Pro-war writers- like Nick Cohen in today's Observer- have commented on the 'snobbery' of those who condemn George Galloway for appearing on Big Brother but not for his 'outrageous' defence of Middle East tyrants. Once again, they have completely missed the point. Galloway is no defender of tyrants- he was making speeches attacking Saddam Hussein when Donald Rumsfeld was selling him weapons-but he is a shameful self-publicist who it seems will do anything to gain attention- including appearing on the most brain dead television programme ever to have appeared on British tv screens. To appear on Big Brother and to profess a belief in socialism- or indeed any belief in human progress and advancement is a contradiction in terms. Here's a piece my wife Zsuzsanna wrote for the New Statesman a couple of years back on the way monopoly capitalism is deliberately trying to create zombies of us all- and the role programmes like Big Brother play in that process.
DUMBING DOWN HUNGARIAN STYLE
In a recent Daily Mail column Peter McKay maintained that the success of Big Brother proved that despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, the values of communism had triumphed after all. He could not have been more wrong. Big Brother and the dumbing down process it so typifies owes very little to the ideology of Marx and Engels, but plenty to a monopoly capitalist system which in the name of profit maximisation is deliberately attempting to reduce all of us to zombies. Had Mackay actually been bought up under communism as I was in Hungary, he would have known better. In common with other Eastern bloc countries, the Hungarian government had as one of its stated aims the raising of the cultural life of the people. ‘There can be no socialism without culture- without the culture of the masses’ proclaimed the Hungarian Communist Party’s chief intellectual and ideologist Gyorgy Aczel in 1973. ‘Culture has an indispensable role in the fact that man, who establishes the conditions of material well-being, should not only live well, but should feel well in society’. In practical terms, this meant lavish subsidies being given to orchestras, opera houses, theatres and cinemas in order to make them accessible to everyone.
As far as television went, the public broadcaster, Hungarian State Television (Magyar Televisio), followed a classical Reithian policy to entertain, inform and educate. The mission was, in the words of Aczel ‘to satisfy the viewers demands for entertainment in a way that we do not give way to the demands of inferior tastes.’ Saturday night prime time when I was growing up invariably meant a Jules Verne adventure, a variety show and a Chekhov drama. Foreign imports included The Forsyte Saga and David Attenborough documentaries whilst one of the most popular and talked about programmes of the entire period was ‘Poetry for Everyone’, in which a famous actor or actress would each night recite a different poem.
Fast forward fifteen years and the position could not be more different. The process of dumbing down started with the opening of the country to global capital in 1989. But the government’s liberalising Media Law in 1996, which allowed the creation of privately owned commercial channels and the entry into the market of foreign owned media conglomerates has greatly accelerated the process. The two terrestial commercial channels, RTL Klub, (owned by the German media giant Bertelsmann, who with 22 channels are Europe’s largest broadcaster) and the Scandinavian owned TV2 have from the start pursued a policy of pandering to the lowest possible taste, packing their schedules with soap operas, sensationalist-style news programmes, and of course ‘reality’ tv. Prime time terrestial television in Hungary no longer means poetry recitals, but a choice between TV2’s Big Brother or RTL’s equally vapid Hungarian copy- ‘Real World’. It didn’t take long for the negative impact of liberalisation on public service broadcasting in Hungary to be seen. To make way for RTL Klub and TV2, Magyar Televisio’s second channel, the equivalent of BBC2, was shunted off terrestial frequencies and became available only on subscription. By 1998, Magyar Televisio, funded by a mixture of a licence fee and advertising, had already lost a third of its revenue and was forced to make even more cutbacks in its programming.
Faced with the new competition, the increasingly cash starved state broadcaster has been compelled by the government to follow a more ‘commercial’ strategy’, - in other words to meet trash with trash. Whilst the narcissistic inmates of the commercial channel’s reality shows discuss who is going to bed with whom, MTV counters with American films, Venezuelan soap operas and ‘real-life’ crime documentary programmes. Gyorgy Aczel must be turning in his grave.
As the House of Lords considers the government’s Communications Bill, the lesson from Hungary and indeed everywhere else in Europe where ‘liberalisation’ of the media has taken place could not be more clear.
The German sociologist Erich Fromm once said that the danger of the past was that man became slaves, but that the danger of the future would be that man became robots.
Media liberalisation and the demise of public service broadcasting makes that depressing prospect considerably more likely.
Copyright Zsuzsanna Clark 2003