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WHAT I LEARNED AT SUMMER CAMP: EXPERIENCES IN TELEVISION
by Robert M. Young
My title dates me. It evokes a world in which not being at school is not to be where it’s at. (In fact, my parents could not afford summer camp.) When I was a don twenty years ago, one went ‘down’ from Cambridge out of term and came back ‘up’ during term. It was the place to be. Being tapped to be a don was the best outcome of one’s education. Going to the outer reaches of worldliness one might repair to Broadcasting House, have a lovely hospitality meal with wine and get recorded for BBC Radio’s Third Programme, giving talks or taking part in discussions. When it was decided to close down the Third Programme, a number of Fellows of King’s — a notoriously worldly college — protested. A high official — I think it was the Director General — even came to high table, but to no avail.
I was a fairly frequent contributor to the Third Programme. I was a sort of house radical or court jester. Indeed, whole series were based on my ideas, and I can tell you that I thought myself pretty worldly. My attitude was precisely that of noblesse oblige, a don purveying watered down versions of profound truths to the people. Indeed, I recall a perfect moment. King’s Composer in Residence, Tim Souster (who has, sadly recently died), turned down an invitation to give a series of talks on contemporary rock music for the Third Programme’s ‘Study on Three’, and I was delighted to receive his cast-off invitation and act as his stand-in. I was practicing my script in the studio. The engineer, whose hair was notably longer than mine, corrected my pronunciation of Tamla Motown (which I’d added a superfluous ‘a’: Tamala). I simply wouldn’t have it. Of course, like many abstracted intellectuals, I had never heard the word spoken, but I could not grant that I had no street cred. That moment did not bring on my blacklisting. That occurred when, in a discussion on authority in society, the Oxford philosopher, Anthony Quinton (now Lord Quinton) made a patronising remark about the miners during a strike. As I recall it, he was referring to them as naughty children. I made a sardonic reply about how easy it was for us to sit there and talk like that, knowing that we’d be returning to free lunches and high table dinners. Never asked back.
The Provost of King’s, now Lord Annan, pointed out some time later that the period in questions — late 60s and early 70s — was one in which the consensus broke down, and don’s ceased to be remote. I vividly recall his quoting a poem: ‘Remote and ineffectual don, where have you gone, where have you gone?’ I stress this, because it is my present impression that academics are no longer unworldly. Indeed, universities are as worldly as hell. There is no ‘down’ to go to. Universities have become redolent of the values of the marketplace, and everybody hustles to get money and to get onto television, if that will help the cash-flow.
I left Cambridge in 1975, intending to devote myself full time to radical cultural politics. It’s hard to say it now, but I and others believed that the whole world was at stake, and universities were definitely not where it was at. It was not to be. The question the liberal establishment thought was crucial was whether or not the centre would hold. While they were looking apprehensively leftward, the successful attack came from the right and has redefined what it is to use one’s mind. The welfare state and the helping professions have lost their place as taken-for-granted goods. I have two psychiatrists and a nurse on the couch, and their realistic laments about what is happening in the NHS and the impact on their senses of vocation are painful to hear.
I begin with these contextualising reflections, because it is important to set the stage for 1981, the first year of Channel Four, which was widely expected and advertised to be a platform for dissident opinions. It was supposed to have ‘publishing’ philosophy, an opening for voices until then seldom heard on television. That was not to be, either. The first head of the channel, Jeremy Isaacs, is now in charge of the Royal Opera House, while the commissioning editor to whom I was answerable, Liz Forgan is now in charge of BBC Radio. Channel Four broadcasts some really interesting material, but is in no sense a hotbed of dissidence, much less subversion.
But I am getting ahead of my story. In 1979, I gave a talk in Leeds about the centrality of the history, philosophy and social studies of science to issues which were coming to the forefront of cultural debate, as indeed, they did and remain before us. Jerry Ravetz heard the talk and was moved to recommend me to give advice for a new series being planned by Lawrence Moore, who had recently produced a prescient series on ‘The Challenge of the Chip’. I am very struck by this now, as we move across the threshold into cyberspace, something which I find very exciting, indeed, and which we can perhaps discuss at the end. (I got onto the Internet about three weeks ago and am really impressed with what it already does, as well as its potential.)
I could tell a fascinating tale about the process by which I ended up the main person on a monthly series, but that would take up all our time. Suffice it to say that my old Tutor at Kings and the then-recent ex-editor of the New Scientist were the alternative candidates for chief consultants, and they fought hard to keep me out so the series could remain, as ‘Horizon’ and ‘Tomorrow’s World’ then were, almost totally under the control of the scientific establishment and included powerful scientific advisory committees whose views were given great credence. But in this particular battle they lost, and we won. The resulting series was called ‘Crucible: Science in Society'. We made a dozen documentaries before the plug was pulled on us and all other radical series on Channel Four, and I’m proud of four, happy about three or four more and ashamed of none.
We had some excellent directors and researchers and did some new things. But, like most left projects, it was significantly undermined from within. The simplest way to convey why is to say that television is a technology with a division of labour which is hardly insulated at all from the rest of the media and the assumptive world of the culture industries which go with, not against, the grain of the prevailing culture. Let me unpack that. We were told we had a free hand, but our producer was a gee-whiz, pro-technology big kid. So we got rid of him, and they brought in a woman who was told to give us our heads. But she was a truly ambitious person, who had made her reputation running the Edinburgh Television Festival and was, she hoped, on a trajectory to being a big shot in television. Cultivating people and keeping her contacts sweet were her main preoccupations. The series was a career vehicle. She had no beliefs and was a full-time agent of the CYA (Cover Your Arse).
The net result was that she was always pushing her pals, keeping in with the Channel Four commissioning editor and, to be blunt, censoring our work. I recall a crucial moment when she changed a line of mine which read, ‘Technological decision-making is at every level a political process’. Her version — the one which was broadcast — was, ‘Technological decision-making is a complicated process’. In another famous conflict, she went behind my back and got the co-author of a programme (an ex-student of mine who had his own ambitions) to approve a version of a programme which was bowdlerised in ways about which I was trying to make a stand. I decided I had to take my name off the programme, something I assumed would give them pause to reflect. I was told I’d have to pay for the re-shooting of the credits, and in any case there was no time. That was how they saw what I thought of as my good name, my imprimatur.
The true believers in our series all went to the head of documentaries at the company which was paying for the series. He listened hard to all concerned, invited us all to a summit lunch meeting and announced that he was closing down the series. It was rumoured that we had served our purpose, which was to help them get their license renewed. Actually, he said they were ‘only’ ceasing to fund it and offered the name and good will to me and one of the directors. We re-applied to Channel Four. A new Commissioning editor had been appointed. He rang and introduced himself with the following sentence: ‘My name is John Ranelagh. I think you should know that my job before coming to Channel Four was to write speeches for Mrs. Thatcher’. I left television, so depressed that I went into analysis for therapeutic reasons. I then founded a publishing house, which I ran for a decade and which has recently been taken over by strictly commercial interests. Some guys never learn. Our CYA producer went on to become head of Production at the National Film School and now heads a university department of media studies at a provincial university.
Another ‘take’ on our vicissitudes involves looking at the career structure of television. It consists largely of freelances. When a director works on a documentary, he or she (all he’s in our series, in spite of strenuous efforts by many hands) is doing so after the last one and before the next one, almost certainly a one-off or for another series. He or she is just passing through. Of course, that person cares about the film being made, but it is seen as an item on his or her CV. The director is unlikely to be around long enough to imbibe the assumptions, values and politics of the series. The same can be said of the talking heads chosen, usually in consultation with me. So, even if your contract says, as mine did, that you have choice of directors, subject matter and final say over material, you cannot exercise the authority. The director will, in most cases, see you as a resource, unless you are willing to front all the programmes, which gives more power, but I did not want to become a public face, even if I’d been any good at it, which I doubted that I would be.
The same thing is true of the researchers. They work to the director, and the producer, to whom the director reports unless he or she is very posh, is the one who decides whether or not to keep them on. We tried to have our own staff of researchers, but they knew whose report card mattered. This led to all sorts of manipulation and rank dishonesty. The researchers know what’s really going on, but they needed to keep their heads down and avoid getting caught in crossfire. They ended up either kow-towing to the director or making excuses to me about heir ultimate powerlessness.
Once again, I had the power on paper, but I simply could not exercise it. If you are not on the recces, you don’t know what its possible to film. If you are not at every shoot, you don’t have the say about what gets filmed. If you don’t see all the rushes, you don’t know what’s available. I the cutting room the relationship between the editor and the director is the centre of power. I was often de trop. I couldn’t be everywhere. I couldn’t take part in all discussions. I was not of television. Although I had my allies and supporters, I was often simply out-manoeuvred. I thought of becoming a producer/director, but by that time I was too depressed, and in any case I don’t think a lot of my ability to imagine things in three dimensions or to get the pace right.
This is the first time I have spoken at any length about these events. I say this, because when one puts one’s heart and soul into something and sees it traduced, it is heartbreaking. All the things I am describing here work their way out in personal relationships. People blame and hurt one another and seek to win over them, even to destroy their employment prospects. Television is a demanding medium. Making a programme — never mind making a series of a dozen — is totally absorbing. People behave in crazy ways, ways I have been busy trying to understand and write about ever since in my work in psychotherapy and group relations. You can read about the psychodynamics of making films in a number of books, for example, Final Cut, Money into Light, Indecent Exposure and You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again, and see it in one zany documentary about the filming of ‘Apocalypse Now’.
When I say that television is a technology, I am saying things about its labour process and the way it fits into the way things are. This has its most profound expression in problems about how to approach the materials. I don’t find this part of the story easy to conceptualise, but I’ll try. One question I was often asked was, ‘Where’s the pictures?’ It meant that the director was in doubt if what I wanted to convey could be presented in a sufficiently visually interesting way. For example, I wanted to do a film on the role of the Rockefeller Charities in the patronage of science, along with the penetration of the assumptions they wanted to purvey across a wide range of disciplines. I believe this to be the key to understanding the funding and prioritisation of scientific research in our era. I never managed to persuade my colleagues to address the subject. We tried only once and got as far as filming at the Institute of Human Relations at Yale, one of the main institutions in the Rockefeller functionalist programme. But there as a technical fault — light got into the film magazine — and the project somehow petered out.
Yet we have television programmes about financial conspiracies, fraud cases, the Mafia, and other far-reaching organisations. Somehow, television can handle scandals, even administrative ones, but the medium has not, as far as I know, addressed assumptive worlds, world views, ideologies in the intellectual sense of values embodied in theoretical frameworks and their social and institutional embodiments. I believe science to be the embodiment of values in theories, therapies and things. I see no reason, in principle, why it should not be possible to convey this on television. Religious systems have their television representations. Philosophers have their expositors and critics.
The way I put this to myself is to try to find a way of mounting critiques on television. Critique goes deeper that criticism in that it is addressed to frameworks, assumptions, terms of reference. Functionalism in the biological and social sciences is one about which I would dearly like to mount a critique. I can name its key figures, the disciplines it has influences and in some cases taken over, the sorts of enquiries it privileges, its assumptions and concepts, the sorts of buildings that get built, the kinds of answers it seeks, the kinds of enquiries and answers it definitely does not privilege and seek. The Rockefeller charities promoted functionalism in a world-wide conspiracy, just as pervasive as the Mafia or the Church. Their way of organising science rules the world of research funding.
I will give you in the film clip I have brought the best example I think I achieved along these lines, but I have to tell you it was hell’s own job getting it into the film. The director hated what I tried to do; so did the editor. During filming in New York a member of staff was delegated to be something like a dialogue coach and tried to get my talking head to speak in simpler terms. There were many re-takes; she and I had a row, which it took some time to mend. After we had flown half way round the world and filmed in New York and on an island in the Caribbean I was told that unless I was willing to intervene — literally let them parachute me into the film we had shot — and help clarify the material, the footage would be scrapped. I really did not want to appear and said I’d think about it. Moreover, I felt I would be compromising the material and patronising my chosen presenter. After a couple of days the producer sent me a piece of paper with a large sum written on it, quantifying the money my pondering had cost so far. It was awful. It was demoralising. It made me feel absurdly over-scrupulous. I acquiesced.
I don’t know what more to say about this matter of the social process as it intersects with the problem of presentation in the making of documentaries. There is one series which seems to me to have achieved something approaching what I am advocating: ‘Pandora’s Box’. But since I watched the series and made public my admiration, it has occurred to me that the people making it had something going for them which made it very much easier and which, on reflection, makes me uneasy. All the programmes were about scientism. Each was an example of the illegitimate extension of the methods and assumptions into areas where its writ is normally not thought to run. So the requirements of critique appeared to be met, because each episode was, in simple historical terms, a fiasco: Russian planning for production, a big dam in Ghana, the Rand Corporation’s Cold War game plans. I want to see critiques of nominally successful science, technology, medicine and other forms of expertise.
It is my belief that there is something about broadcasting, as opposed to narrowcasting, that is a big stumbling block here. I have seen examples of local, inexpensive programming which seem not to suffer from some of the problems I have mentioned. In particular, the ‘Paper Tiger Television’ series which Deedee Hallek produced in California. It prided itself on being absurdly cheap. This somehow freed it from the hegemony of going with the grain of the prevailing culture. Its zaniness and anarchy scrambled the tramlines of conformism. I sometimes ask myself, given how cheap video cameras and a VCR capable of frame by frame editing have become, why have I and others like me not got on with experimenting with mounting such critiques. I have done analogous things with journals and books, ways of disseminating ideas which are more expensive than video and still require expensive technologies in the production process. Why not video? Somehow the self-empowerment has not occurred. I would love to work with people who are willing to take on this problem.
I want to say as soberly as I can that I can think of few things more worth doing. I believe that the future — the very existence — of civilization depends on getting right the relationship between expertise and democracy. This means that the issues about expertise which are problematic must be put before the general pubic. As far as I know no one is doing it, but I am pretty out of touch these days.
I want to turn now to part of television which isn’t documentaries, i.e., discussion programmes. I still appear on television from time to time. I am always a bit reluctant but almost always eventually say yes. I’m flattered; I want to get in my licks with certain people whose arrogant and ignorant bullshit I have read, for example Richard Dawkins and (I can never remember his name) Lewis Wolpert. I do get some of what I have in mind said, but I always leave the studio believing that I have been ambushed or that my terms of reference never got to the centre of the discussion, even when I have been supported by Mary Midgley and half-supported by Jonathan Miller, who is, in the end basically pally with the scientists, however indefensible their claims.
Here’s what happens. They trot out someone who has done something transparently good, a boon to humankind, like discovering the gene for cystic fibrosis. He is followed by another scientist, an expositor of science, say, Steve Jones, followed by a Canadian populariser of science of non-Caucasian extraction, then a professional genetic adviser; then Mary Midgley; then me. I have such a lot to get my mind around that I only get bit of it said. Also, the format is basically adversarial. I don’t think I ever heard someone pause and say,. ‘I never thought of that’ or ‘I wonder if...’ It is all at a pace; framing sound bytes. It isn’t open-ended, co-operative pondering.
I have tried, but I have never managed to get a producer to let me or someone who shares my subversive world view to state the terms of reference of the debate. The critic is always the token example of the on-the-one hand and on-the-other-hand balance.
Also, they choose smoothies like Bob Williamson or boors like Wolpert or engaging narcissists like Jonathan Miller, who is brilliant at getting and keeping the floor. They keep inviting Wolpert because he is theatrical and outrageous, yet an FRS (tell about Brenner and Mary Hesse). And Dawkins is so beautiful; must be a choirboy. The terrain and the personnel are alien. I’d love to have a proper ‘Open Door’ slot or series of discussions, the participants in which were chosen by the dissidents, where the conversation was open-ended, as they were in the late night series, ‘After Dark’. It is my belief that the adversarial debating format which is characteristic of current programmes somehow sees to it, in ways I cannot fully articulate, that the way things are is basically okay. We are in safe hands. Aren’t you glad we tested it tonight? Sleep tight.
Something more obviously rigged happens with the constructed item, the mini-documentary of the kind they do so well on the ‘Late Show’. I speak here form painful experience. There is a producer there I know and like and trust. He comes to my house and asks me what I think about this or that, most recently, Karl Popper. I manage to say quite a lot of what I think and feel that I have sung my song as they disappear. In particular, I was able to convey what he was like up close, in academic politics (tell about BJHS). Then I see the item and learn (I knew it but forgot it yet again) that the cutting room has done its stuff, and what I said is snipped into bytes which serve a picture of things for which I have no sympathy. It’s called editing, and the producer is using me as a generator of things he may or may not agree with, so he does his scissors and paste job, and the item says what he and the people to whom he answers want it to say. A brilliant editor once said to me. ‘Want it to say the opposite?’ A couple of minutes later he had splice the bits so that it seamlessly did say the opposite. So much for documentaries as factual or objective. But we people in HPSSS knew that, didn’t we. By the way, that man had edited Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If’ and ‘Britannia Hospital’. He knew a thing or two about how the system works.
What I am advocating is the attempt to find a way to speak in our own voices. We think we know what we want to say, but on the day we seldom do. We can seldom find our voices and clearly articulate what we believe. The organisation of television — both in its deeper structures and in the arrangements on the night — militates against our being able to do so. It is a fundamentally pre-structured setting. It facilitates some ways of thinking at the expense of others. I worked on an assembly line twice in my life and on several construction jobs. When you turn up you just try to cope. You do not have any sense of the history of that labour process, for example, in the case of the car factory, the move from cottage industry to factories to mass production to the moving assembly line to automation, to ‘just-in-time’ sourcing of raw materials. Nor do you know the history of trade union organising and the waning power of collective bargaining. And by the time you learn, if you do, you are thinking prudently about keeping your job. Well, these things about the history of the technology and the labour process and forms of authority are nowhere near as obvious in the television industry as they are in construction and in making cars. Yet they are no less coercive and no less hegemonic. Gramsci defined hegemony as the organisation of consent without the use of overt force and without making the realities of power apparent. This is what we have to try to find ways of getting round. As I see it, domestic video cameras and editing equipment are our best hope for the present, but then I’m getting old and tuckered out.
This is the text of a talk given at the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, 1995.
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The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM