Diary

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.

Ninety per cent of the cultural and artistic experience of the British people comes through radio, television, the press, video, film. Equally, a similar proportion of what is broadcast or exists on film is, in fact, ‘the arts’. The problem is that we have allowed a division to occur in people’s minds between what is seen to be ‘the arts’ (Classical music, opera, ballet, the formal theatre) and mere television or entertainment: so that The Boys from the Blackstuff or Eastenders are not seen as ‘the arts’, though they clearly and importantly are. We are dealing here with an attitude created by our class-divided society.

At the present time, the whole of youth culture, and of popular culture in general, is a tightly interlinked totality of film, TV, radio, video and the stage. Community arts are developing their own studio work. Ethnic groups are expanding into video as a means of expressing their culture and their view of Britain. The black group Ceddo said to me: ‘We are not “ethnic”. We are making films about contemporary Britain from a black perspective’. We cannot treat all of these activities as no legitimate part of the arts of Britain.

The claim is heard that because broadcasting and the press publish news they should not share a ministry with the arts. It is a claim I find impossible to accept. Those who would argue, as some do, that we could break up the existing structure of broadcasting into two separate organizations – a kind of ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ or ‘facts’ and ‘arts’ division – are mistaking the nature of the media – both broadcasting and the press. For that matter, only a minor proportion of the content of broadcasting and of the press, quality and popular alike, is hard news. Nevertheless it was roughly along these lines, of a divided broadcasting structure, that Neil Kinnock seemed to be thinking, and this failure of imagination and understanding took me by surprise. I still do not know who was advising his office.

The plan his office came up with was to leave the regulatory functions of broadcasting in the hands of the Home Office and the Department of Trade and Industry, while proposing ‘the establishment of a Ministry of Arts and Media to assume the necessary responsibilities of national government ... for the relevant aspects of broadcasting, film, video, publishing and entertainment’. The morning press next day, quoting Neil, described this as ‘granting massive new powers’ over broadcasting to the new ministry. It was, in fact, a broken-backed formula, which was to lead to a curious morning in my own office. Calls began flowing in congratulating me on having at last achieved the long-sought objective of a unified ministry. But there was one discordant note. Significantly, the call in question came from the specialist magazine Broadcast. ‘We do not understand,’ they told me. ‘It says that broadcasting is going to the new ministry but it also says that the regulatory powers and statutory framework will remain with the Home Office. It can’t be both. Which is it?’

They were dead right. It couldn’t be both – and power remained with the Home Office. Far from the regulatory and statutory framework being only a technical irrelevance, this is the means by which public service broadcasting is governed. This is what enables both the BBC and the Independent companies to fulfil a regional role, to ensure a diversity of programmes and a reasonable diversity of opinion, to maintain universality of access, and a proper public interest in relation to advertising. To go beyond this regulatory framework, in order to grant ‘powers’, would either mean interference with programmes or it would be meaningless. I believe it would mean the latter and that the sooner we drop the term ‘media’ from the proposed ministry the better. The decision is a tragic one. It puts the Labour Party to the right of both the SDP and the Liberals on this issue, and even to the right of the all-party Select Committee, with its Tory majority.

The Labour arts programme, with the loss of the media, is now badly distorted. Formally, it is very much a return to the existing scope and practice of the Office of Arts and Libraries. There remain, however, many radical and valuable ideas. A rearguard battle saved the concept of the ‘Open Cultural University’ from being deleted. This took on board much of what has been happening within local authorities in recent years by way of the extending of opportunities for active participation within the arts. It recognised the need and opportunity to co-ordinate a more imaginative and productive use of developing resources – schools, colleges, adult education centres, videos and film workshops, community arts projects – with the local community as campus.

The programme still contains the better and more democratic arts structure that we devised. It shifts the main thrust from the centre out to the regions, replacing the present Regional Arts Associations by Regional Development Boards. It changes them from being mainly client-responsive to being active, innovative and stimulating in their own right. Alongside this, local authorities are for the first time to be given the statutory responsibility to provide for the arts, buttressed by financial support from central government through an arts element in the Rate Support Grant. Centrally, the Arts Council, instead of being composed of the government-appointed ‘great and good’, will be directly representative of the regions and of the arts themselves.

The funding structure, too, opens up possibilities for the arts to begin to play a proper role as a major component in the political consciousness of the country. The new Arts Council would have the statutory right to negotiate annual funding with government. Their case and the Government’s response would be published in the form of a White Paper and subject to an annual debate in the House of Commons. This would fulfil the Select Committee’s recommendation of an annual ‘State of the Arts’ White Paper and Debate. We have redefined and strengthened the largely vitiated arm’s-length principle, guaranteeing much greater independence to the artist and the arts organisations.

Finally, I secured the fulfilment of my pledge to the arts world that we would double the amount of Arts Council funding. This would fetch an additional £140 million by the end of the first year of a Labour government, and allocate an additional £40 million for the repair and improvement of our national galleries and museums. But none of this compensates for the main loss.

The case for a comprehensive arts and media ministry, with its necessary full responsibilities for broadcasting and publishing, will continue to be argued. And because it is a rational case I expect it to succeed eventually – to come about quietly and naturally in the way that these things tend to do, in perhaps three or four years’ time. And perhaps by that time, too, we may have learned the reasons for the bizarre decision taken by Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party Executive. So far, we have been given no reason for the decision. Was it the fear of being accused of setting up some kind of Zhdanovite Ministry of Culture? Why then do we tolerate a broadcasting system under the equivalent of a Ministry of the Interior? Or was it simply good old-fashioned, behind-the-scenes, political pressure?

Most serious of all is the gap that has now been created in policy-making for broadcasting. Things are happening desperately fast. Any future thinking is inextricably linked with the whole question of security and what we are now beginning to call the secret society. To expect radical change to occur from within Home Office thinking is to ask for the moon. The pressure must come from elsewhere. The reaction both among broadcasters and in the world at large to the spectacle of successive waves of Special Branch occupying and stripping the offices of the BBC and the New Statesman has forged something of an alliance. But the impetus for change has to be maintained. In Britain we are now prosecuting people for publishing material which in America they would be compelled to publish – as the Irangate business shows. We have to establish a situation in which the assumption is that things are there to be published unless a case is made otherwise. In British government today exactly the opposite assumption applies. That means that we require a Freedom of Information Act to safeguard the principle. Section Two of the Official Secrets Act must go. It is a kind of universal vacuum-cleaner sucking up every possible piece of information that might embarrass a government. Those who have seen the film or read the New Statesman article about Zircon know that it is a nonsense to describe either of them as being in any sense harmful to security. The real ‘moles’, if any, were the previous Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Sir Frank Cooper, and British Aerospace. Similarly, the warrant issued to investigate the Scottish BBC was so wide that it could have dragged in everything from Postman Pat to The Epilogue.

At the same time, broadcasting’s technological base is in a state of accelerating revolution. The entrepreneurs of ideas are moving quicker than are our responsible public bodies. Already in the popular press three men – Maxwell, Murdoch, Stephens – control 80 per cent of the dissemination of information. Two of them have already bought their way into satellites: these are being beamed up from France and from Luxembourg. Perhaps five people will shortly control the basic dissemination of news and information for the whole of Western Europe. It is a frightening monopoly position, worse than in any sector of our manufacturing industry. In any corner of this field it would call forth the full panoply of a Monopolies Commission.

Regulation exists in broadcasting not to inhibit but to allow freedom. The free-for-all envisaged by the Peacock Committee, and evident in American television, or in the collapse of Italian television, means more channels and less choice: competition around and below the lowest common denominator serves to restrict choice. This is not an élitist concept: it applies just as much to programmes on coarse fishing or gardening as it does to opera. Regulation will be difficult where satellites are concerned. Some control can be achieved where there is cable connection, but where it is done by dish it will require international agreements. I have made some start in relation to that by getting the Socialist Parties of Western Europe to begin to consider the problem. I fear that if the pressure is slackened, if the next election is won by a Thatcher devoted to a Peacock, then this most precious jewel in the whole of contemporary British culture will be placed at risk.

When I first published my consultative ‘Programme’, with its reaffirmation of Labour policy on broadcasting, it was due to be launched by Neil Kinnock. But on that day the BBC were on strike, because of government interference with the Real Lives programme. Party Headquarters advised postponement ‘because so much of the “Programme” relates to broadcasting’. Had the launch gone ahead as planned with Neil’s endorsement, it seems inconceivable that he could have gone back on this only two years afterwards. But Neil could not attend on the revised date. As with Zircon, it was four days too late. On such ironies are policies founded.