Friday, May 24, 2013

Protecting broadcasting diversity

Tomorrow the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party will be asked to adopt a policy of privatiding Australia's public broadcasters, the ABC and SBS. It should refuse to do so.  Diversity is the hallmark of a healthy media landscape and with it a healthy democracy. But a cursory glance at the existing broadcast media in Australia and most similar countries shows that the only real diversity exists between the commercial and public sectors. The diversity between the commercial broadcasters is cosmetic. With the ABC and SBS in private hands Australian television viewers and radio listeners would be denied programming diversity, serious investigative journalism, independent news reporting, much locally produced content and many niche programs.

The desire to sell off the public broadcasters does not reflect community priorities or interests. Public opinion polls regularly list the ABC as one of the most trusted institutions in Australian public life. It, along with the SBS, is the only source of news that is not controlled by corporate interests such as the Murdoch and Packer families. 

Some advocates of privatization will claim it is necessary to reduce government debt. The is disingenuous. If that was the aim, it would be possible to introduce a license fee of the type collected in many other countries. This would free government from having to fund public broadcasting while maintaining the parliamentary charters that commit public broadcasters to objectivity and national service standards. Commercial broadcasters are not subject to such public interest charters and that cursory surf through the commercial TV stations quickly shows how little value they place on independence or objectivity. 

Monday, May 20, 2013

Culture wars of the deluded

Mark Latham in his article on the culture wars has not worked out that the best response to the attack of a cultural warrior is not to fire back but to demonstrate the shallowness, ignorance and simple lack of connection to reality inherent in the idea of a culture war. Latham's response to Nick Cater's The Lucky Culture and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class is no more considered than the initial provocation he senses on reading the book. Cater kicked a lousy, deflated ball to Latham and he just kicked it back. Latham should have refused to play the game. 

Instead he opines that "most footy fans would rather cut off their fingers than swap their jerseys for a seat at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra." This simply bears no connection to reality. In February this year a crowd estimated to number over a quarter of a million crowded into downtown Melbourne to be part of White Night, an all-night arts festival. In a city with a population of four million that is every sixteenth person. Mark Latham wants to tell us that none of these people manage to combine a love of the arts and sport; that, as in the delusional world of the cultural warriors, people see things in neat and clearly divided boxes. If only it were so simple. It ain't. The culture wars exist only in the heads of cultural warriors like Latham and Cater. The average person on the street is far better at navigating the complexities, apparent contradictions and diversity of the real world than the simpletons amongst the ranks of our cultural warriors ever will be.

Anything new under the sun?

Exactly one hundred years ago opera lovers in London and Paris were abuzz with the news that on 21 May 1913 those present at London's Electrophone Salon (in Gerrard Street) would be able to listen to the performance at the Paris Opera live via a telephone "connexion". As it turned out only "brief snatches of Faust were to be heard" but the link between new technology and the performing arts was established.

A century later web-based distribution of concerts, operas, dance and ballet also promise new and exciting opportunities. The quality and reliability has certainly improved but the story from 1913 should remind us that the communication revolution goes a lot further back than the invention of the internet.     

See: "Royal Opera" The Times, 22 May 1913

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A film I saw last week (German Sons) illustrated well where memory in contemporary Western society has arrived. It presented the recollections of two men whose fathers were on different sides during World War II. One was a German soldier, the other a Jewish resistance fighter. A friendship has now developed between the two sons and their shared exploring of the past is at the heart of the film. This has become a well-tested formula over the last twenty years or so but it contains dangers for our understanding of the twentieth century.

This kind of highly personalised memory has developed unprecedented validity. As I sat watching this film I wondered what motivates audiences to watch such films. I had a disquieting feel that it is somehow voyeuristic, something like memory-porn. In such films history and memory have become the subject of the voyeuristic gaze that lies at the heart of the pornographic. World history is reduced to the microcosmic individual and we watch people doing remembering as cinematic entertainment.

The West's understanding of the conflicts that dominated the first half of the twentieth century has reached a post-memory stage. The number of people who were older than children during the two world wars is now so small that our social knowledge of these momentous and world-shaping events is almost entirely mediated. Hardly any of us were there. What we know we learned from books, films, TV, museums or recollections of individuals. This makes the role of storyteller or in this case documentary-maker that much more freighted with responsibility.

But filmmakers are generally not trained historians. In the case of German Sons the two subjects were insignificant figures in the global conflict. The film was a loose pastiche of platitudes with the historical accuracy and authority of a home-movie. That seems to be where historical narrative has arrived. Our preference for anecdote over analysis, our postmodern inability to see the wood for the trees and our desire to reduce the complexities of the world to individual personal narratives leaves us ill-equipped to grasp and comprehend the really large forces that have shaped our world.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Burning intolerance

Eighty years ago today saw the first great book burning in Nazi Germany. On 10 May 1933 university students across the newly proclaimed Third Reich listed books they deemed "un-German". They then collected the books they had remove from raided libraries across the country, took the offending books and burned them in great ritual bon-fires in public squares and on street corners. The works of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Erich Maria Remarque - of All Quite on the Western Front fame - and Kurt Tucholsky were amongst the writing that went up in smoke. The burning continued over the following week. The whole sorry event was organised by Germany's national student union. 

A similar event held in 1817 prompted Heinrich Heine's warning "Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned too." How terribly prophetic his words were to become!

In a much less dramatic way we are today witnessing similar developments. The factionalisation of the news media combined with the internet's ability to tailor the world we experience to our existing political preferences means that an increasing number of people lead a blinkered mental life of the type that led Nazi students to torch the books of people with whom they did not see eye-to-eye.