Popular perceptions of public media: “The Boat That Rocked”

There has been a battle between broadly opposed approaches to electronic mass communication. The first is the national public broadcasting paradigm. The second is the market-rating paradigm. Over the course of the century, the market approach (which I use interchangeably with the ‘commercial’ approach) came to dominate. United States’ media export power had much to do with the larger shift toward the adoption of variations on the commercial model. Still, the public broadcasting model endures, a sign that many continue to believe the market cannot provide all the stripes of media needed for democratic forms of governance. But this seems the exception to the rule. Especially in the United States, where the commercial model is the freedom-lovers alternative to state controlled authoritarianism. Popular conceptions shape how we discuss media politics in a fundamental way. So, when I see popular conceptions underlying mainstream television and films, I perk up.
This is why I want to talk about “The Boat That Rocked” (trailer), a film featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman and written/directed by Richard Curtis. It is media about media. Media history, more precisely. The central antagonism in the film crystallizes, if cartoonishly, popular criticisms of the public-service model. In the picture, Curtis positions regulators as culture oppressors trying to save Britain from moral decline.The decline is represented by youth music and a band of quirky anti-authoritarian DJs. The tension mounts as uptight British regulators chase the irrepressible band of radio rebels who blanket Britain’s shores with forbidden rock music when rock music meant cultural revolution: sex, drugs, etc. Before I talk about the film, a little background on the public and market models of media.

Early public broadcasting was class-coded and often carried exclusive assumptions about the public it was to serve. Public broadcasting, as a national policy, sought to uplift ‘the people’ and programming reflected “high culture” fare that the elites thought would elevate the lower classes. High culture was conservative by nature and embodies what Matthew Arnold called “sweetness and light.” Sweetness and light meant the best of civilization: arts and humanistic education that promoted positive cultural values through learned self-reflection. Advocates and cultural critics like Arnold sought to take all the best of the human thought and foist it on those who had no access to it . . . often the poor. The ‘dirty masses’ thus could transcend their circumstances given exposure to classical poetry and other approved forms of art often stemming from the ancient Greeks. The governors of Britain’s airwaves subscribed to this basic belief in higher and lower arts. They also believed media content significantly determined national character and individual behavior. They could be the purveyors of all that is sweetness and light. Could radio not instruct and inform so many? It could be an everyman’s library, plucked from the air. Books for the illiterate.

This distinction between high and low culture had taken shape in the age of print but informed perceptions of new media like radio broadcasting in the early 1920s. The high/low brow divide and the mission of uplift imposed a hierarchy. The clear condescension in this approach was not merely crafted to tighten political control. It sought to use the new medium as a means to improve the nation. Early radio advocates in the United States, for instance, saw the potential to put the university into the ether, democratizing access to higher education. But public broadcasting of this stripe was also naive and arrogant as one class imposed a view of what content should circulate and what was best for public consumption.
class, public media and pirates
Those in charge of content were naturally higher class with a liberal-arts education common to the wealthy and connected who would go on to populate the bureaucratic ranks that make media policy decisions. This group dictated material they thought would uplift when, in retrospect, the mission of educational and cultural amelioration of ‘the public’ was not only class-biased but also neglectful of multicultural realities, a multiculturalism that would increasingly change the nature of the public in these countries.

This is, in part, why public broadcasting has the enduring reputation for being stodgy and disconnected from the “real” public: classical music, public policy debates, and the arts were the kind of high-brow material that would allow a national media system to evangelistically spread the self-reflection in the arts and educate a public for participation in self-governance. The mission of uplift that lingered into the 1980s led programmers like PBS in the United States to air ballet and the Baroque scores of 1710s when commercial networks were buying up contracts with John Tesh and the NFL. Guided by high/low hierarchy, PBS slowly faded from importance for a generation who had little lived experience of 19th century preoccupations like artistic dance and Vivaldi.

Back in 1960s Britain, these assumptions were challenged earlier, and legitimately so, by the early advocates of commercial models of media production. This transition is the history underlying the liberation narrative in the “The Boat That Rocked,” as it portrays the free spirits of the early rock generation fighting BBC attempts to shut their pirate radio signal down. The plot hinges on the audience identifying with the swinging advocates of Rock n’ Roll as they fought to get the people what they wanted as opposed to the morally prudent content approved by the close trimmed and severely suited functionaries of the British broadcasting system.

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