by Michael Tracey
It isn’t just that there is an appetite for scandal, sex, sleaze, death narratives, it is also that feeding such appetites can be very profitable. The fact is that an essential problem with today’s media, one that has been gestating for many years, even decades, lies with the families and trust-funders that own media chains, and with the media moguls that, like great beasts, roam the landscape of a new grim cultural ecology, gobbling up this and that tasty morsel, a television station here, a newspaper there, forever seeking to sate their own insatiable appetite.
Somehow the Gold Isn’t All
The point is actually very simple, even obvious and even allowing for an understanding that the logic of Kapital is accumulation, a Vice for the Ages: they are greedy. If there were a large public appetite for Goethe in the original medieval German, they would feed it. There isn’t, and so they plunder the global treasure and rape the human spirit in ways that make the Vikings and the Visigoths look like UNICEF.
For them, it isn’t that the truth shall set you free, it’s the belief that wealth will make you happy, and as far as I can see, they can’t even get that right. To make this point I could point to a bevy of social theorists and clinicians, the armies of therapists, the mountains of anti-depressants, the addictions, to the sheer turmoil, if I read Dominic Dunne correctly, that seems to afflict the lives of the wealthy. I won’t; I will simply borrow this from Robert Service’s “Spell of the Yukon”:
“I wanted the gold, and I sought it,
I scribbled and mucked like a slave.
Was it famine or scurvy – I fought it;
I hurled my youth into a grave.
I wanted the gold, and I got it –
Came out with a fortune last Fall –
Yet somehow life’s not what I thought it,
And somehow the gold isn’t all.”
The fact is that the lesson learned from the coverage of cases such as JonBenet is that we face not just a crisis of the media in general and journalism in particular, with its fearful flight from purpose, but a larger crisis of prevailing values. The problem isn’t complicated: in a market economy, and in a culture defined to an inordinate extent by economic calculation, other values are inevitably squeezed out, values that recognize a public interest, a public good that needs to be served and that is different from the aggregation of individual wants, indeed that suggests that what people want is not the same as what they need. Witness the way in which around the globe public service broadcasting organizations are being marginalized or, in some instances, systematically dismantled, to make way for a market-driven media culture, something which strikes me as akin to pulling down the Taj Mahal and replacing it with a shanty town.
The issues raised by rampant materialism and consumerism, and the sidelining of other “virtues,” does not only speak to a critique of American culture and media. The problem is global, if only because global media are also dominated by large corporations. If I look at my home country, the UK, there are many critics arguing that, in its once-celebrated culture of broadcasting, it has lost its way, unable to fulfill its public service remit, mired in sleaze and tat, no longer vigorous, vibrant and socially significant. And if it is a shadow of its former self, is that a failure from within or is it one more portent, one more shrill illustration that history has moved on, the market is dominant, feeding public appetites that suggest a larger cultural and spiritual deterioration, a culture full of what Richard Hoggart once called “corrupt brightness, of improper appeals and moral evasions”?
I accept, however, that people like Hoggart and so many others (and I would include myself here) who regret what has happened are declared to be on the wrong side of history. Maybe so, but what I think we can say is that what’s being lost are some important values that, once gone, will be extremely difficult to retrieve: respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice, fairness, civic virtue, citizenship. In other words, all the values and commitments that define a mature civilization and that provide the possibility of realizing the essential demand of liberal humanism, the achievement of the full and complete individual.
The Moronic Inferno
The absence of that fullness and completeness, the startling lack of mature judgment and cultivated taste, so prevalent in much popular culture, is very much suggested in the fact that by some bizarre alchemy of the times JonBenet became a celebrity and remains one – which begs yet again the question of why. How did a dead six year-old child become part of what Sean O’Hagan has called the “moronic inferno that is contemporary celebrity…”? As ever, the answer is both simple and complex: simple because it’s clear that people like and need celebrities; complex because of the complex intertwining of psychology, culture and personal biography that feed that need.
As I was writing this, on Sunday morning, December 9, 2007, an event was taking place in South Carolina that is a pitch perfect example of the odious cult of personality. Oprah (her name is in your Microsoft Word spellchecker dictionary, by the way) was on the stump for Barack Obama (and neither “Barack” nor “Obama” are in my spellchecker dictionary). The original intent had been to hold a rally in an indoor arena, seating 18,000 people. When it sold out in minutes, they decided to switch to an outdoor stadium with 80,000 seats. It also sold out.
Does anyone seriously believe that those in attendance are there for any other reason than to “see” Oprah, rather than to “listen” to Obama. (I understand that this has since changed, since Obama himself morphed into a politician-as-rock star.) Put this another way, there were then candidates for the Democratic party nomination with enormous experience, many ideas and thoughts about how to deal with the troubled times within which we live, including Christopher Dodd, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson, all of who were hard pressed to fill a high school gym. This is telling us something – as a culture we are about the “moronic” rather than the profound and important. And it is precisely here that the issue becomes worthy of unpackaging, because in a curious, even bizarre sense, Oprah and JonBenet and all those others are cut from the same cloth, and it is we who wield the scissors.
For example, can there be any more pathetic, sad, revealing comment about the state of the culture – and not just in the United States – than the following comment from David Samuels, in an article about the paparazzi who follow Britney Spears around (30 to 45 on any given night) in The Atlantic, April 2008:
“History’s best-publicized celebrity meltdown has helped fuel dozens of television shows, magazines and Internet sites, the combined value of whose Britney-related product easily exceeds $100 million a year, and helped make ‘Britney Spears’ the most popular search term on Yahoo once again in 2007, as it has been for six of the past seven years…”
Read the whole piece and you might, if you have any sense of decency, want to slit your wrists. (In kind of related, nauseous vein, try this: the journalist Tana Ganeva pointed out that in 2006, the British retail chain Tesco – think Target – launched the Peekaboo Pole Dancing Kit, designed to help young girls “unleash the sex kitten inside.” Amidst protests from parents, Tesco moved the product from the toy section, but shelved it elsewhere in their stores.)
As ever, the observation of the fact of celebrity culture is less important than the question, why, from within what psychological and cultural pathologies does the need for celebrity gestate, what sustains it to the point where it metastasizes into compulsive needs, and why is it that those needs seem to be particularly acute, if Samuels is correct (which I suspect he is) among women between the ages of 16 and 34? In two books Oliver James has argued that the problem is that we live in a troubled time of “Affluenza,” where the drives of neo-liberal economics, with its compulsive competitiveness, materialism, and individualism produce not happiness but emotional distress, anguish and insecurity. As Margaret Bunting writes:
“Drawing extensively on the work of American psychologist Tim Kasser, James argues that our recent increased wealth has come at the cost of the emotional well-being of a large proportion of the population; rates of distress among women in the UK almost doubled between 1982 and 2000. This is true of New Zealand and Australia as well as the UK and the US, in striking contrast with more egalitarian and collectivist countries such as Denmark or Germany. He tracks how ‘selfish capitalism’ generates insecurity and inflates comparisons; how a winner-takes-all competitiveness merely creates losers and a pandemic of low self-esteem, with its compensatory pathologies around celebrity and status. Remarkably, Erich Fromm, the Marxist psychoanalyst and Buddhist writer, foresaw much of this half a century ago and James quotes his prescient analysis of the ‘passive, empty, anxious, isolated person for whom life has no meaning’ and who compensates through “compulsive consumption,” mass consumer societies which despite their claims to kneel at the altar of sovereign individualism inevitably and ironically, cripple personal agency.”
Tim Kasser, in The High Price of Materialism, suggests that there is a “scientific explanation of how our contemporary culture of consumerism and materialism affects our everyday happiness and psychological health. Other writers have shown that once we have sufficient food, shelter, and clothing, further material gains do little to improve our well-being. Kasser goes beyond these findings to investigate how people’s materialistic desires relate to their well-being. He shows that people whose values center on the accumulation of wealth or material possessions face a greater risk of unhappiness, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and problems with intimacy – regardless of age, income, or culture.
What I am suggesting, then, is that one of the ways in which we deal with the pain of living in a hyper-consuming society, is by focusing in on those more famous than ourselves, whether they be dead or alive. The implication, however, is that in salivating over celebrity, something is being lost, and something is awry.
James is suggesting that “affluenza” and its attendant conditions is actually a mental illness, a darker version of Doris Lessing’s comment in her 2007 Nobel lecture, when she spoke movingly of a desperately poor woman she had seen in Africa who, despite the misery of circumstance, was reading Anna Karenina. She asks, rhetorically, “…do we think we are better than she is – we, stuffed full of food, our cupboards full of clothes, stifling in our superfluities?”
The question is, what to do? For Lessing, the answer would lie in “the storyteller, the dream maker, the myth maker, that is our phoenix that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.” It is the conviction that great art, great literature, great culture can make us morally better by, as F. R. Leavis wrote, kindling “our own best self…” echoing Plato, who said that the muses gave us arts not for “mindless pleasure” but “as an aid to bringing our soul curcuit, when it has got out of tune, into harmony with itself.” The English poet, Ted Hughes wrote to one of his students that the “mentally sick” could be cured by being “put in contact with their real nature,” which for Hughes could be achieved through poetry. The point is simple: the obsession with celebrity is not some harmless whim, not to be taken seriously, it is window into a poisoned spirit.
Emblematic of this is the sight of a culture which is to an extraordinary extent driven by emotion, not reasoned thought. The sociologist Jose Ortega Y Gasset wrote, in the early part of the 20th century, that there was “a democracy of the emotions.” If he were writing today he would say that we are a democracy of emotions on steroids, as if Barry Bonds and Barbara Cartland had conjoined and spawned the populace of late modernity. It is not that emotion per se is not a deeply important part of what it is to be human, it is faux emotion, manipulated emotion, hysterical emotion that swamps reason, buries all thought beneath it like an enormous mudslide devouring a Guatemalan village.
The Great Renunciation
What I would like to argue here is this: what is suggested by the media coverage of the Ramsey story and others like it, this escalating dynamic that we have witnessed in the past two decades or so, is what I am going to call the Great Renunciation. What is being renounced, as a necessary part of the reorganization of global political economy, are ways of thinking about the purpose of the making of culture, most potently in broadcasting, that are informed by a concept of public interest and public good.
Those ways of thinking are, necessarily if mischievously, presented by the ideologues of the market as remnants from a time before. Remnants that are deemed to be not just anachronistic, but seen as toxins in a body politic that needs to ‘modernize,’ better to confront the challenges of global capital. It is as if the only way they can validate the present, their present, is to invalidate the past.
It is an ideological tendency brought to the fore by Ronald Reagan’s first Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Mark Fowler, who announced in 1981 that henceforth the public interest would be that in which the public was interested. Those people around the world and in the United States who argued that there were certain profound values that needed to be protected (and I include myself in that number, having spent the best part of two decades studying, writing and lecturing about public service broadcasting all over the planet) were treated as suffering from the affliction of either a rheumy-eyed nostalgia which was no longer relevant or a stubbornness that was, for the financial well-being of the company, dysfunctional. Either way, they had to go.
I can understand the latter argument better than the former. If there is an honest claim that what matters is the bottom line and the profit margin, while I may not agree with that at least I know what it means. The argument that cultural values as traditionally understood are not quite relevant or modern or useful to the society is something that mystifies me. What exactly is it that is no longer relevant? Creativity, diversity, quality, standards, serving a citizenry, balance, intelligence, curiosity, innovation, not pandering to a superficial mass taste, being optimistic that the audience can discover pleasures and understandings that they otherwise might not have known, independence from pressures that dilute and corrupt the process of the creative act, that erode journalistic standards, that diminish insights that the broadcaster can have when allowed to do so? Are these not relevant, are these passé, do we no longer need such things, such commitments?
There is running through the commentaries of the new modernism in cultural production a terrible conceit, an arrogance that avoids, because it has to, what Yeats called the “ancient questions’. It is for this reason that we must in the first instance fess up to the fact that the world has become, again, not just a dangerous place, but in those realms that strut their economic and populist significance, a vulgar reality. We need, indeed, to resurrect the very idea of vulgarity, loutishness, moral and intellectual impoverishment, to acknowledge the sourness and bile, resentment and fears of much of contemporary life. Let’s be honest, do any of us know very many happy and grounded people?
I remember only too well when David Mills and I were negotiating, with Channel Four and then ITV, budgets for our documentaries. The sense one had was that many of the people we were dealing with lived and breathed in terror. Their faces had the shadow of strain of a man who has just been told that he has cancer. It isn’t that they weren’t decent people, or that left to themselves their creativity would not pour forth. It’s just that they functioned in indecent circumstance. They were surrounded by circumstances in which to fail was anathema, where to take a risk was to court failure and where, ironically, the forces of competition made failure all that much more likely.
This is not how it should be. This is not healthy either for the individuals involved or the society they are supposed to serve.
What the ideologues of this new age of consumption have done, and will continue to do with ever greater relish, is to take the stuff of the vulgate and present it as if it were the equivalent of Rilke and Joyce, Greene and Hemingway, Picasso or Dali, the Beatles or Beethoven, Rowling or Tolkien, Hancock or Pynchon, Attenborough or Murrow, Tony Garnett or David Chase, Paddy Chayefsky or Dennis Potter. Well it isn’t, and the suggestion that it is, mouthed by apparently highly intelligent individuals, is simply stupid, so lacking in substance that there has to be an explanation.
And there is: self-interested cynicism, with an IV drip of greed. The emerging ‘culture’ of television is the twin of that other corporate culture in which preen the exquisite, perfectly formed grotesques of Enron and WorldCom, of Global Crossing and Arthur Andersen, the oil companies and their brethren elsewhere in the world of modern capital (I do not by the way subscribe to the chic, tad optimistic, notion of “late-capitalism”; It’s just beginning. I’m with Max Weber: “Not summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness.” Weber went mad and looking around one can begin to see why – the madness, as well as the pessimism).
Basic Moral Values
I came to know and think about the culture of broadcasting through the writing of a biography of Hugh Greene, Director General of the BBC from 1960 to 1969. If there was one bone of contention which Greene gnawed away at it was the question of the relationship between the need for creative freedom and a wider social responsibility. He explored the theme brilliantly in a speech in Rome in 1965, in which he spoke of his concern about attempts at censorship of broadcasters
“which works by causing artists and writers not to take risks, not to undertake those adventures of the spirit which must be at the heart of every truly new creative work…historically, the greatest risks have attached to the maintenance of what is right and honourable and true. Truth for ever on the scaffold, wrong for ever on the throne…”
In the same speech, he continues:
“Relevance is the key – relevance to the audience, and to the tide of opinion in society. Outrage is wrong. Shock may be good. Provocation can be healthy and indeed socially imperative. These are issues to which the broadcaster must apply his conscience.”
In the first draft that Charles Curran had prepared for Greene, he had written, “shock may not be good.” Greene literally put a red line though ‘not.’ There was no brighter star in Greene’s firmament than the creative mind, in whatever genre. And there was no greater responsibility that he possessed than to try and find, nurture and protect that mind. And for this the need to be “truly independent” was crucial because without that one could not be truthful, accurate, impartial, creative, one could not court failure and therefore one could not take risks. Truth for him – which involved the truth of journalism as well as the truth of art – was like a constantly endangered species that one needed to breed and then protect, all the better to sustain what he called “basic moral values – truthfulness, justice, freedom, compassion, tolerance.”
I refer back to Greene for two reasons. Those values and commitments – which invoke the “ancient questions” – remain vitally important to the maintenance of a mature, vital, creative, humane (the thing that troubles me most about large amounts of culture today is its lack of common humanity), democratic society. The second reason is to point up how such reasoning has all but disappeared from the landscape of public discourse, which is obsessed with the material, the consumed, the pragmatic, “inward investment,” as if the making of culture was like asking Toyota to build a car plant in Toledo. The generation which now rules the roost seems decidedly uncomfortable in using such language – bad career move maybe, bit old fashioned, so yesterday.
At the heart of that debate about culture in general, and broadcasting in particular are two elemental questions: what actually do we mean by standards, “great” programs, television as an art form but also infused with other, even larger, social, democratic purposes; and if we can assume that whatever the definitional problems, we all do recognize that, as John Donne wrote, “no man can draw a line twixt day and night, tho’ light and dark are tolerably distinguishable,” then what exactly were the arrangements – institutional as well as philosophical – in which such moments of excellence happened?
And can those arrangements live on in a market led world?
Even as one types that last sentence the silliness of the proposition feels all too clear. Of course, there will be moments of great television, and even more of great radio, which seems to me to be a potentially more resilient medium partly because in economic terms it is less important than television. That, however, is not the point, since the real question – given the fact that even deserts have the occasional tree – is what will the overall landscape of television look like: will there be original, edgy long-form documentaries that explore issues of magnitude?; will there be dramas that are literate, that challenge and needle and provoke, that linger in the memory because they made you think?; will there be news worthy of the democratic project, providing for the political life of the society in ways that serve it well, that feeds the needs of the citizen, that pushes and jostles its way onto the stage of public discourse because to ignore it would be foolish and perverse?; will there be children’s programs that are worthy of the colossal importance of raising our children well, of seeing in them the future, rather than a market to be sold to?; will there be comedy that works because of the brilliance of the performer and the fineness of the writing, in no need of a laugh track to simulate humor?; will there be the quirkily original, the eccentric, the lateral thinking and creativity that springs, unbeckoned but welcomed and applauded, from the folds of imagination?; will there be those moments when we watch not alone, but as part of an integrated culture, drawn together through the mysterious alchemies of communication?; will there be refinement, range, diversity, integrity, professionalism, courage, the ability to make mistakes?Will we have a culture of which we can be proud, and about which we will feel no shame? And can we do this within the same universe of social practice as the market, all the while regulated with the lightness of a snowflake?
I hope so, and if we can then fears about what is unfolding will have gladly and delightfully proven to be unwarranted. But then I think of the beast, looming and lurking, threatening, ravenous, uncaring – at least of others – dangerous, America, Britain, the planet as a cultural Jurassic Park, governed by the canny intelligence of velociraptors. There is, then, only one way to deal with the beast: the whip! The lash!
Bend It Like Rousseau
I want to suggest, then, that the only meaningful question that one should ask about culture is what are, and what will be, the values that inform its practice. Indeed, utterly central to this debate is the conviction that at the heart of the very idea of, for example, public broadcasting, there are certain values which should guide the process of program making and the relationship with the audience which are to all intents and purposes abstract, but which are nonetheless important for that: excellence, standards, quality, truth, impartiality, intelligence and so on. And of course it is obvious, even trite, to observe that these are difficult and abstract and almost beyond language to capture, as if noting that were sufficient grounds for denying their significance. A metaphor: few people understand the physics of applying a specific kind of pressure to a spherical object which then arcs through the ether, but an awful lot of people nevertheless seem to find a kind of majestic beauty in David Beckham’s use of his right foot. Some things, let us be blunt, do not need to be explained, merely recognized and appreciated.
The reason why this question of values is, at least to my way of thinking, absolutely front and center to any debate about culture is that, because of its ubiquity and presumed sense of importance in people’s lives, any such discussion is actually a discussion of what values should prevail within the larger culture and society. It is surely vital to understand and accept that the definition of policies and values for the cultural industries is inevitably and necessarily suggestive of a definition of policies and values for the character of a whole society. They capture the sets of choices and preferences, which color all the imperatives, ambitions and institutions, which constitute, in the most literal sense, a social order. Two hundred years ago when Poland was going through one of its periods of political reform, the leadership called on Rousseau to advise them. As to the economic system, he observed:
“(The choice) to be adopted by Poland depends on the purposes she has in view in reforming her constitution. If your only wish is to become noisy, brilliant and fearsome, and to influence the other peoples of Europe, their example lies before you; devote yourselves to following it . . . Try to make money very necessary, in order to keep the people in a condition of great dependence; and with that end in view, encourage national luxury, and the luxury of spirit which is inseparable from it. In this way, you will create a scheming, ardent, avid, ambitious, servile and knavish people, like all the rest; one goes to the two extremes of opulence and misery, or license and slavery, with nothing in between. I know that men can only be made to act in terms of their own interests; but pecuniary interest is the worst, the basest and most corrupting of all, and even, as I confidently repeat and shall always maintain, the least and weakest in the eyes of those who really know the human heart. In all hearts there is naturally a reserve of grand passions, when greed for gold alone remains, it is because all the rest, which should have been stimulated and developed, have been enervated and stifled.”
There is another, guiding assumption behind the argument I am trying to make here. It is that the most profound values and conceptual commitments that constitute humanity at its best – might I suggest life and liberty, justice and truth, rights both civil and human, democracy, love – by definition have no materiality. There may be material expressions or metaphors – the scales of justice, the voting booth, the statute book, the kiss – but these are only, can only be, the necessary tangibility which allows us to realize, use, benefit from the language of our human imagination. So language is crucial – and I know that is stating the obvious – to our very ability to realize that which the mind has wrought.
It is then a reasonable argument to suggest that insofar as language born from the reflective mind and the play of informed, mature imagination is diminished, then so are those values and philosophical commitments. And there lies my essential concern with how this, and other cultures, are evolving and will continue to evolve: symbolically and concretely. It is a situation which suggests that in pursuing the necessary materiality of the market, where the only value is commodity value, we are inevitably marginalizing the mysterious possibilities of the mind and the heart that have formed the essential elements of that long march of the species to establish a civilized and caring world guided by a potent and powerful moral imagination, and a commitment to values that are none the less vital because they are non-material.
In fact, some of the most powerful visions of the purpose of, for example, broadcasting emerged within unusual and trying circumstances. Consider, for instance, the cultural histories of the occupations of Germany and Japan in the late 1940s and the formulation of Allied policy for broadcasting in the rebuilding of those societies. There one can see powerful testament to the idea of broadcasting as primarily a social rather than an economic process, as something with moral, cultural, intellectual and creative purpose and not just as a source of mild comment and moderate pleasure. The Charters of NHK in Japan and the ARD in Germany, dictated to a great extent by foreign military governments in Japan and Germany, were replete with the public service ideal. If broadcasting was to comment, it should do so with a flourish. If it was to amuse, it should do so with élan. If it was to educate, it should do so with real professionalism. It was simply understood by the American and Allied leadership that the life of the mind of a society was far too precious and important to be left to the vagaries of a commercial system.
It could be argued that such policies were creatures of the moment, as massive destruction demanded enormous reconstruction, of which communications would inevitably be part. But what was required was the restoration not just of highways, buildings, plants, but also of the shattered imaginative lives of whole populations. The architects of postwar Germany and Japan sensed correctly that healthy, diverse cultural institutions were a prerequisite to a functioning liberal democracy. Broadcasting was thus to be used as a key part of the cultural and social regeneration of those societies.
In that lies the real clue to the nature and purpose of great public broadcasting: that it makes best sense when it represents a national and moral optimism within a society, when it suggests – through the diversity and quality of its programs – that we can be better than we are: better served, better amused, better informed, and, thus, better citizens.
Next: Public Service