Posts Tagged ‘Michael Grade’

Vox Political on the Part-Privatisation of Channel 4

May 10, 2016

Mike over at Vox Political has also put up a piece today about the government’s proposed partial privatisation of Channel 4 under John Whittingdale. The Torygraph has reported that the government has climbed down from privatising it fully, and instead are just looking for a ‘strategic partner’, like BT. They would also like the network to sell its offices in Westminster and move to somewhere like Birmingham. Its account should also be checked by the NAO, responsible for examining government expenditure, and they would like to change its non-profit status and see it pay a dividend to the Treasury. Mike points out that the network chiefs have taken this as stepping stone towards Channel 4’s full privatisation, and are deciding to reject it. Meanwhile, the Tories don’t want to privatise it fully, because they’ll get the same backlash from their proposals to sell off the Beeb. See Mike’s article at: http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2016/05/10/only-part-privatisation-for-channel-4-as-tories-fear-another-bbc-style-backlash/

This is another barbarous government attack on public broadcasting in the UK. Channel 4 was set up in the 1980s to be a kind of alternative to the alternative BBC 2, and to cater for tastes and audiences that weren’t being met by the established channels. According to Quentin Letts in one of his books, Denis Thatcher thought this mean putting yachting on the sports’ coverage instead of footie, which shows the limited idea of ‘alternative’ held by Thatcher and her consort. Jeremy Isaacs, its controller, was proud of his outsider status as a Jew in the network, a status he shared with Melvin Bragg, a Northerner. He said that he wanted to put on the new, fledgling channel programmes on miner’s oral history, and performances of the great classics of Britain’s minority cultures, like the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. He also believed that people had ‘latent needs’ – there were things they wanted to see, which they didn’t yet know they did. He was widely ridiculed for his views. Private Eye gave a sneering review of the book, in which he laid out his plans and opinions, stating that all this guff about people’s ‘latent needs’ showed that he thought he knew more than they did about what people actually wanted. As for being an outsider, the Eye observed rather tartly that they were all outsiders like that now in broadcasting, swimming around endlessly repeating the same views to each other.

In fact, Isaacs was largely right. Quite often people discover that they actually enjoy different subjects and pursuits that they’re not used to, simply because they’ve never encountered them. The Daily Heil columnist, Quentin Letts, comments about the way the network has been dumbed down in one of his books, pointing out how good the networks cultural broadcasting was when it was first set up. The network was particularly good at covering the opera. I can remember they broadcast one such classical music event, which was broadcast throughout Europe, rather like the Eurovision song contest but with dinner suits, ball gowns, lutes and violins rather than pop spangle, Gothic chic, drums and electric guitars. The audiences for its opera broadcasts were below a million, but actually very good, and compared well with the other broadcasters.

As for its programmes aimed at the different ethnic minorities, I knew White lads, who used to watch the films on ‘All-India Goldies’ and the above TV adaptation of the Mahabharata. This last was also given approval by Clive James, one of the great TV critics. James noted it was slow-moving, but still considered it quality television.

The network has, like much of the rest of British broadcasting, been dumbed-down considerably since then. American imports have increased, and much of the content now looks very similar to what’s on the other terrestrial channels. The networks’ ratings have risen, but at the expense of its distinctive character and the obligation to broadcast material of cultural value, which may not be popular. Like opera, foreign language films and epics, art cinema and theatre.

Even with these changes, there’s still very much good television being produced by the network. From the beginning, Channel 4 aimed to have very good news coverage, and this has largely been fulfilled. There have been a number of times when I’ve felt that it’s actually been better than the Beeb’s. In the 1990s the Channel was the first, I believe, to screen a gay soap, Queer as Folk, created by Russell T. Davis, who went on to revive Dr Who. This has carried on with the series Banana, Cucumber, and Tofu. It also helped to bring archaeology to something like a mass audience with Time Team, now defunct. And if you look at what remains of the British film industry, you’ll find that quite often what little of it there is, is the product of either the Beeb or Channel 4 films.

And from the beginning the Right hated it with a passion. Well, it was bound to, if Denis Thatcher’s idea of alternative TV was golf and yachting, and Thatcher really wouldn’t have wanted to watch anything that validated the miners. And it was notorious for putting on explicitly sexual material late at night, as well as shows for sexual minorities, such as discussing lesbianism, when these weren’t anywhere near as acceptable as they are today. As a result, the Heil regularly used to fulminate against all this filth, and branded its controller, Michael Grade, Britain’s ‘pornographer in chief’.

And over the years, the various governments have been trying to privatise it. I think Maggie first tried it sometime in the 1980s. Then they did it again, a few years later, possibly under John Major. This surprised me, as after they privatised it the first time, I thought that was the end of it. Channel 4 had been sold off completely. It seems I was wrong. It seems these were just part privatisations. Now they want to do it again.

It struck me with the second privatisation of Channel 4 that this was an election tactic by the Tory party. Maggie had tried to create a popular, share-owning, capitalist democracy through encouraging the working class to buy shares in the privatised utilities. And for all her faults and the immense hatred she rightly engendered, Maggie was popular with certain sections of the working class. By the time the Tories wanted to privatise the Channel the second time, it struck me that they were floundering around, trying to find a popular policy. The magic had worn of the Thatcherite Revolution, Major was in trouble, and so they were trying to bring back some of the old triumphs of Thatcher’s reign, as they saw it. They needed something big and glamorous they could sell back to the voters. And so they decided to privatise Channel 4. Again.

They want to do the same now. But the fact that they’re looking for ‘a strategic partner’ tells you a lot about how things have changed in the intervening years. This is most definitely not about popular capitalism. Most of the shares held by working people were bought up long ago by the fat cats. In this area, the Thatcherite Revolution has failed, utterly, just as it has in so many others. This is all about selling more of Britain’s broadcasting industry to the Tory’s corporate backers. Much of ITV is owned by the Americans, if not all of it, and Channel 5 certainly is. What’s the odds that Channel 4 will stay British, if it too is privatised?

And so we can look forward to a further decline in public broadcasting in this country, as it more of it is bought by private, and probably foreign, media giants. Quality broadcasting, and the duty of public broadcasters to try and expand their audiences’ horizons by producing the new, the ground-breaking, alternative and unpopular, will suffer. All for the profit of the Tory party and their big business paymasters.

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Cameron Has Killed at 2,200 People’ : Frankie Boyle at the 2014 Television Festival

January 24, 2015

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This follows on from the question Mike raised in the previous post Class divide in the arts – are they just for the toffs? at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2015/01/24/class-divide-in-the-arts-is-it-just-for-the-toffs/. The controversial Scots comedian, Frankie Boyle, was interviewed last year at the Guardian’s International Television Festival last year by Pointless’s Richard Osman. The interview was a review of the state of television. And Boyle made it very clear that he though British television was being held back by the desire of TV commissioning editors to remain safe. Boyle made it very clear that class attitudes were very definitely a part of this. The interview can be found on Youtube with the title GEITF 2014 – Frankie Boyle: State of the TV Nation.
Boyle on the Two Most Offensive Jokes

Boyle is one of Britain’s very edgiest comedians. Osman tackled him about two of his most controversial jokes. These were about Katie Price being raped by her mentally disabled son, and a disparaging comment about the appearance of the Paralympic swimming heroine, Rebecca Adlington. Osman states that he’s a fan of Boyle, but makes it clear that he feels those jokes should never have been broadcast, and an apology should have been issued. Boyle defended the Katie Price joke by stating that he thought very hard about it. He told it because he felt it was a valid comment about Price. She had two points on which she sold herself: her looks, and her disabled son. She had other, non-handicapped children, who you never heard anything about. Boyle felt that the joke was a suitable comment on Price’s self-publicity.

False Banter on Comedy Panel Shows

Boyle made the comment that television panel shows, like Mock the Week, now relied on banter. It looked like normal conversation, but was all false. It was all scripted. And it was there, because the TV companies did not want to tackle other, more difficult issues. He specifically mentioned the two land wars in which Britain was involved at the time. Five years ago, Boyle said, you could mention them. Now they were verboten. He tried on Mock the Week to make a joke commenting on them, but was told that he couldn’t. As an example of the depths the show how reached now, he said that the last time he watched it had to make jokes about the Ryder Cup. He told the Katie Price joke because for the past ten weeks they’d been making jokes about the Olympics, and then they were being asked to return to them. Boyle’s controversial joke followed soon after.

No Challenge to Cameron’s Murder of the Disabled by Atos

As a further example, Boyle gave the murderous campaign of Cameron against the disabled. He said outright that Cameron had killed at least 2,200 people ‘bottom line’ through Atos and the fit for work test. But he was never challenged. Osman raised the topic of the Channel 4 conspiracy drama, Utopia, as an example of television tackling difficult topics. Boyle stated in his usual forthright terms that the show was rubbish. It was based very much on the type of comics produced by Alan Moore and his ilk. However, Channel 4 had taken all the good material out of it. If they were really determined to produce quality television, they’d hire Alan Moore and co. Instead Channel 4 produced endless programmes genuinely exploiting deformity and sneering at the working class, explicitly mentioning Benefits Street.

TV Bosses’ Misogyny

He criticised the channel bosses for their peculiar ideas of what was ‘fringe’ and ‘mainstream’. He’d tried to get Andrew Newsom on a programme, only to be told that she was too fringe. He felt this was rubbish, as he’d just seen her play at the Royal Albert Hall. He was also sharply critical at television’s very misogynist attitudes. When asked about the issue of quotas, and putting more women and members of ethnic minorities on screen, Boyle said he agreed with them. Regarding the proportion of women on panel shows, he felt it should be 50/50 with men. This, however, was definitely unwelcome to channel bosses. He told how he heard the regular host of a panel show use an extremely crude term for women comedians. It’s extremely coarse, so be warned. The bosses had very definite ideas about how many women should be allowed on a panel show. He tried to get a female comedian on Never Mind the Buzzcocks four times. One of these times he tried to get them to bring on Sarah Millican. He was told that this was not possible, as they already had a female comedian on for that week.

Sack the Bosses, Not Cancel BBC 3

He was very critical of the efforts of the television bosses themselves and their personal failure to increase diversity. He noted that Alan Yentob and the others bewailed the fact that there weren’t enough women and Black people on TV, while doing absolutely nothing about it, despite the fact that it was their jobs. On the subject of the scrapping of BBC 3, the Corporation’s youth channel, Boyle said that the Beeb had admitted they had made a mistake. They had been trying to get young people to watch TV instead of other media. The age demographic for the other channels was very high – in the 50s. Yet they had scrapped the channel in order to concentrate on the internet, which was precisely the thing that was taking da yoof away from TV. When Osman asked Boyle where Boyle would cut to save money, he replied that it would be with the bosses. They formed a useless layer of people, whose job was to stop programme being commissioned, often for the most bizarre reasons.

Class Bias in Satire and the Westminster Bubble

Boyle considered that such satire that was permitted, was only allowed because it came from an upper middle class voice. He gave as examples Peter Cook and Patrick Morris, the creator of Brass Eye. Anything that did not come from that social echelon, which could be easily identified as ‘ironic’, or ‘playing with concepts’, was therefore dangerous and unsettling.

He felt part of the problem was that satire in this country was very newspaper-based. He gave Have I Got News for You and Private Eye as examples. They were stuck in the Westminster bubble and the Westminster cycle as a result. Comedians like Boyle presented a problem, as editors and producers wanted them to produce party political satire, which Boyle didn’t.

Jeremy Clarkson’s a Cultural Tumour

They got on to the different way Boyle and Jeremy Clarkson had been treated by television. Clarkson, like Boyle, made controversial jokes and comments. Boyle, however, declared that Clarkson, whom he described as ‘a cultural tumour’, was acceptable because there was no context for what he said. For example, Boyle had been criticised for a comment he made about Israel during the Gaza conflict. He was attacked as anti-Semitic, an accusation which he denied. Yet when Clarkson was attacked for using the ‘N’ word in nursery rhyme, the head of BBC 1 appeared to defend him and state that he wasn’t racist. Boyle felt this might have been due to rights issues. Most producers, Boyle said, would be happy with 3/4s of the ratings, if the content was less controversial. Clarkson, however, still had his job, which suggested to him that they were afraid to sack him because of the problem of who owned the rights.

The Beeb and Scots Independence

Boyle was also one of those, who support Scots independence. He remarked on the media bias against the independence campaign, and the weird behaviour of David Cameron and the leaders of the ‘No’ team, when they ventured north of the Border. He stated that the Beeb were against independence, because the licence money from Scotland acted a subsidy for the corporation as a whole. Altogether, the BBC gains £300 million from the licence fee in Scotland. Of this, only about £40 million is spent on Scottish programmes. Another £60 million is spent ‘finessing’ programmes produced elsewhere, but which travel up to Scotland. Thus the Beeb effectively got a subsidy of £200 million from Scots viewers.

As for David Cameron, Boyle stated that when he and the ‘No’ coterie travelled up to fair Caledonia, they were so out of place that they looked like time travellers trying to find oil to power their time machine. He was particularly amused by Cameron’s comments about the ‘silent Scottish majority’. He’d never known Scots to be silent about anything.

The Sun

Osman raised the topic of Boyle’s writing for the Sun. Boyle was a left-wing comedian, but there he was, writing for Murdoch. Boyle replied that there were no ‘good’ papers, as far as he was concerned. The Observer, for example, had also cheered on the war in Iraq. He started writing for the Sun because they censored him less than the BBC. He also developed a particular technique of making sure they didn’t take too much out of his work. However, during one newspaper and magazine media event, Boyle had found his material disappearing. He asked why it was suddenly being edited out. He was told that it was because Murdoch himself was up for the event, and liked to edit everything in person. Boyle didn’t believe it was true, but went into the cafeteria early one morning to see Murdoch sat at a table, going through everything with black marker. So perhaps, he concluded, it really was true.

Upbringing of the Ruling Class

As for the ruling class, they were so appalling because of the way they were raised. It was exactly like the Spartans. At seven or eight they were taken away from their parents and placed in an all-male environment. They were then bored with Latin and other useless subjects, in order to inculcate the right attitudes into them ‘like a brainwashing cult’. And then finally and suddenly, sodomy. With this background, no wonder they were like they were.

Drama, Brothel Keeping and the Hedge Fund Managers

And as an example of the way television was reluctant to tackle anything too challenging, he gave the example of a friend of his, who was a professional television writer. The man had been hired to write a story about people trafficking for one of the cop dramas. In the script he subsequently produced, the villain was a hedge fund manager, who went into people smuggling because the returns were so good. This was very definitely not what the Beeb wanted. They told him that instead of a hedge fund manager, the villain was going to be a Russian gangster called ‘Sergey’.

So he subsequently revised the script. The villain was turned into the gangster, Sergey. But in his treatment, Sergey had gone into the people smuggling business, after borrowing money from hedge fund managers, because the return was so spectacular. This was, against, unacceptable. The villain was a Russian gangster called Sergey. He had a black leather jacket and a gun, and he was into people smuggling because he was evil. End of. The story was taken away from the writer for someone else to work on.

A few months later, the cops in New England raided a brothel. It was one of string of them, all run by a hedge fund manager. Because the returns were spectacular. It was a reality that the Beeb had literally not wanted to imagine.

Here’s the interview. Warning: Boyle’s language is at times very coarse, and the jokes about Price and Addlington are offensive.

It’s a fascinating perspective from the state of television today from someone, whose frequently tasteless jokes have almost made him an outsider. Nevertheless, Boyle makes it clear that he thinks very hard about what he says. As for the comments about satire being acceptable if it comes from an establishment voice, he has a point. Even so, Private Eye and Brass Eye at various points in their careers were barely acceptable. When it started out, Private Eye was only stocked by a very few newsagents. I remember ten years ago I took a copy of the Eye into work, and was asked by an older colleague, ‘You don’t actually read that, do you?’ Some of the Eye’s jokes have been considered in such bad taste, such as their cover satirising the mass adulation at the funeral of Princess Di, that newsagents have refused to stock it. As for Brass Eye, that was indeed so extreme in its satire that Grade had to fight hard to save it from cancellation.

As the founders of Private Eye, Richard Ingrams and co themselves made clear, they, Ingrams, Peter Cook and Willie Rushton were all far from outsiders. They were privately educated members of the middle class. Auberon Waugh was the son of the novelist Evelyn, and John Wells had been the headmaster of Eton. You couldn’t get much more establishment than that.

Private Eye also inspired David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was, the ’60s ancestor of popular satirical television. While it’s now regarded as a classic, it was intensely controversial at the time. Even in the 1980s Robin Day, the heavyweight interviewer of politicians on the Beeb, disliked it so much that he described it as ‘deplorable’ in his autobiography, Grand Inquisitor. Satire has become acceptable on TV, only because so many of its producers were respectably middle class, and even they had to work very, very hard.