Our Masters’ Voice
From the manifestly cheap (The Muppets) to the mystifying (Jesus of Nazareth), Lew (Lord) Grade and his cronies, at enormous profit to themselves, have socked it to us until (or so one might reasonably have supposed) our corporate stomach for the products of their tawdry road-show could take no more, thus hastening their downfall. The truth, unfortunately, lies elsewhere. It is that the recent collapse of Grade’s extensive empire came about not so much because the public rejected his patronisingly inferior offerings but because of sheer boardroom incompetence.
To cut a long story short; it appears that Grade fancied himself, not merely as a highly successful light entertainment entrepreneur, but as a would-be film magnate in the grand tradition. Unfortunately for him and his fellow shareholders the film side of his enterprises never really got profitably under way: his biggest flop among some thirty-odd others was Raise the Titanic, which all but sank his Associated Communications Corporation (annual turnover, £250 million).
But, in order properly to understand the true nature of this growing catalogue of greed, graft and mismanagement—in itself a fair reflection of the euphemistically named “entertainments industry” as a whole—we need to remind ourselves of how it all began. Grade (believe it or not, a one-time professional Charleston dancer) had his chance, and took it, in 1954 when, on being awarded the Midlands Independent Television licence, he set up Associated Television (ATC). Dubbed from the start “licences to print money”, the ITV franchises lived up to their name. Through advertising and the promotion of a great deal of such unmemorable rubbish as that referred to above, Grade and his fellow operators seemingly could do no wrong. Grade’s empire expanded almost as rapidly as his own ambitions. His board gave him every opportunity to do more or less as he pleased. They lived to regret their trust: Grade badly misjudged the American market for his films and ACC ran up debts in excess of £75 million. (All of which must be one further rebuff for that other slick operator, Harold Wilson who, in recognition of Grade’s services in helping deflect attention from his own betrayal of the working class, presented Grade with his fancy ermined robe and bloomers and bundled him off to the Lords.)
The grenade that blew up in Grade’s face was his attempted payment to his, by that time, evidently dispensable financial manager. Jack Gill, of a bob or two by way of beer-money in lieu of the boot— £560,000 cash, no less; not to mention other acceptable little perks, such as the quarter-million-pound house he lives in. Gill swallowed this insulting treatment with a brave smile—the City did not. A major shareholder, the National Association of Pension Funds, has secured an injunction withholding payment. In due course, no doubt, we shall be treated to yet another swinish struggle around the pig-trough. I don’t know about the Muppets, but Jesus of Nazareth must be throwing up all over the place, wherever he resurrected himself to.
Episode three-thousand-seven-hundred-and-forty-nine of the ACC farce sees, slithering in from the wings, the salivating figure of one Robert Holmes à Court. This South African born lawyer turned asset stripper from Australia (they do get about, these capitalists, don’t they?) has developed his alternative skills to a fine art. The trick, apparently, is to exploit the not infrequent coincidence on the stock market of low share prices and high asset values: buy in the shares at knockdown prices, wait for take-over bids, and then sell dear. Should this ploy fail then the companies themselves can be bought at bargain-basement prices and the assets sold off. (See David Philip, “Moving in for the kill”, New Statesman, 29/1/82.)
What, it may be asked, is à Court inheriting? Well, for one thing. The Muppets, and for another, Jesus of Nazareth — mortgage on future sales? £22.7 million—an awful lot of loot for some of the most puerile and patronising codswallop ever passed off as “entertainment” to a punch-drunk, unresisting public. This, however, is not all. Along with the papier-maché and the pseudo-religious we have ACC assets variously estimated at between £50-100 million, taken over for £15.5 million, the sum Holmes à Court paid for 51 per cent of the non-voting shares of the company. These assets include Classic Cinemas. Stoll Moss Theatres, Northern Song (which holds copyright on many Lennon and McCartney songs), Bentray Investments, Elstree Studios, Central TV and Jetsave, the travel company.
As will be appreciated, there is a great deal more to these unlovely shenanigans than is necessary or possible to describe here. The question is: where does all this leave us of the working class? One thing is certain: we’re unlikely ever to find out if we never venture deeper than, say, the surface of our television set. There are the very soundest of reasons we owe it to ourselves to subject, not merely television, but the communications business in its entirety, to the closest and most critical scrutiny. Take the political and economic nature of its ownership and control. We hear enough from our masters and their lackeys about state control of the means and content of media communication in so-called communist countries, most of it no doubt true enough. But the clear inference is that our own media is free from such domination—which is manifestly untrue.
But even if there were no state control—which there clearly is in the way senior appointments are made, or in funding—the media under capitalism would still find itself in the strait-jacket of business interests. Anything that runs counter to these interests is bound to be circumscribed, or mutilated, or banned—in a gentlemanly fashion, of course, behind closed doors, and with an oily smile. After all, what millionaire is willing to allow a fundamentally dissentient voice a chance to be heard, and heard regularly, exposing that same millionaire and the system that spawned him to the penetrating criticism of an informed and hostile working class viewpoint?
To confine ourselves to TV and Radio: if we accept the necessarily innocent abstractions of music, and the coded, less menacing, language of the more adventurous broadcast theatre, what are we left with? It is an unremitting diet of the innocuous, the banal, the slanted, the censored, the hypocritical, the chummily familiar or ingratiating, the half-true and the bare-faced lie. When the inevitable industrial disputes happen we see and hear, with monotonous regularity, ordinary working people and union leaders alike subjected to thinly-veiled hostility from front persons who have evidently never recognised their own status as members of the working class, leave alone forgotten it.
Then we have the other side of the coin. Tune in of a morning to the likes of Brian Redhead and his mates and note the manner in which they deal with, say, the Secretary of State for Employment, or the Chairman of the CBI. And then compare it with their approach to some underpaid, undereducated, relatively inarticulate striker. It never fails to leave a thoroughly nasty taste in the mouth of one listener, at least. As the Glasgow University Media Group has discovered, bias in the media can be disarmingly subtle, as can obsequiousness, or politically loaded hostility. But our own carefully analytical listening and viewing can usually reveal more than enough to put us on our guard.
By the same yardstick it is instructive to study, as objectively as rising irritation and frustration will permit, those programmes—usually televised—which purport to give a voice to “the people”. Watch how, after suffering perhaps fifteen or twenty minutes of anodyne and unproductive opinionating, somebody “starts” something by putting a provocative spoke in. Jill Tweedie, in a revealing piece for the Guardian of 1 February, has asserted that these people are “plants” put there to wake things up a bit. This may or may not be true: what is worth noting is that rare occasion when a genuine “uncooperative” strikes home with something slightly more fundamental or politically embarrassing. Watch how the “chairperson” adroitly, and with the assiduous co-operation of the cameramen and sound-technicians, manages to beat a diplomatic retreat. Of course, as that notorious scourge of the Establishment Robin Day would confirm, such undemocratic antics can be suitably recognised and rewarded.
Our message is plain. Workers can and must make the effort correctly to interpret, in the light of their own experience, the gigantic con-trick that is being swung on them, not only by the likes of Grade and Holmes à Court, but by the equally dangerous, if urbane and discreet, ex-public schoolboys of the BBC’s upper echelons. The swindle is perpetrated for two main reasons. The first, and most obvious, is to make money. The second less apparent but not less insidious—is that, under capitalism, the bulk of the media in general, but the broadcasting media in particular, is obliged to play the role of “Our Masters’ Voice”.