Norman Buchan

After some three years of intense consultation and of formal policy-making it was more than a shock to be confronted, at the very last syllable of recorded time, with an amendment from the Leader of the Labour Party which tore the guts out of the central thesis of its document on the arts. If nothing else, my consequent sacking at least put the arts for once into the forefront of political argument.

Such prominence was in itself extraordinary enough. But suddenly, within days, a major sequence of events erupted to add a fresh piquancy to the argument. Zircon. The BBC ban. The Speaker’s ban on the House of Commons screening of Duncan Campbell’s Zircon film. The invasion of the New Statesman. The raid on Duncan Campbell. And (almost as if pursuing me home) the occupation of the Scottish BBC just down the road from where I live. The heart of the argument with Neil Kinnock was precisely this: the time had come to take broadcasting, and the fundamental issue of press freedom, away from the Home Office. The events which proved our case had come just four days too late to carry the day.

Uniquely in the world, Britain has the extraordinary situation that the Home Office – the ministry which is in charge of security, the Special Branch, the Police, of all the apparatus called into play in pursuit of bans and proscriptions – is the same ministry which is in charge of broadcasting and the freedom of the press. It is a stunning contradiction – rather like putting Archbishop Runcie in charge of Hell. The Home Office is statutorily bound to put its security duties before everything else. But the broadcaster, like the journalist, has a duty to investigate and expose the truth. And truth and security are ill-suited companions.

The disagreement was of course part of a wider engagement of ideas. Quite apart from the question of freedom, those of us who had been working on the Arts Charter recognised that this proposal was the keystone of any truly popular cultural policy for Britain. As far back as 1974, the Labour Party, and later in 1976 the TUC, had been moving towards the concept of a comprehensive ministry for the arts and the media. And in 1977 the Labour Party published and passed through Conference a policy document called ‘The Arts and the People’ which established two cardinal points: these were to be the basis of all later Labour Party thinking on the arts. One, that a wider arts ministry should be created which would also be the sponsoring ministry for film, broadcasting and the press. Two, the Arts Minister should be in the Cabinet.

So much was this part and parcel of all current thinking within the arts that when I published my consultative document (‘Programme for the Arts’) two years ago, I had no need to make the case. It had been endorsed by the all-party Select Committee on the Arts, with its built-in Tory majority, and was later copied by both the SDP and Liberal Parties.

The case had been powerfully reinforced by an increasing monopoly of the popular press and by the rapidly developing technologies in broadcasting – especially direct broadcasting by satellite. Along with this, increasing use of associated technologies – video, film, and cheaper methods of studio recording – was changing the nature of popular culture in Britain. Here was the basis of what has come to be called ‘the Cultural Industries’, which are now on the way to forming a major sector of our economy, let alone our culture. No credible arts policy could be constructed without the involvement of radio and television.

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in