The BBC, Modernism and cultural philistinism…

Over at Brassneck I’ve argued that what stands out from the Brand/Ross affair is the vacuity of the gesture:; and by implication the vacuity of much of the protest. It’s partly a long term cultural problem of rampant Modernist philistinism, and partly political. So far as the latter is concerned, Paulie reckons the BBC’s critics are only too well aware of the underlying issues of ownership and power, whilst the Left is left (illiterately) scrabbling in the dark. Here’s Enemies of Reason on why some people hate the BBC

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  • jone

    An elegant piece of old fartism (oops that’s my rampant Modernist philistinism showing through)

    Should comedy return to the past aesthetic traditions of Benny Hill or maybe Arthur Askey? Or maybe we should forget about anything potentially coarse and have a man in a tail coat reading extracts from Juvenal and Lucilius?

  • Dewi

    Mick – why on earth do you bother with this shit ? Forget this crap.

  • Llamedos

    The entire board of the BBC Trust should resign and a new Chairman put in , who knows broadcasting and the BBC,and is professionally apolitical ie David Dimbleby; and replace the board members with imaginative independent thinkers, not like the present lot of quango obsessed placemen. We now have another bunch of so called safe hands with totally mundane boring minds incapable of any original thought and definitely not having the ability to sort out paranoiac drug taking imbeciles out.Get rid.

  • baslamak
  • Slugger O’Toole Admin


    To your proposition: no.

    It’s an argument against the self consuming celebrity of ‘me’: Andy Warhol’s 15 Minutes of Fame (

    When I use the term philistines, I don’t mean they are opposed to high art or cultural activities in general, but because they oppose anything that’s genuinely aspirational. Things that take you on from where you are.

    To take it back to the realm of blogging, it’s an argument against the kind of Nihilistic response I noted in his CIF blog last year:

    As such it goes beyond the bounds of whether or not the BBC acted properly or not. Take the Sun’s response today: they retaliated with revelations from one of Brand’s ex girlfriends about his habits in bed.

    The problem I have with it is the blind determination to abjure value in everything it sees. In that sense the critics of Ross and Brand, and in particular the BBC, are often as senseless as the act itself.


    Right. Could you beef that out with some a little more of where you’re coming from on that?


    No one is compelling you to comment on every story. So, get a grip man!!

  • Brian Walker

    An interesting cultural critique at Brassneck, Mick but a mite too pessimistic for me. “Modernism” is a relativist term in itself (cf traditionalism) and can mean what the user wants it to mean. I believe the state of culture is healthier than the Telegraph leader implies. The Impressionists, Stravinsky, Beckett were all misunderstood, even execrated before they became canon. The Telegraph would turn the BBC into more of a middlebrow museum, when it’s too much of that already, Radio 3 and some BBC4 excepted.

    Now Brand/Ross (not among any of the above!.) I have to say I heard Brand tonight on C4 on a riff about a woman having sex with a dog. Unlikely as it may seem in cold print, as he went on he was obscenely believable and I found it funny. I suggest that this stream of comedy arises from recognising what we share but don’t normally like to talk about, and we laugh in relief when all of us admit we have those thoughts too. There was always plenty of scatology in the Belle Epoque or the Berlin of the 20s which we now cover in aspic. Read Julian Barnes on Swinburne and his gay friend and a monkey in 1890s Dieppe in last week’s Guardian review. Somehow it seemed so much more, well, cultured. But was it? This has always been what a kind of comedy has been about. We think we live a franker age when all can enjoy the edgy stuff (Lord Chamberlain censorship was abolished less than 50 years ago) The frontiers when we can see them at all, are further away from where they used to be, even for the masses. So I’m not sure this material is automatically degenerate even if far from high art. The dangers it brings are real enough. I can easily see how it crossed the line, just as a tease can become cruelty. But it can also extend perception, even fellowship. A commissioner’s rule is that you must not commission stuff only on the basis of what you like. At the risk of being deliberately misunderstood, I say you have to let this stuff breathe. You mustn’t assume you always know where it will end.

    However.. on a more comfortable plane I have long argued that the BBC ought to raise its ambition again. Rather than being too daring, it’s in danger of being too culturally safe, too much reviewing not enough original work, too much marketing. But I’d also challenge any claim of serious dumbing down. It’s just that the high peaks aren’t as clustered in a multi-channel environment than when there were only three or four channels.

    These discussions are worth having, even when prompted by one of the silliest of a long line of BBC crises. Full marks to the politicians for stoking it and diverting from the real crisis, the financial one.

  • Mick Fealty

    Thanks for that Brian. I’ll try to come back to it in the morning.

    Suffice it to say I agree the Beeb is probably playing things too safe. The licence fee should release them from the grind of the market, not compel them to compete.

    Ironically Brand is the quintessence of that Modernist romance with currency. He’s ‘safe’ precisely because he is ‘so’ now.

  • Harry Flashman

    I’ve been a bit bemused by the people who have defended what Ross and Brand did, to me it was indefensible trash and no sane adult could possibly believe it had any merit in public funded broadcasting (and indeed as we see from Brand and Ross themselves they have conceded it was vile rubbish and acted accordingly).

    But I now see why so many are rushing to the ramparts in defence of such puerile filth. They see suddenly that if they don’t nail their colours firmly to the mast in defence of taxpayers being forced to pay six million quid per annum for a sniggering overdeveloped schoolboy who shouts “willy!” with his equally brain dead chum from the back of the classroom then the whole edifice might come crashing down around them. It may not be the battlefield they would choose to stand on but their precious BBC is under mortal threat so stand and fight they will.

    It is easy to dismiss this as a load of overhyped cant by the likes of the Sun and the Daily Mail but believe it or not 30,000 people don’t take time to complain to the BBC just because it’s the Sun wot tells ’em to, and frankly the defenders of the Beeb know that.

    Like the sudden collapse of the credit bubble it is impossible to answer the questions “why now?” “why this?”, but for years the whole teetering shambles was ready to come down and it was only a question of luck which brick being pulled out would bring it all crashing down.

    For too long the BBC in their smug way rubbed their customers’ noses in it, they fleeced the ordinary taxpayers of middle England (for want of a better expression) while sneering at them and holding most of what they believed in up to ridicule, and like the champagne swilling city boys they thought they could go on pushing their luck forever.

    In today’s Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail the smell of blood is in the nostrils of those who’ve long sought to chop the BBC down to size and they know that this is their chance. Iain Martin in the Daily T says:

    “[i]The sole amusing aspect of the affair is that the pair were too busy cavorting in their tedious way, pampered and preened over by their retinue of hangers-on and BBC executives, to notice how the mood has changed since the economy started to slide.

    They now embody a spirit of pre-revolutionary decadence and are being sent to the guillotine after a brief hearing in the court of public opinion. For alleged comedians who pretend to be “edgy”, but in reality rely on making millions in the mainstream, being strung up, metaphorically, is the only thing they will understand.[/i]”

    These are sentiments echoed in the Daily Mail. It is easy to dismiss people like Richard Littlejohn, I mean hasn’t he been ranting away ineffectually for years and no one ever pays him a blind bit of attention? But I think we must now dismiss him and his ilk at our peril. As he writes today:

    “[b]We’re mad as hell and we DON’T have to take it any more![/b]

    [i]…But my guess is that the BBC still doesn’t begin to understand what’s been going on this past week.

    …If they think this ‘draws a line’ under this whole sordid affair, time to ‘move on’, chuck a couple of bodies over the side and it’s everybody back on the coach, then they’re horribly mistaken.

    Whatever has happened since that suicidally ill-advised broadcast, this incident and the response to it has encapsulated perfectly the institutionalised hubris at the BBC. Now it’s nemesis time.

    We don’t have to take it lying down. This has been a stunning victory for common decency over the self-appointed, self-obsessed, metropolitan narcissists who control so much of our public life.

    …At last, the secret people of England have spoken.

    The BBC suits still don’t get it. They’re already retreating behind the usual cosy platitudes about lessons learned, processes reviewed, blah, blah, blah.

    Though he’s avoided the guillotine, I suspect Jonathan Ross does finally get it. Never glad, confident Saturday morning again.

    [b]The game’s up.[/b][/i]”

    I suspect old Littlejohn knows of which he speaks.

  • Brian Walker

    harry, Here you are playing the old commenters’ game of truffling around for underlying motives and conspiracies that don’t exist and setting up your own aunt sally to knock down. This lets you rant rather than offer comments with an acceptance of mutual good faith and give and take which is the essence of the civilised behaviour you purport to defend. You say

    “But I now see why so many are rushing to the ramparts in defence of such puerile filth. They see suddenly that if they don’t nail their colours firmly to the mast in defence of taxpayers being forced to pay six million quid per annum for a sniggering overdeveloped schoolboy who shouts “willy!” with his equally brain dead chum from the back of the classroom then the whole edifice might come crashing down around them.”

    Who is defending this “puerile filth?”

    Whether you realise it or not, this intemperance puts you outside the debate, as you try to outdo Littlejohn – something which if you read them carefully the professional controversialists like Litteljohn take care not to do. By the way it also intrigues me that someone apparently based in Australia behaves like this,in order to stay in touch I presume. If I’ve got this right, your use of the internet to gain glimpses of life here and have your say is worth studying. I hope you agree to become a researcher’s guinea-pig one day. To conclude, the BBC has a case to answer, the licence fee needs justifying constantly (£139 p.a. but yes compulsory, compared with voluntary Sky package including sport £444). The the BBC is reached by over 90% of the UK population a week. “Middle England” is not so daft as you think.

  • DK

    Actually Harry, it was only 2 complaints on the day of the actual broadcast. The subsequent 30K are rushing at the chance to have a go at 2 broadcasters who are, frankly, detested by a large number of people – largely because they are big-mouths. It’s a credit-crunch let-off-steam moment, and we have nailed 2 butterflys to a cross.

    I have no doubt that they would have said the vile comments to Andrew Sachs face if he had turned up for the interview.

  • Mick Fealty


    Two writers. Two completely different classes of journalism. Iain Martin is absolutely bang on, but if you think his sentiments are being echoed in Littlejohn’s work, you really need to sit back and take some stock.

    Littlejohn is hewn from the same self consuming material as Ross and Brand: to use his own descriptors: he’s just another “self-appointed, self-obsessed, metropolitan narcissist”.

    The ‘secret people’ he lauds are the mob scurried up by his own paper (the single most ‘radical’ campaigning machine in the UK). He conjures them up in direct (if discreet) competition with the ‘public people’, ie those who turn out to vote governments in and out of office.

    The day the BBC takes its orders from a demagogue like Littlejohn is the day ‘Public Service Broadcasting’ is dead.

    Of course he’s only part of a vast modern conceit within journalism that believes the mandate of its market share outweighs that of parliament and government. It’s driven by (and consequently delivers only) animus rather genuine curiosity and insight.

    As senior journalist Ian Hargreaves has noted: “journalists are not lone rangers with a pocketful of silver bullets; they are individuals operating within and understood economic, cultural and political framework”.

    Littlejohn imagines himself a Lone Ranger and the true voice of the people. He is entitled to his own personal fantasies (it clearly sells papers). But that does not mean the rest of us have to weigh them as serious contributions to an important public debate.

  • Mick Fealty

    Oh, and you should track back to the Telegrpah piece. It leads with an interview with Kelvin McKenzie late of the Sun, who gives as sane an account of the managerial problem involved as I have seen anywhere.

  • Brian Walker

    Yes Kelvin whom you’d expect to be scathing has been measured and sensible. He made a better case for the BBC on the Today programme yesterday than ex-chairman and Co Down born ex-chairman sir Christopher Bland.

  • Harry Flashman

    As I said; dismiss the likes of Littlejohn at your peril, times have moved on, you may not like him but oddly enough I wasn’t very fond of the likes of Polly Toynbee or Will Self but I had to put up with a decade of New Labour rule based on their prejudices, such is the price of democracy but it’s amazing when Daily Mail readers get the bit between their teeth the “intelligentsia” (a phrase I use without smirking too much) feel that their concerns can be dismissed as overwrought hype and can be ignored with no qualms, well the times they are a-changing.

    You see it doesn’t work that way I’m afraid, you might not like Daily Mail readers, you may even despise them as some form of sub-human pond life which perhaps indeed they may be, but if you insist that every person in the nation who wishes to watch television must on pain of prosecution and a criminal record fund the excesses of the BBC well then the consequence is that even Daily Mail pond life get to have a say on BBC output.

    It’s tiresome I know, having to listen to the Daily Mail whingers, much better to allow only Guardian readers decide what the BBC produces (although I think it remarkable that in all the anti-Daily Mail hysteria from the Beeb defenders no-one seems to have noticed the equally unreserved condemnation which has been spouting forth from both the editors, commentators and readers of the Guardian) but unfortunately if you insist that the only way to fund the BBC is by confiscating money from all law abiding sectors of British society then those dreadful Daily Mail types get to have their say too.

    The BBC chose to involve themselves in what the Americans call the “culture war”. They could have stood by their self avowed principles of strict neutrality. However, as is now accepted by everyone but purblind idiots, they chose to enter the fray, they themselves chose the option of undermining (small “c”) conservative values, it was the BBC who decided that in the struggle between two very distinct and mutually incompatible versions of what was best for British society they would enter the lists on behalf of those who wished to overthrow the old order and replace it with a “new”, “modern”, “reformed” version of society led by a particularly small, self selecting, rather incestuous group of London metropolitan elitists without any reference to what the actual poor benighted licence payers actually wanted.

    Fair enough, if they want to get into the scrap they are free to do so (although common courtesy would decree that they would forego the poll tax levied to fund their social engineering) but the result of that decision is that they have to climb down from their self erected pedestal and slug it out in the mud with the oafish louts in the Daily Mail and the Sun.

    It was the BBC’s choice, I don’t recall any clamour from Daily Mail readers and Daily Telegraph readers for the BBC to become a deeply ideological organisation. Those readers would have been happy for the BBC to restrict themselves to strict neutrality but the Beeb employees saw British society, they liked not what they saw, they determined that the petty prejudices of Daily Mail readers needed severe challenging from the mighty young brains of such wunderkinds as they who worked for the BBC.

    Well, good luck with that, I hope they enjoy pay back time.

  • “These discussions are worth having, even when prompted by one of the silliest of a long line of BBC crises. Full marks to the politicians for stoking it and diverting from the real crisis, the financial one.”


    I feel you may be missing the fact that the low level of popular culture and the current economic crises are intricately linked. For both start from an absolutely contempt for ordinary people and the belief that everything and everyone has a price and all problems can be solved by the markets.

    I think I should set out two things, firstly what I mean by popular culture and secondly why i write it is at a low level. Popular culture is driven by three things, the street, the media and the corporate entertainment industry. Politicians and governments also contribute due to their ability to manipulate the media agenda over and above what the rest of us could achieve.

    Why I believe popular culture is at a low level is because the input from the street is today almost non existent, unless I have missed it, these days very little in the line of fashion, pop music, jazz, theater, etc is coming upwards from the street. The greater percentage of our cultural input reaches us via corporate media. Film is somewhat different, as there is a healthy ground level scene, even so those who are engaged in making videos, documentaries and movies at street level are not getting through to influence an audience beyond those who are immediately interested in their work.

    Thus as I wrote on Organized Rage, unlike previously when we have had a Labour Government, there is not the half each of space in which radical culture and politics can blossom and bloom.

    This is where the link with the economic crises again comes in, for broadcasters like the BBC, looked to the market to provide them with new talent. [as with the country at large, they believed the market would provide all our needs]

    They came to make their judgments not on the level of popularity or support artists, comedians etc had built up at street level, but on the amount of media coverage a person had picked up.

    This is the only way one can look at this. Thus you have people like Russell Brand and Jordon, being given high profile TV and radio slots, for no better reason than the media has portrayed them as celebs.

    There is another point here also, despite their exhibitionism, until now big media had judged that these types were a safe pair of hands, closely managed by their agents, they will do almost anything, for example turn out on the day of their grannies funeral, if asked; and because most do not have an original thought in their heads, they can ‘normally’ be relied on to keep to a script. The most radical thing they might say is I fucked her over a sofa. {I wonder if anyone would have cared if the lady in question had been the granddaughter of an anonymous Polish plumber, rather as she is the offspring of a British TV institution. I hope so but?}

    For all its faults the BBC is a magnificent idea and at times it has been a first class institution that has played a part in improving life in the UK. Mick Fealty is absolutely correct when he implies that a part of its role is to nourish and develop new talent and shows. This is what programs like the Old Grey Whistle Test did in the 1970s and in the past its comedy and drama departments have brought on countless acting, writing and producing talents who have gone on to enrich British life.

    In recent years these department have either been cut back or outsourced and as I have said creative talent has been recruited due to the column inches in the tabloids.

    There is a real danger here that as with the economy the people who have brought us to the precipice will remain in office and I am thinking of [the bankers] the Director General of the BBC and its upper echelons.

    Liberal left intellectuals need to stop indirectly defending Ross and Brand, they are history; and get to the meat of the debate about the low level of our popular culture and the role the BBC can play in turning that around. For if they do not, the field will be left to a handful of lefties and the might of the political right; which will be led by those who hate public services broadcasting and who dance to the likes of Rupert Murdoch’s tune.

  • Mick Fealty


    Good Morning!

    I’m not sure what to say your piece, since you don’t actually address what I’ve written above. Of course you may not have been addressing me, and if so fair enough. You introduced Iain Martin and Richard Littlejohn as though there was some parity of esteem in their arguments. I argued there was not.

    Personally I think the BBC’s ethic of neutrality is its most neutered aspect. They need to take more risks. But risks that take them towards increasing value. And that includes engaging more directly with their critics on the right.

    But fundamentally, the commercial broadcasting market in the UK (and I’ve no doubt this is coming to Ireland) is falling apart. Never mind the starvation diet the serious journalists of UTV have been forced onto, look at the deterioration in Children’s ITV output?

    The UK media market is falling apart. And the BBC/RTE and C4 to a decreasing extent (Dispatches is a shadow of its former self) number amongst the few UK/Irish outlets where you can still pick up strong independent content.

    I’m willing to listen to alternatives to the licence fee. But I cannot see how the market can sustain a free standing enterprise that can produce the kind of PSB standards from nationalised corporations. Online, that may be another matter.

  • Harry Flashman

    Oh I’m sorry Mick I thought I did address the main thrust of your point ie that Daily Mail readers are some sort of “mob” whose views are beneath the contempt of the BBC and whose opinions can therefore be safely dismissed as an irrelevancy.

    My answer is that for so long as the BBC demands that the “mob” funds their activities on pain of going to jail if they do not then the mob have a right to express their opinions on the BBC’s output. It’s simple really if you don’t think Daily Mail readers should have any say in how the BBC is run then don’t impose a punitive tax on Daily Mail readers to run the BBC.

    I agree with you, I believe the standards of the media in the UK are currently appalling and for the rather obvious reason that the market leader, the BBC, has chosen to abandon thoughtful intelligent programming in favour of appallingly infantile drivel such as is produced by their highest paying “star” Jonathan Ross.

    So tell me Mick who demanded the BBC drop its standards in favour of “edgy”, “yoof” entertainment consisting of toilet humour and vile language?

    Was it the mob of Daily Mail readers who asked for this change? Did the boys in the editorial room in Derry Street call for an end to cultural programming, intelligent comedy, in depth news and current affairs analysis, popular family orientated light entertainment? I’m pretty certain the Daily Mail mob called for no such thing.

    So it would appear that you are in agreement with the mob of ghastly proles who read the Daily Mail, you, despite your protestations to the contrary actually support Littlejohn’s assertions that quality in the Beeb has gone into a nosedive since they became obsessed with getting rid of the stodgy old middle class ideas of excellence and replacing it with challenging and edgy entertainment that “pushes the envelope” (to use the appalling management speak of BBC executives).

    How’s it feel being a Daily Mail reading old duffer? Enjoying the cardy and comfortable slippers?

  • Harry Flashman

    Hi Brian I wasn’t ignoring you but why should it bother you that I no longer live in the UK? There are many other contributors from overseas who post here, why single me out? You do seem to have a rather personal problem with me posting at times? Why is that?

    By the way by the same token could I not ask why you play such a role in a blog dedicated to Northern Ireland when if I recall correctly you left the wee province quite a while ago. Are you a fitting study for research too?

    No need for research Brian, it’s really quite simple, we’re both part of that marvellously querulous bunch of people called the Irish (especially the Derry wans) who just love to stick our nebs into any passing political argument. Trust me I get involved fully in debates on the web in my new adopted land, I even crop up in the strangest sites in the US and further afield.

    I know I should get a life, but then so should we all, but the virtual world is so much nicer.

    All the best and thanks for your concern.

  • Tazia Doll

    The 15 minutes thing became so tedious, in the future every Russian will own a vodka factory, did that almost happen?

    I mean look at Kris Needs, he use to run ZigZag magazine, he is an icon, he was so everywhere

    I don’t know about the rabbit sanctuary, but the rest looks, he really did the rest of that.

    The thing is, it is not necessary for Kris Needs to self-promote like that, you either know who he is or you don’t. It is not cool to self-hype,

    The BBC thing? I just think that if you are like, in bed with somebody, that’s kind of a two-way deal, if we’re being conservative,

    it is appallingly not cool to .. to talk about it, because if you can’t keep your own secrets, you won’t keep anybody’s elses

    Even anti-celebrity is ultimately about ‘me’, it is more so, when celebrity became undesirable, there is a lack of ownwership of self, or it’s too straight, or too gay, which is the same thing really, it has to be avoided.

    The idea of fifteen people knowing who you were, or what you’d done was so tuned in, that was superstar status, to be more famous to people who counted, and obviously one would know who they were, starting probably with Andy.

    It is a bit like that Myspace or mymusic, to be the coolest thing, to fifteen or fifteen hundred, is pretty darn neat, so Kris’s thing is ok, with that part, but he shouldn’t to say who he is,

    to be slightly noticed by fifteen millions, what can you do with that?

    Tazia Doll

  • Rabelais

    Harry you quote Littlejohn as saying, ‘We don’t have to take it lying down. This has been a stunning victory for common decency over the self-appointed, self-obsessed, metropolitan narcissists who control so much of our public life.

    …At last, the secret people of England have spoken.’

    And yet it is the British Broadcasting Corporation, so perhaps the secret people of Scotland, Wales and dare I say Northern Ireland should also be allowed a word on this? But this is is not the narrow constituency that Littlejohn speaks to. He is a self-appointed, self-obsessed narcissist himself.

    Nobody died and made middle England boss of us all and as a cave dweller on the Celtic fringe I welcome a bit of vulgarity but I also like to see big mouths like Ross and Brand get spanked every so often.

    Balls to Merry ol’ England and her mythical high cultural standards.

  • Mick Fealty


    Was I being to subtle/prolix?