… as Long As It’s White And It’s English
According to some news reports this morning, the DCMS(1) will issue guidance to Ofcom to ensure the “Britishness” of content, and that programmes made by public service broadcasters not be too “international” or “generic”. This was announced in a speech at the Royal Television Society Convention by the Media Minister, John Whittingdale. Let’s say the reaction has been “mixed”. It actually turned out to be one of his last ministerial engagements, as he was removed from the post this morning.
In this speech he said that these rules would ensure that public service broadcasters must “showcase British culture”. He cited shows such as Dr Who(2), Downton Abbey & The Bodyguard as examples. Other shows were mentioned as fitting this model by other sources included Derry Girls, Fleabag, and Only Fools and Horses. Even looking at this list, you notice something, don’t you? It’s a very narrow sort of Britishness. Indeed, Derry Girls is pretty distinctly Irish in tone, with a not entirely friendly attitude towards the British. But they’re all very … white. So, no mention of such such as Desmonds, Goodness Gracious Me, Citizen Khan, The Real McCoy, Famalam, or People Just Do Nothing, to name just a few. And that’s before we even think about anything even remotely Scottish (that list alone is pretty huge), or Welsh. Already you can see that there’s a very particular mindset at work in the formulation of such a policy, and that makes some problems evident in how all of this might play out.
The first problem is even being able to ask the question what is Britishness? Most of the examples provided are in fact English. And even then, they’re just a subset of English culture. It’s all very cosy. So you won’t see The Likely Lads; no Our Friends in the North; no Kes; no This Is England; no Boys From The Blackstuff; no Get Carter. No mention of Peaky Blinders. TV companies have clearly been reading the memo though, because the number of shows in the last few years with titles like “The Great British …”(3), or “Britain’s Best…” haven’t exactly been rare in the schedules. Shows like OFAH and Coronation Street are thrown into the mix here because at least superficially they reinforce a very traditional and predominantly white and English view of the country, and a quick shorthand for lazy policy makers to fall back on. We’ve even had a whole “news” channel try it, though not very well, as it seems to be (not) working out for them.
There are lots of kinds of “Britishness”, and in a country with a huge array of cultural diversity, partly due to the historical quirks of us being four countries in one, and partly being about the legacy of an Imperial past that some people find quite uncomfortable to confront head on, there should be many and varied ways of expressing it. However, when you have a Home Secretary with total irony bypass gleefully and unlawfully piling British people onto planes, deporting them to places they’ve no memory of ever having lived in, we can’t be too surprised when there is discomfort and pushback from those quarters if there’s a merest suggestion that the British experience is rather more diverse. I’m a middle-aged white northern man, and I don’t think that the majority of output should be tailored to my world view, experience, or preferences. It should reflect the country we actually live in, not the country some wish we did.
Even if you can define what Britishness might be how can it be regulated? If you speak French, the language you speak is, in theory at least, regulated. The Academie Française supposedly decides how the French language should be used and spoken, at least in official contexts. The Academie do not like Anglicisms in French, so usages like le week-end, la deadline, le business, and even ASAP(4), are all frowned upon. But French speakers still use them. Architects realised this simple truth a while ago. Often, when building things, instead of putting in walkways, paths and accesses, architects and planners leave it a while, look where people actually want to go, then finish the job. These desire lines are a tiny example of how human nature often works. People may do things en masse, but it’s not always how those who think they’re in charge believe they will, because people can be (for want of a politer word) arsey, don’t always like being to told what to do, and will find ways around it to suit themselves. It’s one of the reasons Samuel Johnson opposed founding a British equivalent of the Academie. Very sensible.
Here’s a word for you : gleichschaltung: coordination. During the 1930s the German government used this system to align economic institutions, education, cutlure, and the media to party values. Appointing friendly political placemen to such instuttiuons is only one way of doing this, though it did give me some pleasure this week to see that Jess Brammar had eventually been appointed at the BBC, even though there had been some significant attempts to prevent it in some hostile political quarters, and some snark from predictable places(5). If you’ve got a passable memory, you may remember recent years have seen pushes for school curricula to promote more “British” values. too. I well remember Michael Gove pontificating on such things over the years, while not mentioning a variety of British values that any number of us would like brought the fore. When Captain Chinless was banging the drum for traditional British values being taught in schools, I’m not sure he was talking about things like the Peasants’ Revolt, or Peterloo, or even Jarvis Cocker jumping on stage at the Brits to undercut the ludicrous pomposity of Michael Jackson’s Messiah complex. Lots of the manoeuriving here is all about ensuring people a re quite happy to accept the status quo, and those who do not are to be mistrusted and targeted. There’s more than a hint of “co-ordination” going on now, as a party that is also trying to cement itself in power by rewriting electoral law and controlling voting, attempts to rewrite the intellectual and cultural landscape to help smooth that process. And, while it’s doing that, it tries to further control th eouptut of news media, and also enacts law that restricts the right to peaceful protest. The problem is that desire lines aren’t just physical: they exist in the culture too. People will always find a way around these things if enough of them want to. If that happens, co-ordination breaks down. It was easier in Germany back then because all of those instruments were much more tightly bound together, and not as internationalised as they are now. Media fragmentation is an issue as is, so trying to force a hand like this may even push much of the target audience away from those sources entirely. You may be cynical and say that in the case of the BBC and C4 it may even be an argument they could use to hasten privatisation or dismantling of those services, but that only really works if selling them off is protifable.
But finally, even if it can be regulated, one has to ask then, who would regulate what Britishness is? John Whittingdale would very much like you to think it’s people like him. But can you imagine a media landscape where the whole notion of your national identity is determined by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg(5)? I’m hardly being flippant here. The supposition is that a small, and very carefully chosen core of people get to decide exactly what being British means, and how it may be permissibly expressed. You only have to listen to these same people to realise that this is a terrible idea, especially when you realise just how little idea some of them have about the what goes on in the world outside.
When you have a Secretary of State who doesn’t understand something as fundamental as how her own Department’s benefits work, and how that affects people, how can we reasonably expect those same people to grasp what the vast array of lived experience is for British people? The point here is that they want to entrench a system that benefits the monoculture of which they themselves are a major part, and lock out anyone who doesn’t fit.
In the end, we may find that Ofcom can’t even produce workable ideas of what this whole “Britishness” drive might be. It may just be that this is yet another one of those “culture wars” fusiliades that gets loosed off occasionally to keep compliant press in column inches, and gets a junior minister worried about their rather precarious position a bit of (they think) needed exposure. But it’s still part of a pattern. It is still an attempt to wrest our ideas of who we are out of our own hands in into those of people who really shouldn’t be in control of anything, let alone our collective sense of self. Desire lines being the way they are, it may not work they way they think.
(1) The Department of Culture, Media and Sport. The Secretary of State for DCMS is now Nadine Dorries, and may the Gods have mercy on our soul.
(2) Dr Who is a WEIRD one though. The original series was in many ways outwardly quite tradiotnal, but it did smuggle in quite a lot of fairly subversive thinking. The new era is far more inclusive and mixed, however, when you consider the role of writers like RTD (Welsh) and Steven Moffat (Scot), as well as companions like Amy, Bill, and Martha, and even more so when you look at the timeline of the Thirteenth Doctor.
(3) My own beef with that is a bit more general. It’s just really lazy to take the Bake Off format and make it about sewing, or painting, or basket weaving, or whatever the fuck the next one will be (there will always be a next one). And it’s also pretty contemptuous of commissioners not to think that at least part of the audience don’t notice.
(4) Slightly ironic given the use of RSVP in English.
(5) Alistair Stweart of GBeebies tried to throw some shade, though seeing the burn he received from it was quite satisfying.
(6) The Jacob Rees-Mogg who said that the rise in the number of food banks was “uplifting”. That one.