Sylvia Lawson

  • Games with Shadows by Neal Ascherson
    Radius, 354 pp, £18.00, April 1988, ISBN 0 09 173019 8

The book’s title mocks the author’s own position. It comes from a newspaper column of 1985 in which he attacked what he saw as ‘the retreat from politics’ into nihilistic spectatorship, and thus passivity. ‘Games with shadows and changing reflections threaten the citizen’s most elementary weapon of self-defence: memory.’ Acutely and characteristically, he links passivity to unemployment, and the argument moves off from the dubious ‘politics of spectacle’ into the world Ascherson so insistently dissects, the one in which most people are without power, where social participation is not a right but a privilege. But then, by using the phrase as title, he implicitly turns part of the attack on himself and his kind. This isn’t self-deprecation, rather a stubborn stoicism which seems to mean: take it or leave it, this is all I can do. It asks us to think about the apparent political impotence of mere writers and readers; if writing and reading are all we can do, we must either gamble on their validity or surrender.

The restoration of memory is part of Ascherson’s long-running commitment: so from battle-zones which are often continents and centuries apart, he gathers up his anecdotes of long-uncelebrated resistance. They fully deserve his attention, and ours, but what shouldn’t be underestimated now is the kind of resistance represented by the making of this book itself. It is as though a small but brilliant flag broke out on an outpost long given over to barbarian darkness, meaning: it’s not all over with print journalism – not yet; down this track, there are still adventures worth having.

The darkness is there, not only because so much of the press is crass, vicious, tepid, compromised – you name it – and, of course, turned into an odd kind of multinational commerce, a ballpark for corporate raiding. It’s also the depression of journalists and other communicators, who no longer know how to defend what remains worth defending, let alone begin re-inventing newspapers for those print futures which are now possible, technologically at least. A couple of years ago, in a cranny of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, a suggestion came up for a weekly radio commentary on newspapers: something a bit like the weekly film review, attending to styles and messages, editorial postures and devices, as well as the manoeuvrings of big business around the newspaper as product. But the producer, generally an alert and imaginative lady, didn’t see the point. She responded tiredly: ‘My God, why? When you’ve gone through the usual boring litany about ownership and control, and what Rupert bought last week, what else is there to say?’

The short answer is everything – particularly about the liberal press and its contradictions. The anecdote typifies the attitude widespread now on the left and among left-liberals, something more negative than despair. People are deeply, appallingly inured, on a level of boredom – with newspapers themselves, and equally with the supposedly exhausted issues of ownership, control, content, ideology and so on – so deep that productive discussion can’t even begin. There’s no sense of possibility, no talk of different ways of doing things – for example, of changing the relations, through format, of foreign and local news, so that readers might more easily sense themselves as people of the globe; of conceiving reviewing and arts news differently, to spread the power out from stars, authors and critics to the larger populations of makers and audiences.

Such changes become unimaginable; the Seventies dream of an alternative press has faded everywhere. The press-as-it-is has become the cultural badlands, no more readily curable than pollution. It is many editorial generations since the newspaper was seen as an expressive form for citizens, rather as video, super-8 mm film and public radio are becoming now. One part of the problem is that journalists rarely reflect on their own positions – no group, generally, is less interested in newspaper history or analysis.

Another is that newspapers talk about themselves only on the financial pages, and thus consent to being trampled down in the wholesale subordination of communication to commodity. For careers in academic media studies, TV – festooned with satellite and laser technology – is always sexier; ‘information studies’ means computerology; radio and the popular music industry make it to the fringes of curricula; but print is dowdy – who’d make students read, when they could be watching and listening?

Indifference means impotence. Back in the late Sixties and through the Seventies, we developed our attacks on the liberal-pluralist media, precisely for their liberalism and pluralism, and we got stuck there, intellectually and politically. On the grimmer terrain of the present, it has been hard to see the need for changed alignments; the need, for instance, to defend those beleaguered national broadcasting organisations, despite the sense that Thatcherite governments are hanging them for lambs rather than sheep; and the need now to defend the kind of press which still, in its interstices, makes space for writers like Neal Ascherson.

It’s not just that Murdoch and his ilk own so much of the mainstream press. Neither bad nor benevolent ownership accounts for everything you read in a newspaper, and the difference isn’t entirely a matter of tabloid versus broadsheet. What matters is that the newspaper, and the journalist, should actually trust the readers to be capable of no smaller an understanding than themselves.

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