policeman during the course of a political demonstration in 1979. Before I was a teenager (before teenagers had really been invented), it was a national scandal that the Queen's sister consorted with a man who had once been divorced. When I was very very small, Britain ruled India and huge chunks of Africa and other territories and denied self-determination to most of their peoples. Anyone who advocated free speech was thrown in jail (as Gandhi was, on several occasions.)

Britain was, in my memory, in my lifetime, a deeply repressive country, in spite of the gloss of liberty and anarchy which came (especially during the Sixties) to lap up over the authoritarian mechanisms on the beach like the tide rising towards high water.

Currently (October, 2008) - the tide is falling again. We are in for another dose of repression, with the added sophistication of computers to accelerate its spread.

The leopard does not change its spots. The British government is an extremely dangerous sort of animal, especially in hard times, which is what we have to look forward to.