Saturday, November 01, 2008

Negative regulation for the non-Public Service media

Was this last post a defence of what Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross did to Manuel?

Well .... no. What they did was not nice. I wouldn't have done it, and I’d be upset if someone did it to anyone I know. I'd want a sincere apology and if they did it in the line of their work, I'd want their bosses to to ensure that it wasn’t repeated.

Comedy involves a degree of spontaneity. A good deal of it involves a small degree of cruelty and ridicule and this will inevitably involve misjudgements, the odd excess, and so on. But this is a question of proportion. This misdemeanour – in the context of other acts of public incivility and intrusiveness – is firmly in the ‘slap on the wrist’ territory, for reasons I’ll come to shortly.

In this case, a couple of initial complaints were cheerled and orchestrated for reasons that I outlined in that last post into thousands – a ‘firestorm’ as The Guardian (tellingly) called it in this front-page headline.

Now let's turn to why this is particularly damaging: Public Service Broadcasting has it's enemies – political and commercial. They don't say 'close the BBC' because they know it wouldn't work. They say things like 'why doesn't the BBC stick to quality programming and leave the mainstream popular stuff to the market?' They ask ‘surely the BBC should be a subscription service?’ They suggest that the licence fee is unfair without suggesting an alternative that would ensure sustainable funding.

What they are really saying is that PSB should be like PBS in the US. It should be something that you damn well make your kids watch if they get a bad school report. It should be dull and worthy. They know that a PBS-style BBC would be dead in five years because it wouldn’t even have the huge domestic market that the US has to sustain it.

The BBC will forever be defined by it's competitors. It has to compete for talent – which is why it was right to pay Jonathan Ross the salary that it did. It has to compete for viewers. Its standards and culture are defined partly by what is happening on commercial TV and in the popular press. It tends to find itself located somewhere along the mid-point between a Reithian ideal and the sort of horseshit that passes for the bulk of television in the US (which would be even worse here, by the way, if we didn't have the regulatory framework that we do – underpinned by the world's greatest public service broadcaster).

And there has been a coarsening of media standards in recent years. They have coarsened everywhere. While a demise of bourgeois propriety on TV must surely be good, this has been the sort of coarsening that reflects a demagogic cheerleading, not any liberating act of defiance.

Tabloid newspapers poke their lenses up the skirts of adolescent wannabes because they are 'asking for it' by seeking fame. Reality TV feeds on the emotional car-crash - voyeuristic exercises in vicious snobbery. Invasions of privacy and unwanted interventions in the lives of the undeserving are common currency. My own regular beef is that this coarsening touches politics and politicians, replacing issues with personalised caricatures and it damages representative government (not by accident either!) by artificially lowering public respect for politicians.

We all have our concerns about this. The Mail claims to represent a stream of cultural conservatism that sometimes raises semi-legitimate concerns about this 'coarsening' (though I hear that Paul Dacre's editorial meetings are referred to as 'the vagina monologues' because he calls everyone a cunt all of the time during them).

But if Manuelgate were a legitimate campaign to drum people out of the media for cruelty or unwarranted intrusion, it would start with every newspaper editor, every gossip columnist, every reality TV producer, every 3am gynaecologist-sum-photographer and every tabloid picture editor. It would then turn its fire on the £multimillion hidden PR industry that orchestrates the upskirt carnival of product-placement that makes up the backbone of every daily tabloid.

The Mail understands that the BBC responds to the wider ecology of popular culture and it knows the mischief it causes by denying it access to this space as it has done this week. Asymmetric regulation is worse than asymmetric taxation in other marketplaces – and let’s be clear about this: You don’t make money in the media by beating your competitors. You make it by beating regulators. It’s not about good programmes – it’s about how many divisions you have (in the Competition Law department). Proof? BSkyB has consistently avoided the provisions of the EU’s TV Without Frontiers directive being applied to it, thereby avoiding the rules that apply to other broadcasters.

Perhaps my main point here is that – for some reason – the ‘liberal’ left is so damn illiterate that it doesn’t understand this. In the same way that they don’t understand that they need to turn up when representative government is attacked, they also just don’t realise that they have to respond see attacks on PSB for what they really are.

Brand and Ross’ behaviour wasn’t that unusual or extreme in the context of a wider general arrogance and insensitivity by media figures. When you demand higher standards from the BBC because they have working mechanisms of accountability, then you are actually empowering the BBC's rivals that don’t.

You also end up with ridiculous situations – ones that really do cry to heaven for vengeance – such as the one that the McCann family found themselves in – where newspapers absolutely trash them when they are at their weakest. A disgusting campaign resulted in a fine that was only a fraction of the advertising revenue it generated. Where was the ‘firestorm’ then, eh? This is negative regulation, and so – by extension – is the attack that the BBC has sustained in the last week.

Personally, I really like Russell Brand most of the time. I've seen him interviewed and he seems to be someone that – by comparison with most celebrities – has a degree of humanity – compassion even - to exhibit. He also strikes me as a great deal less cruel, on a routine level, then many of his peers. There are any number of regular faces on the celeb circuit that all of us (and I challenge you to disagree with me here) would like to see being handed ten times the amount of grief that the toe-rags in the tabloids have handed to Mr Brand.

But that won’t happen, because the Mail and the Murdoch press only orchestrate this kind of moral panic – double standards - when it can damage the world’s most accountable media outlet.

Update: Will Rubbish has found this, which makes the point about comedy very well.


Chris said...

It seems to me that although resignations and sackings were not proportional to making crank calls, they weren't just a response to that but also to the initial failure to deal with it properly (Brand's Oct 25 'apology' was terrible - apologising to 'Manuel' is just taking the piss, and the Nazi thing, although true, was beside the bloody point. Plus he said he thought it was funny) and the fact that the production set up created by Douglas wasn't, apparently, properly accountable.

The Plump said...

Another clear sighted post that sees the serious underlying the trivial. I think that the point about 'populist' campaigns like this is that they are anti-democratic and in the service of corporate power ranged against the democratic state in order to make money.

John Meredith said...

Personally, I like Brand as well, although I don't think he is very funny. I just prefer not to have to contribute to his salary. And that is why the Daily Mail's spittle-flecked hypocrisy-fest has traction. The BBC as currently constituted is iniquitous and it knows it. It won't stand up for itself because it knows that in a fight, it will lose.

stephen said...

As a cultural snob, I loath Brand and Ross. I loath Ross, also, for a very personal reason because of the brainless and insulting things he he said against licensed target pistol shooters after Dunblane. I am glad that the talentless overpaid fucks are off the air. In the case of Ross, it is a pity it is not permanent. BUT ... I agree with your analysis that there is a much more significant reason lying behind this moral panic and that is an attack on public service broadcasting. "We know of no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality" Too right Mr Macaulay!

cian said...

I think this is a stronger argument. What really pisses me off about the whole thing is the disgusting hypocrisy. The Sun and the Mail attacking anyone for bullying? These people are scumbags, who aggressively hassle and libel innocent members of the public when they're at their weakest.

passer by said...

"A disgusting campaign resulted in a fine that was only a fraction of the advertising revenue it generated."

NO the fines where large and have certainly had an effect on print newspapers editorial lines. especially today where print media are on the decline.

The last time I looked the broadsheets where just as much likely to be fined as the heavies.

Tim Almond said...

The main issue that Brand/Ross highlights is that while people have a choice to turn off, they don't have a choice to pay.

There are a few things that count as public goods which should be paid for by general taxation, and everything else should be supplied by the market.

Paulie said...

That's more of an assertion than an argument Tim. There are plenty of public goods that we pay for in general taxation but that we don't all use. Being a bit of a lefty, I wouldn't mind seeing that sphere increase in some ways.

Funding the BBC out of general taxation would compromise it's public service remit - which is why it runs on a licence fee instead. That's only a detail really though - if could be bolted on to a more progressive tax system but it would create a 'state-control' tension.

The thing is, the BBC works fantastically well by comparision to most institutions. That observation trumps all discussion of how it *ought* to be funded in my book.