Thursday, December 06, 2012
What is it about the BBC? posted by Richard Seymour
We will probably have a lot more to say about Leveson and the fallout. But I really have to approach a subject I've been circling around in my mind for some time, even if this only yields a provisional answer. For when the Leveson furore fizzles away and the lineaments of the new situation, whatever it happens to be, become clear, we will have to reckon with one of the scandal's sideshows: the BBC. Or rather, to be precise, the BBC's news and current affairs division. (I have to say this, otherwise everyone who thought a BBC4 documentary or a Radio 3 music programme was just the best thing ever will inevitably mount their Defend the BBC hobby horse, and thus miss the point completely).
I. While the BBC is not yet a Murdoch-owned broadcaster, you sometimes get the impression from its news and current affairs product that it really wants to be, that it is trying very hard to be worthy. Could I persuade you to read that sentence again? And to think about how much more probable this is than the suggestion that the BBC is a leftist, politically correct, public sector monolith?
Take, for example, the BBC's performance over the recent Israeli assault on Gaza which was not only appalling, but predictably appalling. The corporation's reliance on the hardline Zionist Jonathan Sacerdoti for what it offered as 'neutral' commentary on the Middle East was just one instance of its incredible bias. And this powerful predisposition toward the powerful is one that extends across the whole range of issues. And I don't think this is just a matter of their natural caution in the face of government attack or powerful lobbying. I think it is, if you'll forgive the term, 'instinctive'. It's a reflex that comes from the BBC's institutional make up, which is congenitally hostile to the Left, to protesters, to strikes and to anything that disturbs the status quo.
II. Nor is this just bias. I detect a specific pattern in the BBC's behaviour, which perhaps you will also have discerned. For the majority of the time, the BBC is happy to maintain what appears to be a standard tolerant, relaxed, inclusive facade. It maintains the sort of 'balance' that is typical of regulated private sector broadcasters, organising its news coverage around 'debates' that important and powerful people happen to be having, while occasionally allowing dissident opinion to be heard within the confines of those debates. That context permits some good reporting, and some informative debate. There are, of course, routine sociological sermons, such as the vicious hit job on Shanene Thorpe, which reflect the debates being had among the ruling class. But for much of the time, this is no more offensive than ITV, Channel Five or Sky News.
Yet as soon as there is an emergent issue, one in which the stakes are abnormally high either for the government or for the ruling class more generally (usually both), the facade folds. In recent years, the BBC has been by far the worst broadcaster at several key junctures, where the main issue was war, Palestine, strikes, riots, police violence, the far right, or protests. That the BBC's record is actually worse than other broadcasters on such matters has been consistently demonstrated. Andrew Marr's laudatio for Prime Minister Blair on the conclusion of the invasion of Iraq, has entered into lore as one of the corporation's most stunningly propagandistic moments. But it was only a coup de grace, a finishing touch on what had been a consistent clangor of jingoism throughout the invasion and preliminary pacification of Iraq.
To a certain extent, moreover, I think the BBC can act as a sort of whip, conveying a discipline to the other broadcasters. We saw this with the BBC's mainstreaming of fascism, which made it harder to pressure the commercial broadcasters to exclude the fascists. Similar effects might have resulted from the BBC's refusal to broadcast the Gaza emergency appeal were it not for the extent of the backlash. It still seems strange, does it not, that we actually had to march against the BBC over that issue, as if it was an arm of the government. In a sense, of course, it is just that. The BBC does play an important role not only in the formulation of policy arguments, but in the orchestration of those nodal points in which decisive measures have to be taken, internal foes defeated, matters put to bed. Even more so than most other broadcasters and major news providers, it is a part of the government of the country.
III. This is where it seems that the 'propaganda model' of Chomsky and Herman reaches some of its limits. Despite its lethal accuracy about the mainstream corporate press in the US, the model is less predictive of trends in more diverse European media structures, and particularly in public service broadcasting. Its two primary 'filters' (ownership and advertising) assume a commercial model. The other filters - sourcing, flak, and ideological constraints (not just anticommunism) - still apply, but are probably less important. So it would be hard-pressed to explain the behaviour of the BBC and its specific patterns of 'bias', if that euphemism be permitted.
There are all sorts of simple explanations offered as to how the BBC is what it is. It is a state broadcaster. Its board of governors is appointed by the state. Its political editors are filtered by MI5. It depends on the government providing revenues, and thus forges a close relationship with any executive in Number Ten. The BBC Trust is appointed by the Queen as 'advised' by the government. And so on. But while these provide certain 'causal mechanisms' that could help contextualise what the BBC does, I don't think you can get more out of this than a 'descriptive theory'. Many of these factors could be altered and yet the BBC would remain more or less the same. MI5 could keep its nose out, the funding structure could be reorganised, and the board of governors could be appointed by an 'independent' trust or committee, and it would remain the same. These facts are not the explanation we need; they are what need to be explained in terms of a deeper theoretical relation.
IV. The sense in which the above observations might provide a 'descriptive theory' is that in which they all point to the central problem, the fact that the BBC is a state broadcaster. Certainly, it isn't under the direct control of the executive or government of the day. But nor is it just within the field of the state in the same sense that all major media are. It is very explicitly organised as an apparatus of the state.
What this entails is that the analysis of the BBC must start from the analysis of the British capitalist state, and its specific role in reproducing British capitalist social relations. It is not a study of an institutional format or history that is required as such - as I've said, many of the historical and institutional details could be very different, and yet the BBC would remain more or less the same type of organisation producing more or less the same type of product. Rather, what is needed is the study of the BBC's function within an ensemble of state functions in a complex social formation. Of course, I don't mean to embark on this sort of survey in this post - we are unwell, if you must know - merely to identify these methodological points.
V. But the fact that the BBC is a state apparatus doesn't necessarily settle its specific role. I think, as I said in a previous post, that Althusser's concept of ideological-state apparatuses (ISAs) gives us an opening into this question. The concept is interesting in that it includes more than just the public core of the state - the legal system, the education system and so on. It includes the culture industry, communications, families, trade unions, and parliamentary parties. These bodies are unified by their necessary function in the reproduction of the dominant ideology. So in what sense are they state apparatuses? As Althusser suggested, citing Gramsci, the public/private binary is one that is internal to bourgeois law, and valid in the domains in which the law is authoritative. The state constitutes this binary through its action, and includes certain of its core apparatuses within the public domain, while excluding others that are nonetheless well within its strategic field and critical to the reproduction of its political-ideological authority.
So, the BBC would not be unique among news providers and broadcasters in being identified as an ISA according to this approach. But it does matter that as an ISA it operates very much on the 'public' side of the 'public-private' dichotomy. As a public sector, state broadcaster, it is much more closely linked to the legitimacy of the nation-state than a private, regulated broadcaster. It sees its job as being to 'lead a conversation with the nation', or to 'represent all four nations of the UK and its regions' both at home and abroad, and other equally vapid-yet-ideological mission points. Representative, dialogic, loyal to the people-nation - this just is the discourse of the capitalist state in its legitimising mode. So, the ISA concept helps begin to situate the BBC in the necessary reproduction of the dominant ideology, and the necessary role of the state in organising this. It thus helps explain why the BBC is, even more than other broadcasters, a part of the government of the nation. It helps explain the peculiar rhythms of its conduct, its lockstep with the government at certain critical moments even to the detriment of its usually consensual facade.
VI. But of course, there are well-known shortcomings of Althusser's couplet of 'ideological-state apparatuses' and 'repressive state apparatuses' (RSAs). While Althusser acknowledged that there is no purely ideological or repressive apparatus, that there is only a greater emphasis on repression here, or on ideology there, he didn't go beyond the limited purview of the couplet itself. As Poulantzas was to point out, the state is also involved in organising material incentives (the better to disorganise the dominated classes). As he also pointed out, and as other state theorists have demonstrated at great length, the state also plays a crucial role in the constitution of the economy.
So it seems that, from another point of view, there are three types of role that a state body can perform: the organisation of political dominance (the civil service, police, army, border controls, etc), the organisation of ideological dominance (law, education, parliamentary parties and so on), and the political organisation of economic dominance (welfare, healthcare, subsidies, monetary and lending policy, wage supplements, etc). Obviously, this is far too schematic. In reality, these types of practice are usually articulated in a complex totality of practices. For example, it may well be - as Althusser argued - that schools are the key ideological-state apparatus under advanced capitalism. But they are also involved in organising economic dominance, partly as a material 'concession' to workers in the form of a social wage, partly as a functional necessity for a developing economy and partly - at least in higher education - as a public research and development facility for corporations. Likewise, parliamentary parties are involved in organising both political and ideological dominance. Even so, it is quite clear that, for example, public services represent a quite different type of domination than the armed forces. The emphasis is much more on incorporation through material incentive, or on ideological domination, than on projecting political violence.
Where would one situate the BBC in this rough schema? Certainly, I would be sceptical of any conception of the BBC as a 'public service' like welfare, or the NHS. There are spaces in the BBC for product that the commercial broadcasters would be uninterested in, and there is in the principle of public service broadcasting something potentially far better than the private sector broadcasters. Even so, it's hard to see the BBC as predominantly a 'material incentive', just as it isn't predominantly repressive. Clearly, its major function is in the organisation of ideological dominance. This is not to say that BBC product is ideologically simple or one-sided: the dominant ideology never is simple or one-sided; rather, the ideology of the ruling class becomes the dominant ideology to the extent that it continually absorbes, neutralises and rearticulates elements of popular ideology. Nor is it to say that the process of ideological reproduction is smooth, and machinic. It is not. Every site of domination is also a site of struggle. The BBC has a much higher rate of unionisation, for example, than other news broadcasters. Yet the limited nature of that struggle, which can be inferred from the overwhelmingly sectional or economic-corporate interests defended in struggles that do emerge, and from the fact that not a single visible rebellion has actually attacked the corporation's ideological agenda at any point, is indicative of how difficult it is to activate antagonisms within the media.