The Public Gets What The Public Wants

I went to Raven Row to see the People Make Television presentation. “Exhibition” wouldn’t be quite right, as there is an excellent free handbook containing several essays and lots of broadcast detail, but other than that it’s televisions and people sitting around watching a limited selection of shows. A live performance art piece in which 21st century digital casualties try to come to terms with an earlier broadcasting culture of limited options.

The programmes available here are all of a special kind: the ones that were made by outsiders, ordinary members of the public, usually some minority groups, given a chance to present themselves and their issues. Open Door and the various community-based cable TV projects of the 70s and 80s. Not all of these presentations are making radical demands for equality. The picture at the start of here is David Stayt, who, along with his wife Yvonne, ran the anti-feminist Campaign For The Feminine Woman, and got a chance to put their case on 28th September 1978, which is still available from the BBC. According to the guidebook, that is also one of the editions included. I have a suspicion that the Stayts may have been the inspiration for the weird reactionary couple who appear in Penda’s Fen.

Another edition recovered for the event is the Open Door of 10th April 1978: “Young Ukrainians’ Forum: The People Who Couldn’t Go Home”. But of course they also have what might well have been the most impactful OD from 1st March 1979: It Ain’t Half Racist Mum by the Campaign Against Racism In The Media, which was led by Stuart Hall.

The focus on the BBC Community Programmes Unit means we miss the further history of viewer-access TV: the “Video Box” units installed around the country (at the offices of the main ITV regional companies) to collect contributions from opinionated viewers, which would the be used in Right To Reply at the end of the week. They also read from letters, and arranged studio discussions in which forthright people could challenge programme makers directly. They sometimes invited viewers to make their own short reports to be included. This was all new and exciting at the time, but what strikes me now is an early version of the same effect we see on social media: the gaming of the system by committed professional players to project “grassroots” or “silent majority” viewpoints that are nothing of the sort. The format inevitably favours the fluent, well-spoken activist who might not be entirely forthcoming about how organised they are and who funds them. This was still the era when Mary Whitehouse presented as the “National Viewers & Listeners Association” that was a small group with private backing. It is tedious that state of some old show that “it wouldn’t be made nowadays” but I really don’t think BBC2 would give a platform to the equivalents of the Stayts in 2023, and I can’t feel I care too much about that. On the other hand, I wish there had been some way to compel the various bodies that Stuart Hall wanted to respond to his show to actually give a damn and take part.

This is part of a longer history of anxiety about TV and mass culture and “minority culture” (in the days when that meant the High Culture that only a minority consumed) and the needs of preparing a public to participate in democratic society, including the debates about how that society should evolve. This sort of thing from 1962, which has a dedication to Stuart Hall and others:

The old copy I picked up in a second hand shop still has its old owner’s name and institution:

The days when new paperbacks had adverts for other titles at the back:

John Vaizey, dad of Ed Vaizey, still active in politics.

Williams shows us how the broadcasting insiders regarded the consumers of their products.

Nobody seems to have expected the new world of commercial television would open up too many democratising opportunities. This was the era satirized in Christine Brooke-Rose’s early novel The Middlemen (1961), in which we learn how the old social elite have had no difficulty colonizing and controlling all the institutions of the new post-War socialist Britain. It is noticeable that Williams also stays with the old paternalist models even when trying to push back against cultural domination: he wants viewers to exert pressure through another review body. He has no suggestions of anything like the Open Door platform.

We have the nearest thing to democratic broadcasting now, when anyone can make a short film on a handheld device and get it distributed around the world, at least until someone important wants to stop it. That is far more instant access than Open Door, and you don’t need a full camera crew or months of preparation and editing to show a simple story, so it doesn’t just favour the already-funded. But it’s still not perfect: some issues and identities still need the old documentary treatment, and they will only get it from a provider like the BBC or Channel 4, under obligation to help them fairly. Meanwhile the astroturfers and professional contrarians and conspiracy loons have also been able to boost their signals beyond the small worlds they struggled to reach with tatty leaflets and paperbacks back in the 70s. We have to find a way to hear the people who don’t want what this society has, even if we talk and we talk till our heads explode.

One thought on “The Public Gets What The Public Wants

  1. Great thing about that picture of David Stayt: he’s got an ashtray. Because someone smoking on a TV talk show was totally normal in the 70s. They wouldn’t let you do that nowadays.


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