Points of View: The BBC’s Gaze in Media Hegemony

Dan Hancox’s recent article on opendemocracy.net, ‘No Platform for Billy Bragg’, raises important issues: it points to a tendency in BBC and other mainstream media representation for re-presenting the past nostalgically; in this case, remembering in the 1980s a golden age of opposition and protest in music, spearheaded by the ‘red wedge’ vanguard of the likes of Billy Bragg and The Style Council. As Hancox notes from Bragg’s interview on The Culture Show, many such musicians and artists are swept up into this nostalgia hegemony; in Bragg’s case, due to the umpteen interviews he’s been featured in of late, all concerned with the state of politics today, in which the same question’s asked for the umpteenth time: where’s today’s red wedge/musical and artistic protest/media-represented opposition? But the bigger question is: where, indeed, is this question asked from? What is the BBC’s point of view in this question; is its standpoint fixed; is there a BBC gaze?

From terrestrial television to the universe of Sky and beyond, the plethora of channels and unlimited choice of programming can be seen to offer as free a platform as the BBC’s own Points of View for access to wide-ranging perspective and opinion. But, despite their apparent infiniteness, these mainstream outlets in fact operate as a tightly interwoven knot of all in all not-too-dissimilar coverage, with their channels’ songs of praise often being sung from the same hymn sheet; this is what gets called ‘hegemony’. The endless coverage of the birth of the new royal is a prime example, to which this hopeful tweet from Newport West MP Paul Flynn lends credence: ‘Congratulations to BBC/ITV/Sky for concentrated boredom initiative that’s converted millions from indifference to fervent Republicanism.’

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It is this sort of reportage that Louis Althusser describes the hegemonic operations of in his indispensible 1970 essay, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’: ‘the communications apparatus’, he suggests, ‘cram[s] every ‘citizen’ with daily doses of nationalism, chauvinism, liberalism, moralism, etc, by means of the press, the radio and television’… What is at stake in this is the sacrifice of representation of non-hegemonic perspectives (alternatives to the narratives of ‘nationalism, liberalism, etc.’) in the name of a broadcasting company’s damage limitation.

After Jacques Lacan made his digressions on ‘the gaze’ in his seminar on The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis his thoughts about it were taken up by film theorists like Laura Mulvey, who spotted in many movies a distinctively ‘male gaze’; notably, for example, this occurs in Pretty Woman, in which the camera always tends to gaze from Richard Gere’s eye-level (or thereabouts) at Julia Roberts (as an object) with whose perspective the audience is rarely matched. Thus, implicit in the gaze is an objectifying rather than an objective position.

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Particularly pertinent to the BBC, then – often championed for its unbiased and objective reporting – is this notion. Of course, in rewatching or listening to earlier interviews with the likes of Billy Bragg and Paul Weller in the 80s, there are arguments against their views given in the reportage (for the sake of objectivity, no doubt); what becomes interesting is that these other sides are subsequently lost in the interviews with them in this era, in which their political influence isn’t quite as threatening as it was, so destabilising it is not of the utmost priority to hegemonic maintenance. They thus become part of the culture industry, their artefacts put into a museum that the current generation, so aloof and apolitical, are recommended to visit. Naturally, however, as Hancox points out, we’re not as aloof and apolitical as all that; culture has changed, and if the BBC really wanted to chart what can be done politically today they would do well to dig a little deeper into the cultural here-and-now as opposed to focusing solely on the cultural heritage.

Here-and-now is a space and time of tightening hegemony in the mainstream (due, no doubt, to its encroaching outmodedness), and its effects seep through all areas of society, including the workplace: for example, in a franchised call centre this contributor worked at – that answers the phone for many different companies – an operative can expect to take a call for the Guardian one minute and the Daily Mail the next; in this space and time we must keep on the lookout for the force-feeding of those ideologies that Althusser points to in his essay, and add to his list historical disarmament enacted by nostalgia. Alternatives, however, are arising, and, whilst there might be a slight uncanniness for those that have grown up with the Beeb, in watching the Max Keiser Report on Russia Today or Amy Goodman’s hour on Democracy Now (on which interviews with the likes of Billy Bragg find a slightly different inflection), it should not be forgotten that this might only be felt due to the fact of stepping out of the former’s gaze.

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