Saturday, May 20, 2017

Between the Lines: Only Joking (1990)

The Between the Lines column from the May 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Only Joking
More mature TV viewers must be at a loss what to do with their Monday nights this month. April 9th saw the last in the series of Stand Up Jim Davidson (ITV), which was billed as "adult humour". What this meant in practice was peak-time permission for the chirpy cockney to entertain the troops by setting the clock back thirty years. Remember those good old days before we were taught to worry about the feelings of racial and other minorities? When a good joke had to have a good defenceless target? Well, Jim takes the Sun newspaper and simplifies it into small-screen sniggers for the simple-minded. Asians in Bradford, people in wheelchairs. the blind, women in council flats. Jews. Irish and gays: all these and many more were featured in his gallery of mugs. Only one group was missing from his league table of comical victims: white, male. English boneheads, with a microphone in one hand, half a pint of lager in the other, and not very much in between.

Democracy Versus Marketing
There was a great deal of promise in the early parts of "Remote Control: Television and Democracy" (Channel 4, April 7, 8-9pm). First, there was an excellent survey of the ways in which each period of history has seen a struggle over control of the key means of communication. In the Middle Ages, for example, the translation of the Bible into English was part of a shifting of power from Rome to Canterbury. In the nineteenth century, punitive taxation on publications was used to prevent the free distribution of radical ideas within the working class. And in the twentieth century, the early lessons learnt by the ruling class regarding the political uses of cinema were later applied to radio and television.

A further useful point was made by this documentary, regarding the current debate about the likely effects of the impending "deregulation" of broadcasting, and the arrival of cable and satellite. The debate has been almost exclusively based on arguments about "quality" and choice. Will deregulation lead to a widening of choice, a degeneration of quality, or both? But this is to regard television as purely another product for mass consumption like any other in the capitalist world market. The stress being placed on the concepts of quality and choice place the millions of viewers in a passive role, their only function being to pay their money and flick their remote control switches. But television, as a means of expression and communication, has always had the potential to be more than simply a product for mass consumption. The technology, particularly since the advent in the 70s of small, hand-held video cameras, could allow large numbers of people to be making programmes as well as watching them. Present government plans for the future of broadcasting fail even to pay lip service to such possibilities.

It was at this point that the programme began to flag somewhat. Lacking any really pertinent political analysis, it was not able to touch on the reasons for this, or to approach any real solutions. This inability of present-day society to allow proper participation in the broadcasting process is in fact symptomatic of a much wider problem. Real, full democracy in society is simply not compatible with a class-divided, property and profit-based social system. With regard to possible solutions, the programme focused on access slots like the BBC's "Open Door", the problems they have encountered, and on Channel Four, with its special remit to cater for minority views. Radical commentators trotted out tired modern cliches about their wish that TV would become more "empowering", "enabling" and "facilitating" for people, but had little idea how this might happen.

The conclusion reached, however, was refreshingly realistic: that the direction in which TV is heading shows less and less concern with the exciting ways in which it could be used as a democratic means of expression, and more and more preoccupation with being a profitable investment within the market system.
Steve Coleman

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