What can a dispute about the future of a London phone-in news station teach us about capitalism and its priorities, asks Steve Coleman.
LBC, the commercial “news” station in London, has lost its franchise. The unelected Radio Authority, headed by the infamous Lord Chalfont (he who made our flesh creep during the “Cold War”) decided to award the franchise to a group comprising those who ran LBC for the first eighteen of its twenty years of existence.
There was a palace revolution at LBC in 1990 when the station was taken over by an Australian company called Crown Communications. After making an awful mess of running the station, including the removal of its greatest asset, the phone-in presenter Brian Hayes. Crown pulled out of LBC and sold the business to a company headed by Dame “your graves are safe in my hands” Shirley Porter. Over the past couple of years LBC has been an awful radio station, exhibiting all the characteristics of tabloid journalism and opinionated bigotry from its new line up of presenters. LBC’s presenters range from Sun journalists like Richard Littlejohn to half-baked Tories like Pete Murray (whose wife wrote a biography of Thatcher, so sycophantic that it would have made Stalin blush). Presenters like Littlejohn and Mike Dickin have taken it upon themselves to use their daily air-time to promote the most reactionary and uninformed bigotry. Each Sunday morning the station the station has broadcast a nasty little right-wing political sermon from Andrew Neil, the ubiquitous editor of Murdoch’s Sunday Times; they have even taken away the Sunday god-slot from the relatively liberal person who used to present it and given it to a born-again nutcase named Steve Flashman who has used it to solicit funds for his own evangelical organization. The station is truly lousy.
On the day last month when the announcement came that LBC’s owners had lost their franchise the station was compulsive listening. A tirade of abuse was launched against the Radio Authority, the government, the Establishment . . . they even mentioned “the system”, although they had not a clue what they meant by the term. Presenters, with no regard whatsoever for their franchise obligation to report the news impartially, yelled abuse at the injustice of their loss. Pete Murray moaned in the London Evening News (3 September) that “It is quite frightening that people’s lives and jobs can be put in jeopardy in this way”. This from the man who has been an unyielding apologist for the Tory government — a man whose indifference to the plight of the sacked miners last year was in line with the economic ethos of the social system he so enthusiastically supports.
A frenzy of excitement was whipped up. to the point where listeners were calling in crying — one woman said that life would not be worth living without LBC. The station advertises itself, quite nauseatingly, as “probably the best companion you will ever have” and “the Voice of London”. No doubt there are people who have become dependent upon LBC’s brand of news triviality and “expert” comment by psychics and white witches — just as there are people who would feel that their sex life had come to an end if the Sun stopped printing Page Three nudes. The present writer can think of better candidates for best companion ever than the disembodied voices of the transparently partial Douglas Cameron and Frank Bough (whose disembodied voice is only comforting to the extent that he is not with you in the flesh). LBC has launched a campaign to save its franchise. In reality, this is a campaign to maintain ownership in the hands of Shirley Porter’s company. Listening to the planning of the campaign, which has been given hours of tedious air time, one would imagine that the revolution had commenced. Excitable reformers have been calling in to suggest to Lady Porter that “we ought to have a march to Downing Street” and that they should boycott any products advertised on the new station which will replace LBC. There is little worse than revolutionary talk and emotionalism being voiced by workers duped into the defence of such a futile cause. Porter has appeared on the radio station. What is she complaining about? She says that it is unfair for the franchise to be taken away from her station. Then why did she enter the competition to apply for the franchise? These capitalists love free competition until they lose. Then Porter moans that Chalfont and the other members of his “Authority” were unelected. Good point. So who elected Dame Shirley Porter as owner of LBC? Who consulted us, the listeners, when Crown bought the station and got rid of some of its most intelligent presenters (including ones who were unique in being prepared to give air-time to socialist views)? These capitalists just love elections until it comes to their own unaccountable economic power. When is Shirley Porter going to hold a referendum to determine who should manage her family’s Tesco stores? And whom did she consult when Westminster Council, which she led, flogged off cemeteries for five pence a go? Now these bleating hypocrites want us to organize marches in the rain to defend their right to own a propaganda outlet!
So now LBC are all in favour of elections. They ran a “phone vote” where listeners could dial a number and agree or disagree with the proposition that LBC should stay on the air. Even with all the cajoling of the by now hysterical presenters, at least one of whom asked people to consider that he would be unemployed if LBC went off the air. one in five “voters” (including the present writer) voted against the proposition. The result was declared a resounding success and women from Woking who sounded like this was their finest hour since the days of the Primrose League called in to say that the government could not ignore the wishes of such a majority. Let us be charitable and assume that they have forgotten that the abolition of the GLC in 1984 was opposed by an even larger majority of Londoners (not including the present writer, for socialists oppose all government) and yet the government went ahead with its policy, with no noises of protest coming from LBC.
We are now hearing LBC presenters, whining in the run-up to redundancy, saying that it is unfair that the government should decide who may broadcast and who may not. We do not recall LBC expressing that view when so-called pirate stations were being raided by the police and elosed down by the violent force of the law. We wonder how sympathetic LBC would be to a bid from the Socialist Party to broadcast our unique point of view through our own transmitter. Of course, the reality is that even if we were not banned from having our own radio station, which political parties explicitly are, we could not afford to buy the means of mass communication which are rather more easily purchased if you happen to have inherited the ownership of Tesco. But if LBC support a free voice for all Londoners, as they now claim, let them offer us our own weekly programme to discuss our view of the world as it is and as it could be. We promise that it will be rather more serious and stimulating than the born-again bore on Sunday night has managed to come up with.
Writing about this whole sordid business in the Guardian (6 September), Brian Hayes, arguably the most intelligent phone-in presenter in British radio history, expressed his disgust at the LBC campaign to preserve itself:
“And on that day (when the franchise awards were announced), instead of accepting the decision in a grown-up and mature way, the presenters, presumably with the support of the management, allowed the airwaves to be to be used to indulge in nauseous self-pity. Naturally the diminished audience was upset, after all they had stayed with the station through thick and thin. But 1 can assure them that the real LBC is more likely to re-emerge from the new franchise holder than the incumbent. The Voice of London is not being silenced — it is being returned to the listeners who remember it before it lost its licence”
Now, this last comment is nonsense: LBC has of late been an embarrassing excuse for a news service, but we should not entertain the illusion that the new owners are going to be offering us anything like a democratic radio station. Not until the airwaves belong to the people and not to the state, and the means of mass communication are commonly owned and not in private or state hands, will there be a democratic media. Meanwhile, we shall stand aside as others storm imaginary barricades in defence of a Voice of London which is an echo of their own dumb passivity.