Omnishambles at the BBC

March 11th 2023 was Omnishambles Friday at the BBC, a day of multiple trouble. The redoubtable David Attenborough has a new series on British wildlife and there was consternation that the final episode, apparently dealing with its dramatic decline and what has caused it, is not being transmitted but will be seen only on iPlayer. Another of their top stars, Gary Lineker, was suspended from presenting Match of the Day for a tweet criticising the government’s new asylum policy, and his co-hosts promptly withdraw from the programme in solidarity. As a side show, following complaints from listeners, the BBC issues an apology for allowing former culture secretary Nadine Dorries to make false claims about Sue Gray and Keir Starmer on a radio show, and Question Time presenter Fiona Bruce was accused of trivialising domestic abuse in an exchange with Stanley Johnson. All these incidents revolve around household names, as so much of the news does. A few days earlier, the broadcaster was under attack from another direction, after announcing a review of its classical music provision, including 20% job cuts in its three English orchestras, and disbanding the BBC Singers, whose origins go back even further than the orchestras, to 1924, a twenty-strong choir of top flight voices capable of singing anything, and a jewel in the BBC’s musical crown. Continue reading

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Artificial Writing: a first evaluation

LIKE every other domain of everyday life, education at all levels has been battered by digital technology even in places where it isn’t called for. Now the alarm has been raised about a new AI program, ChatGPT, which can be used, it is said, to write academic essays. A free trial version of the program was launched at the end of 2022, and gained a million subscribers in the first month. You give it a prompt in natural language and it returns a coherent and apparently cogent text. Before coming to a judgement about it, one should of course try it out, and my first impression is that its essay writing skills are stilted but it looks like it might make a useful research tool. Its great advantage, after trying it out with a few queries (called prompts), would appear to be its speed, which is much faster than using Google, and where Google delivers you a list of results which you then have to trawl through, here you get an immediate answer in formal, polite, and completely impersonal prose.  Continue reading

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‘From Printing to Streaming, Cultural Production Under Capitalism’

Cuba’s one time Minister of Culture Armando Hart once said ‘To confuse art and politics is a mistake; to separate art and politics is another mistake.’ You can also say, to confuse art and economics is a mistake; to separate art and economics is another mistake – a paradox that I explore in my new book, ‘From Printing to Streaming, Cultural Production Under Capitalism’.

Culture, in the sense of aesthetic creation, has always been central to the good life under capitalism, which has engendered a magnificent apparatus for its production and consumption across the globe, but this apparatus is so riddled with contradictions basically economic in origin that it negates its own potential. Marx thought capitalism was hostile to the arts, because it cannot fully control aesthetic labour and the process of creativity the way it controls the alienated labour of the factory worker, but he never gave the question any prominence because in his own time and by his own estimation, it was marginal to the accumulation of capital. But that was before the birth of the mass media. With the invention of new technologies of mechanical reproduction came the emergence of the culture industry as a distinct sector of capital, infiltrated by the techniques of advertising and heavily interlinked with other sectors like electronics, which provided both the means of production and the means of consumption.

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Funeral Music

Windsor 19/9/22
A Sideways Glance at The Funeral

Monday morning. Impossible to escape the demise of the old lady who resided in the castle up the road from where I live. The Long Walk, which the cortège will pass along in a few hours, is just two minutes away, it’s where I take my daily constitutional. I haven’t been out there for the last few days – they’ve put up barriers to control the crowds they expect to come and watch, and the grass is pockmarked with outside broadcast vans. The press began to descend on the town the very first day, along with the throngs laying flowers, who they duly interviewed – the first tv crews were already there the first evening when I returned from London after seeing a friend off on the Eurostar. I couldn’t avoid going into town a couple of times over the next few days. There are always groups of tourists in the town centre, but the people now swarming around the castle weren’t your usual culprits, and they were a little subdued as they made their way to the castle gates. 

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Ambrosio Fornet RIP

Ambrosio Fornet, who has died in Havana at the age of 90, was one of Cuba’s leading revolutionary intellectuals, a literary scholar, essayist and scriptwriter (his best known screenplay was Retrato de Teresa from 1979) who became a dear friend whom I never failed to visit every time I went to Havana, sometimes passing hours in conversation with him. We talked about film, of course, and about Cuba – he explained to me many a puzzle I had about the culture, especially cultural politics – and because he was extremely curious about England, he had me explaining things to him in such a way that I found myself reflecting on my own country in new ways. I got him in front of the camera twice, once in 1985 in Havana Report about the film festival, which I made with Holly Aylett, and once a couple of years earlier in the first of the documentaries on New Latin American Cinema I made for Channel Four.  Here he is.


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Kiss Channel 4 Goodbye?

The prospective privatisation of Channel Four induces in me a state of cognitive dissonance. Part of me is appalled at this wanton repetition of what the patrician Harold Macmillan way back called ‘selling off the family silver’, and another part of me answers back, but what is there worth saving? I remember, you see, what Channel Four was really like when it started, before it adopted a populist agenda in the 1990s, and I’m speaking not just as a viewer but as one of the numerous independent filmmakers who was commissioned by them. Over its first decade, C4 was truly novel, adopting unconventional and groundbreaking programme formats and bringing a whole new generation into production, in fulfilment of its public service remit, to be innovative, to inspire change, to nurture talent and to offer a platform for alternative views.  Continue reading

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Archival Values: A report on losing a documentary archive

Almost thirty years ago, I attended an international seminar at the Babelsberg film school in Berlin, the first time that teachers of documentary from west and east Europe met together to compare notes on pedagogical methods and values. On the second day, Klaus Stanjek, the seminar’s convenor, disappeared and returned later in the day with a van full of film cans. ‘Someone called from the other side of the city,’ he explained, ‘they said people at the old East German film school were about to junk their archive, so I just had to go and rescue what I could before it was too late’, and then he rushed off to get some more. I am put in mind of the episode because I now find myself forced to oversee the loss of an archive that I have myself built up over several decades and which then expanded considerably after I moved to the University of Roehampton in 2007. 

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Open Letter to the Vice-Chancellor Sheffield Hallam University about Shahd Abusalama

Dear Professor Husbands,

I wish to add my voice in protest against your ill-advised treatment of Ms. Shahd Abusalama, a young Palestinian academic whom you have suspended from teaching, apparently on grounds of spurious accusations of antisemitism.

I have read the series of tweets she wrote in December last year in response to an incident in which a first-year student made a poster with the slogan “Stop the Palestinian Holocaust” and was accused (by another, Jewish student) of antisemitism for using the word Holocaust. Her comments, spelled out in less than 400 words, are a lucid deconstruction of the use of the word ‘holocaust’, and a model of responsible academic engagement with social media. I am also cognisant of her response on Facebook three years ago to attacks on her by various Zionist organisations for her cultural activities, in which she criticised her younger self and, far from being antisemitic, aligned her position with Jewish anti-Zionists like Jews for Peace, etc. All this can be discovered in a few clicks. Continue reading

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‘Corazon Azul’ by Miguel Coyula

It would be better to think of Corazon Azul (Blue Heart), the new film by Cuban independent Miguel Coyula, as a quirky political satire for the digital age rather than science fiction. As science fiction, the plot could take place anywhere. Genetic experiments have produced human mutants with strange powers who go rogue. But it happens in Cuba, where the aim is to create Che Guevara’s ‘New Man’ and the secret project is called ‘the Guevara experiment’.


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After Beforetimes: a New Year reflection

The word that sums up what has happened: beforetimes. Beforetimes, life, we supposed, was normal. Our lives moved forward according to the rhythm of the seasons, the way stations of birthdays and anniversaries, and the passage of Shakespeare’s seven ages of man. This was normality, and we recognised it was imperfect. In beforetimes there was injustice, but many of us knew where we stood: underdogs in a struggle against the self-interest of capital. We were aware our weakness. We were hampered by the deficits of actually existing democracy after the collapse of communism, after the war on terrorism, after the near-death experience of capitalism. We didn’t agree about how to go about improving things or even exactly what a fair society ought to look like, but some progress was made through fighting to enlarge what society understood to be normal, insisting on everyone’s right to participate whatever their sexuality, ethnicity or religion, and protesting the injustice of the economic inequalities which exacerbated these differences. The first thing to impinge on this sense of normality was the growing awareness of climate change, which made the question of a radical change in direction a matter of increasing urgency, but still we believed that another world is possible. That was beforetimes. Continue reading

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