On the new British 'popular'

The fight over the BBC is also a struggle over what it means, in the UK, to be ‘popular’. In other words, who are the people?

Nicholas Mirzoeff
8 April 2016

I grew up in a BBC family in London. Now I work in the media studies department at NYU. So I know the kind of piece I’m expected to write here—self-deprecating about the US media landscape, wistful about the fading glories of the BBC, concluding with a call to change the BBC while defending it. And that was my first draft. But precisely because the BBC was so important to me, I can’t leave it at that.

After forty years of market-dominated governance from Labour and Tory alike, the role of the ‘left’ has become, as David Graeber has insightfully described, to defend bureaucracy. In the United States, it’s Social Security, Medicare and Roe vs. Wade. In the case of Britain, it’s the NHS and the BBC. As a political strategy, it’s not going so well. I watch the BBC programmes still aimed at people like me in the age of Ant and Dec with pleasure, but it’s time to think past always defending bureaucracies, even ones that make Dr Who.  

What worries me is not just the renewed Thatcherism of the current government, much as I oppose all its works, but what I want to call Savile-ism, after the sexual predator who assaulted at least 117 people on BBC premises. Thatcherism saw itself as an attack on the London-based establishment, including the BBC. Savile was a friend and supporter of Mrs Thatcher and on the first page of his 1974 autobiography declared that he liked to ‘pee on the establishment’. The Thatcherite credo ‘there is no such thing as society’ enabled an odd crossover of celebrities and politicians to treat people as prey. 


Sir Jimmy Savile, 2008. Credit: Lewis Whyld / PA Wire

Everything connected to the name 'Jimmy Savile' now means the breakdown of the illusion that institutions like the BBC embodied a cross-party consensus, beyond day-to-day politics, about what it means to be British. Former PR hack David Cameron was reaching for this with his slogan: ‘We’re all in this together’. The reality of Thatcherism is precisely the opposite.

Savile-ism has made it painfully clear that Thatcher’s purported attack on the establishment was always a nasty fix for the benefit of the new elite produced by global finance and celebrity culture. Different national cultures are still producing different versions of this anti-establishment establishment. We have the misogynist racist Donald Trump. You have Boris. We both have a problem.

The Britishness of British Broadcasting

What does the BBC stand for now? What does it mean to be ‘British’ in these days of devolution, independence and Brexit? What is ‘broadcasting’ in the age of iPlayer, Netflix, YouTube and Hulu? And let’s not even get started on corporations. For all the virtues of a public-service broadcaster, which I do not dismiss in any way, these questions suggest that the BBC is already in an impossible position. Perhaps that’s why no one on W1A can ever finish a sentence—they don’t know what to say. And let’s acknowledge at once that only the BBC could so wickedly and accurately parody itself.


W1A, a satire on the BBC, was broadcast on BBC2. Credit: BBC

That self-confidence is backed up by the 'golden age' of British television, that people are now uniting to defend. Savile’s awfulness seems a long way from this important BBC of drama and documentary. Searching to back up that idea, I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Play for Today, a classic BBC product, that created social realist television drama. Sure enough, in its 1970-84 run, playwrights like Denis Potter, Ian McEwan and Stephen Frears contributed important work. But on second glance, although one of the long-term producers was Irene Shubik, every writer and director mentioned was a man, and, to the best of my knowledge, a white man at that.

The Britishness at the heart of the BBC has always really meant white, male Englishness, even when it’s criticising that Englishness. In W1A, Lucy Freeman (Nina Sosanya) is endlessly frustrated by the BBC but she’s never allowed to say anything about race, let alone racism. It’s Siobhan (Jessica Sharpe) who complains that Wimbledon is too white.

The Condition of Top Gear

Let’s go to the heart of that whiteness: Top Gear. The motoring show began in 1977, closely followed by Stuart Hall’s classic essay on Thatcherism, “The Great Moving Right Show.”  Top Gear was a half-hour programme about white men driving cars. Tony Blair, Mrs Thatcher’s true heir, later said that he tried to keep in mind what he called ‘Ford Mondeo man’ as the path to office. In that sense, Top Gear was literally the great moving right show.

Revived in 2002 and extended to a full hour, Top Gear became astonishingly successful worldwide. By 2008, 350 million people in 20 countries watched it. BBC America devotes an entire day a week to the programme. In this version, Top Gear is for blokes. Since 2006, its lad culture has veered into nastiness, meaning that it was quite often homophobic, got as close to racism as it could and didn’t mind causing trouble. The same BBC that never noticed Jimmy Savile always had an excuse or a way to minimize these incidents. It had already become Savile-ist .

The lads, Top Gear.jpg

The original Top Gear crew, 2009. Credit: Julien Behal / PA Archive

Although the worst offender, presenter Jeremy Clarkson, was finally fired, Top Gear once again got itself into trouble last month for filming Friends star Matt Leblanc doing donuts at the Cenotaph. And that of course is precisely why Top Gear did it. Here was yet another chance to offend that very establishment whose political correctness they so detest. 


Jeremy Clarkson has now taken his version of Top Gear  to Amazon. Not so long ago, he would have disappeared into the storm and fury of the Internet. Not any more. The Internet has all the power of television without a controlling establishment. It connected #BlackLivesMatter as the most resonant social movement in the United States since the ‘60s. Now it has fueled the resurgence of white supremacy behind Donald Trump


The election of Jeremy Corbyn is part of the 'new popular'. Credit: Nick Ansell / PA Wire

The BBC has long been a leader online with its extensive website and iPlayer. For Mrs Thatcher’s former political secretary turned Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, it’s a perfect privatization target. He’s cleverly reaching for it by asserting that a public service broadcaster does not need to aspire for universal approval, as if making an argument for quality. By contrast, BBC controller of TV Charlotte Moore has defended the broadcaster as  “unashamedly popular.” Like Jimmy Savile?  That may seem unfair but Moore claims that “BBC One helps make Britain great. It unites us as a nation around big, shared moments and events,” and she means Strictly and Bake Off here. What limits are there on that claim to audience?

What Stuart Hall called ‘active popular consent’ in 1979 has been central to Thatcherism from the beginning. It’s under tension now between the populism of the xenophobic tabloids; establishment pro-Europeanism; and the attempt to create a state-sanctioned broadcaster. Whittingdale has even criticized the BBC for ‘pro-Brussels bias’ as part of his effort to change its governance.

Here, then, is the discussion we should be having. Not whether BBC content is “distinctive” but what does it mean to be popular? Who are the people, in other words? There is a clear opportunity here between the ‘whatever the most people will watch’ approach of the BBC and ‘the market is the popular’ mantra of the government. There’s a new ‘popular’ in town, one that involves the SNP, devolution, and Jeremy Corbyn, paralleled here with #BlackLivesMatter and Bernie Sanders. How can this popular find a media voice? And can the BBC help?

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