Goodbye to SOGAT

John Crawley

  • Broadcasting in a Free Society by Lord Windlesham
    Blackwell, 172 pp, £7.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 631 11371 1
  • Goodbye Gutenberg by Anthony Smith
    Oxford, 367 pp, £8.50, August 1980, ISBN 0 19 215953 4

Broadcasting began as entertainment and only later took education and information into its scope. But by 1925 the General Strike brought the BBC up against the Government, or rather against Winston Churchill, since Baldwin did not support him in his attempt to take over the Company (which is what it then was) as an extension of the British Gazette, the sole medium of communication between the Government and the people. The independence that Reith won on that occasion has remained, but broadcasting in the United Kingdom has had to work hard to keep the Government at arm’s length ever since. The spectacular clashes came into public view only occasionally – at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956, and of the Question of Ulster and Yesterday’s Men programmes in the 1970s. But the process was continuous, and Chairmen, Directors-General, editors and producers were always conscious of it. Despite the greatly different system in the UnitedStates, the pressures and battles occurred there too, only occasionally surfacing as in 1969 when Vice-President Agnew, acting as catspaw for President Nixon, attacked the television networks in a series of speeches (televised!) for failing to give his master fair coverage on Vietnam. The American networks proved vulnerable to political pressure, but in any case the pass was sold when politicians realised that they could buy time on television, thus creating a situation in which anybody could run for President so long as he was a millionaire.

The American experience goes some way towards reconciling one to the system of Party Political Broadcasts, Ministerial Broadcasts, and stopwatch news during general election campaigns, by which the politicians are contained. The system works fairly well now, but it is worth reminding ourselves that until ITV came on the scene the BBC had imposed on itself the rule of non-political news bulletins during general election campaigns (and of course no political current-affairs programmes either), and the pusillanimous 14-Day Rule which forbade broadcast discussion of forthcoming legislation for a fortnight before Parliamentary debate on the subject. One has only to talk to foreign broadcasters – and not only those from the Communist world – to realise that the politicians are in control in the vast majority of countries, and that to most of the world our freedom is surprising.

Even the keenest devotee of freedom must sometimes feel sympathy with a government embarrassed in its foreign relations by a controversial programme. Think of poor Lord Carrington mending fences with Saudi Arabia after Death of a Princess. The programme undoubtedly caused offence, yet it was worth making, and with all its faults it did something to broaden our understanding of Saudi Arabian ways. Diplomats understand that the Government does not control our programmes, but the opinion-formers in foreign countries simply will not believe it. Lord Carrington could not even forbid a repeat: the most he could do was to ask the IBA not to make life more difficult for him by showing it again. The freedom must remain, and it must include freedom to make mistakes, but we have to accept the fact that it can lead to disproportionate reprisals from foreign governments. In the 1950s, the BBC showed journalists a preview of an interview in which Lord Attlee, in free-speaking retirement, ruminatively dismissed ‘Master Jinnah’, as he called him, as a man who had not even been very serious about his religion, and the news was of course splashed in the Pakistan newspapers the day before the interview was due to be shown. The outrage felt in Pakistan was extreme, and the British government did its best to get the BBC to cut the film. It failed, but the fuss led to a total ban on previews of controversial programmes so that trouble would at least be delayed until the screening.

These two books remind us that technological developments may change the terms of the power equation, not only in broadcasting but also in the press. It is more than five centuries since Gutenberg invented movable type and so enabled printing to be developed on a mass scale. It was estimated that before Gutenberg a few score thousand manuscripts (in H.A.I. Fisher’s phrase) had contained the inherited wisdom and poetry of the world, and that within fifty years at least nine million printed books were in existence. As Anthony Smith points out, printing challenged the prerogative of the Church and the State in the 15th century to control what people should know, and he shines a light on the licensing system by which governments sought to control the spread of information – not by the crude action of censorship, but by the more subtle method of leaving it to the printer to make sure he did not lose his licence by printing that which was unwelcome to authority. This early system of control has survived to our day, with the publisher as well as the author subject to penalties for infringements of the law.

The parallel with broadcasting is clear. Whatever the system of broadcasting, in every country the transmission is under licence from the government, and revocation of that licence is a threat held in reserve. In this country, the government has what it does not have in the United States – the right to prevent something from being broadcast, as well as the right to insist on broadcasting its own material. But the right to broadcast is now formalised in Ministerial and Party broadcasts, and the right to veto has never been used, even though Reginald Maudling, as Home Secretary, had a look at his powers to veto The Question of Ulster in 1972.

In his historical section, Smith reminds us that it was not only the printer as publisher who carried responsibility and thus wielded power. The men who did the actual work of printing were the first group of workers to be completely literate, and had great standing among the skilled workers who were organised into trade unions. They occasionally used their power to prevent something from being printed in their newspaper, but until this century their use of this power was without political overtones. (In 1786, the printers at the Daily Advertiser refused to print an advertisement by the proprietor of the newly-founded Times because he was attempting to hire apprentices beyond their stipulated limits.) The printers carried on something of the tradition of the guilds, keeping a close grip on entry into their mystery, and applying a paternal apprenticeship system into modern times.

I have a family interest in this, since my father was apprenticed for seven years as a printer at the age of 15 – really he was 14, but he faked his age. He had served his time, and was pursuing his education in the evenings at the Working Men’s College in London while working at Gilbert and Rivington’s as a compositor when he was called to do some emergency proof-correcting. In an article fifty years later in the journal of that same Working Men’s College, he wrote:

One of the sheets I had to read contained a Greek quotation from the Anabasis, and I was just then struggling to understand about three lines an hour in that very book. I checked the quotation, and found that there was a difference in an accent in one word. So I impudently wrote my best Greek characters with a query mark against the new accent. A week later I was called into the office and the manager read a letter in which a client was laudatory about a firm where even the proof-readers were able to challenge (!) such an out-of-the-way thing as a Greek accent. I got thanks and two shillings a week rise. The rate then was 38 shillings a week.

I quote this not only out of filial pride – though I do take pride in the fact that he went on to become editor of a national Sunday newspaper, Reynolds – but because it is a reminder of the way in which the apprenticeship system, run by the unions, set and maintained standards. Today, trade unions have increased their political power but have relaxed their disciplines. Not only in the hurried work of newspapers do we see far more typographical errors than we used to, but even in these two books there is slipshod proof reading. Smith’s Glossary is to me fascinating rather than useful, and in explaining the word ‘byte’ – ‘a group of adjacent binery digits (often shorter than a word) that a computer processes as a unit’ – it surely ought to spell ‘binary’ right. And Lord Windlesham and Basil Blackwell his publisher ought not to pass ‘The level of investment and the availability of resources... will greatly effect the calculation.’ The affect-effect mistake occurs more than once, so there must be somebody in Blackwells who does not know the difference.

The print unions are of course facing a most serious challenge, and literals may seem to them to be of little importance today. Smith’s Goodbye Gutenberg could come to imply Goodbye National Graphical Association and SOGAT. For his theme is the computerisation of the newspaper industry, which has greatly reduced the power of the print unions in the United States and is posing a threat to ours. Not that he devotes much space to British newspapers, and when he does refer to this side of the Atlantic his touch seems less sure than it is on American matters. It is surprising to find him saying: ‘In Britain the Westminster Gazette, which perished before World War II’ – actually in 1928 – ‘was the last paper that relied for its circulation on the political guidance it provided for its 25,000 readers.’ What about the Guardian, or the Morning Star, or the Daily Telegraph? And when one finds him writing about newspapers being in possession of safe monopoly markets, one gets ready to challenge him before realising that he is writing about the United States.

The value of his book is in his detailed and up-to-date account of developments in the United States, where already nearly 70 per cent of newspapers are printed offset without hot metal. The Los Angeles Times (now with the largest circulation in the country) has computerised type-setting throughout, and the whole process of sub-editing, cutting, headlining and lay-out is done on video screens, with the sub-editors revising the text and seeing the new version on the page immediately. The International Typographical Union fought against these changes through the disastrous strikes in New York, but finally co-operated in the diminished role of the traditional printers in the computerised age, and negotiated deals in which thousands of print workers were paid off with a life pension of their current earnings. The NGA and SOGAT are fighting these battles here today, and this may be one of the reasons why print unions are less ready to flex their muscles over political censorship now than they were a few years ago.

Both Smith and Windlesham see parallel developments ahead – away from mass circulation and mass audiences. American newspaper publishers have found by sophisticated market-research techniques (computers again) that they can tailor their newspapers to particular circulation areas, not only for local news but for articles and supplements that suit one area and not another. The Louisville Courier-Journal has the demographic profile of every subscriber held in its computer, and to a quarter of them it delivers Time Magazine – not only this, but Time offers four separate editions to cater for four different class and economic groupings and the Courier-Journal gets the right copy to the right reader.

That is a modest move against mass distribution of identical material (and the consequent waste of expensive newsprint on pages and supplements that nobody reads on the wrong side of the railroad tracks). Lord Windlesham points to a similar process in broadcasting. First, local radio, which has carried on the process of fragmentation begun when the BBC opened a second radio channel; now community radio, which fragments the broadcasting as well as the listening; cable television, which can theoretically produce a wide choice of programmes at the touch of a button and is going ahead fast in the United States, where the conditions favour it much more than here; video-cassettes, which give you as much choice as you get by building up your music library; and finally satellite broadcasting, which could eventually give us a world-wide choice of television programmes direct to our dish aerials at some time in the not very distant future. But this reminds us that we have the same facility in radio already, without any very sophisticated equipment, and few of us make much use of it. Listeners in countries under news censorship do, but would they make great efforts or take risks for a video signal?

However, the fragmentation may be important. Lord Windlesham, looking into the future with an expectation of gradual rather than revolutionary change, notes that hitherto the independence of the broadcaster from political control has been maintained by the BBC Governors and the IBA acting as a buffer between the politicians and the programme-makers. Everybody can see that the BBC has been weakened by financial strangulation. While such constraints have not affected the IBA – far from it – he thinks its role will be diminished along with the BBC’s, because they will no longer, between them, control all television programme material. At the same time, this very multiplicity of material will make it more difficult for the politicians to exercise control. He takes a wider perspective and tells us that video cassettes are popular and widespread in South Africa, and he notes that neither the cassette listened to or viewed in private nor the satellite broadcast beamed from space can easily be restricted by the state.

Having been immersed in the real world of television, Lord Windlesham is constantly reminding us that television is about programmes, and not only about information, political awareness, and the power that knowledge can confer on those hitherto kept deprived. For most people, Dallas means ten-gallon hats and J.R. rather than the scene of a political assassination that is still raising political questions. He has a whole chapter on the television programme-makers, and he warmed my heart by insisting that changing the organisation of broadcasting is far less important than a broad consideration of the way in which programmes get made, and of the factors which determine their production. It is certainly true that no broadcasting constitution ensures good programmes, though there are several types of constitution that can ensure bad programmes.

Anthony Smith looks more searchingly into the future by devoting more consideration than Lord Windlesham to what he calls videotex. This is one of the generic names for the systems by which you can call up on your television screen the latest information on scores, hundreds or even thousands of subjects stored for you in the inevitable central computer. The BBC calls it Ceefax, the ITV calls it Oracle, and for the Post Office it is Prestel (and has incidentally won my vote by a series of imaginative commercials). It is also known as Captains to the Japanese, Antiope, Titan and Didon to the French, Telidon to the Canadians, and Bildschirmtext to the Germans. Smith avoids (with an effort) going overboard about this already sprouting seed, and says these systems are not likely to replace the traditional newspaper during the 1980s. However, recovering his nerve, he goes on: ‘The decade of the Nineties is going to be one in which the traditional newspaper may face decline, extinction, or at least complete internal reappraisal.’

He is a breathtaking guide to the possibilities, and he is enthusiastic at the prospect of unlimited choice for the individual. He sees it as like summoning up information from a reference library that is constantly being brought up to date. At present, such libraries contain only facts (though there was a bit of editorialising in the page of information about pornographic bookshops which led to a Parliamentary question), but they could go on to contain opinions. One can imagine governments of the future being worried about so great an extension of the area of influence on public opinion. It would grow more and more difficult to control, through sheer volume and impermanence. In totalitarian countries it would work the other way, since the exercise of control could continue to be centralised, and there would be the appearance without the reality of choice.

Still, these attempts to develop videotex may fail, or prove to be only marginal. After all, Eurovision has brought little to our screens except Jeux sans Frontières. Perhaps newspaper readers will continue to buy such papers as survive, and millions of households will continue to watch Coronation Street and switch off in their millions when some Minister is on the grill. Perhaps even in the Nineties governments and commercial interests will still be doing what they do now – leaning on editors of newspapers and broadcasters to see things from the point of view of the authorities.