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.

The genius of the film is the way the narrative marries the music revolution of Rock and Roll and the movement toward commercial models of media production and dissemination that undermined the state’s monopoly on broadcasting. The scenes are carefully constructed to reflect the differing worlds of life on the boat and in the boardrooms of the British government. The ship that was violating broadcasting law is the setting for the ‘liberated’ life: sex outside of marriage, disheveled longer hair, forbidden music, colorful wardrobe, anti-authoritarian attitudes, etc. It was a place of freedom, out in the ocean and beyond the ‘regressive’ law of the British Isles as much as beyond its shores. Scenes representing the government response are severe and orderly but show bureaucrats who are comically misguided in their attempt to repress the ineluctable march toward media freedom. It was a place of dark tones, thick-rimmed glasses, stiff postures, tight suits, three-quarter parted hair, proper if effete speech, hierarchical meetings, and decorum.
 The boat that rocked regulator
The bureaucrats assure their superiors that the “filth” broadcasting off-shore would be shut down, but the agents of the British government are routinely foiled by the prankster gang of late 1960s rebel culture. In the mythology of the film, the boat and its radio operator are early revolutionaries on the road to overturning out-of-touch state media in favor of consumer choice that was being ignored in the name of moral uplift and public education. These “pirates” are heroes in the movie for risking arrest by circumventing the public broadcasting system. Their pirate mission was the advance of music that was unfairly condemned, the advance of freedom from overly restrictive morality, and the advance of the public will in determining national media.

Some reviewers at The Guardian share my criticism of the shallow characterization of a complex bit of history. Of course, the story of liberation does not make much room for a discussion of the vices of commercial systems of production. Indeed, part of this history should be commercial radio’s push to silence pirate broadcasters as well as the ease with which commercial lobbyists could convince governments to marginalize these popular, unofficial DJs. That movie is yet to be made . . . and there is likely not much of an audience for it even if a commercial system would make room for substantive criticism of commercial media production.

The argument against government dictation of content resonates with a common-sense notion of freedom. The free market, the argument goes, can do a much better job of giving the people what they want because commercial media producers do not survive unless they recognize and respond to public demand. Both pirates and commercial enterprises, in the 1960s, tried to crack governmental monopoly and get the attention of audiences public broadcasters had had access to for a generation.

What is the role of popular conceptions of media regulation in shaping how we can talk about the internet today? Curtis’s film confirms preexisting notions about media and misguided government regulation. Pirate radio represents a pure, liberating force as if the natural tendencies of human life had outgrown the need for sweetness and light. But those who question the democratic fulfillment provided by the commercial model of media production find the liberation narrative problematic. The war for sexual and cultural freedom in “The Boat That Rocked” glosses over the advance of commercial models of mass media and condemns media reformers to justify paternalism. Overcoming government barriers and overcoming oppressive moral institutions like the church become mixed in unproductive ways.

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