Demonising the Dirty Digger is a pathetic response to Murdochisation - as a Channel 4 film is about to show ...
Monday 18 August 1997
This is just one of the grotesque images that haunt the revenge-filled head of Michael Deakin, the central character in the film, who fantasises obsessively about getting rid of the Great Prince. An architect for one of the London boroughs and father of two horrible twins who scream their hearts out for satellite dishes, Deakin blames Britain's most powerful press baron and supreme overlord of BSkyB for all that his dear England had become - "a hard, sniggering, resentful, hard shoulder of a place".
As you may have gathered, the person who made this film does not have a very high opinion of Rupert Murdoch. Indeed, Marc Karlin originally intended to entitle it The Cancer, as a tribute to the late TV playwright Dennis Potter, who named his pancreatic tumour "Rupert" and once stated in a public lecture that, if only he could summon the strength, he would shoot Murdoch for lowering the standards of British journalism in television.
But a friend of Karlin, who was suffering from breast cancer, persuaded him to opt for another title. It wasn't hard, for Karlin himself had came to see Potter's response to Murdochisation of the media as fairly pathetic. "The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that such glib, self- satisfying moralising didn't deal with the full complexity and the full force of Murdoch," the director-producer told me at his Soho office last week.
"How did our democracy allow itself to be stamped on so hard by Murdoch without mounting any defence? I think Murdoch must have been surprised by how cheaply he bought the English patrician class."
In his film Karlin illustrates this failure of the liberal elite with clips from the keynote lecture Murdoch gave at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. The camera cuts to the audience of British TV execs, who listen in respectful silence as this self-styled champion of liberty mounts a pulpit to accuse them of waging the same sort of thought control as the established church before the invention of the printing press.
"This is the silence of democrats ... and the Dark Prince could bathe in that silence," a disembodied Voice of Reason tells Deakin, who represents every soi-disant liberal who has silently cursed Murdoch but done nothing to try to curb the expansion of the Murdoch empire.
Liberal-democracies the world over have faced supreme difficulty confronting the growing concentration of media power. Those who most genuinely cherish freedom of expression tend to become politically paralysed when accused of thought control.
Once again that Voice of Reason: "Could it really be the devil that has given you 5,000 channels - soaps, sport, sci-fi, music, games, arts, education, videos on demand, data services? Free will on this earth has been restored and, according to you it is the devil that has done it."
Rapacious media empire-builders such as Murdoch prey upon liberal sensibilities. Ideas, values and tastes, they tell via their myriad organs of corporate propaganda, must be free from state intrusion and left to follow the laws of supply and demand.
The constant challenge for those of us who believe in a citizen-based democracy is to remember that the realm of ideas, images and tastes is qualitatively different from air travel, or the manufacture of biscuits or electric turbines.
Leo Bogart, an American sociologist who specialises in mass communications, makes this point well in his powerful panoramic critique Commercial Culture: The Media System and the Public Interest (Oxford University Press, 1995). "Ideas and images fill our minds and form our character ... Media also make possible the free flow and clash of opinions essential to the functioning of democracy."
Stirring words. But the depressing reality, as the Canadian writer John Ralston Saul has observed, is that our society is now only superficially based on individualism and democracy. Increasingly it is conformist and corporatist. In Saul's words: "Now we are enthralled by a new all-powerful clockmaker god - the marketplace - and his archangel, technology. Trade is the marketplace's miraculous cure for all that ails us. And globalisation is the Eden or paradise into which the just shall be welcomed on Judgement Day."
Murdoch has come to exercise more and more power in the UK media marketplace partly through technology. Within the barbed-wired walls of Fortress Wapping he drastically streamlined the production of newspapers. Then he broke into British broadcasting by harnessing the Astra satellite. But none of this could have been achieved without the active assistance of the union-bashing Thatcher government, which shared his neo-conservative faith in the marketplace, technology, globalisation, the money markets.
Tony Blair was only helped to a landslide victory by the Murdoch press after making declarations of passivity before these awe-inspiring Destinies. His weak response doesn't surprise John Ralston Saul, who has also observed: "Declarations of passivity before the inevitable - what is said to be inevitable - is one of ideology's most depressing effects"
Marc Karlin's film, `The Serpent', is the first in a new six-part series, `Films of Fire', which starts on Channel 4 on Thursday at 9pm.
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