Wednesday, 8 December 2010

What Difference Does It Make?: We can save 6Music, but not our universities

A small warning. Some political comments follow.

In a Guardian blog yesterday, Dan Hancox, a writer who's groped the muddy underbelly of politics before, lambasted Britain's music industry elite for sitting on their hands throughout the student-led campaign against education cuts.

He pointed out that the campaign to save BBC 6Music, the digital radio station threatened with closure last year, was backed by dozens, and then hundreds of well-known figures in the industry - Lauren Laverne, Jarvis Cocker, David Bowie, Emily Eavis and more. A huge internet campaign and reams of column inches eventually gained so much momentum that The Man changed his mind and The People got their music back.

The People, in this case, being exactly the population segment you'd also expect to be miffed about enormous cuts to education and the arts: middle-class, indie-loving, media-savvy 18-40 year olds, in Dan's words. So why aren't they standing up for the big picture stuff, which is just as likely to affect them in the long-term as the closure of a radio station?

My guess is this. They are just about media-savvy and educated enough to know that the British government see its citizens as little more than bots, with two functions. Press up and down to pay tax. Press left and right to vote. Game over.

As one of the commenters pointed out, the situation is different in some regards. The 6Music campaign was small, manageable, essentially apolitical. Nearly everyone agreed that the Beeb needed to cut executive and celebrity pay cheques, potentially saving millions, and then nearly everyone was baffled when the corporation choose to bring the axe down on a low-cost, niche radio station that provides a unique service to a small but loyal group of listeners (one that could never be matched by the commercial sector).

So The People made their voice heard, backed by celebs and media-savvy types, and the BBC decided to listen to the licence fee-payers and retain 6Music.

Success! Power to the people! Or is it?

The BBC is essentially publicly funded, as very few people do not have a television. If you have a telly, you have to pay the licence fee. But it is a choice, a service. We are essentially consumers in this transaction (as a horrified Reith turns in his grave). In fact, you don't even have to pay the licence fee to listen to 6Music - you just have to live in the UK.

Education is also publicly funded, largely - a proportion of our tax goes towards it. That proportion may change, but the principle remains the same. But you are not a consumer of government; taxes are mandatory and the way they are spent is chosen on behalf of you as a citizen. You can't cherry pick your service; there is no free market of competing governments from which you select your favourite, red or blue. Democracy involves compromise, essentially. Your vote is counted (press left, press right) and then you can like or lump the results.

Christ. Does that sound right to you? Is that what democracy is all about, in the end? The sacred D-word that took us to Iraq, Afghanistan and back?

Look at the BBC. I know the Beeb is unique because of the way it is funded, I remember the old idents, but come on - it isn't a principality. The licence fee is not a tax, because it's bloody optional. Throw away your TV if you don't like it (I'm simplifying here, but bear with me). And yet, even as consumers, we were able to shout loudly and get things done the way we wanted them done - and save 6Music. We would have paid the licence fee anyway, most of us, yet the BBC listened.

Now compare that with the way the government operates. This government in particular is all about 'choice', it seems. But no one can choose not to pay their taxes. (Well, except Vodafone. And Topshop. And Barclays. And...)

So we're not buying a service here. We are deeply involved in the running of this service as citizens, not consumers. We shouldn't be fobbed off with a sneer or teased with promises, broken promises and backtracking. 'You pays your money, you takes your choice', they shrug. But that is exactly what true democracy should not be.

What happens when a few hundred media bods and a few thousand music fans run an online campaign to save a radio station, mostly via a petition and some celebs mouthing off?

And what happens when hundreds, then thousands of students, school pupils, teachers, parents and ordinary citizens march through the streets, occupy their classrooms, make banners, wave flags, stage flash mobs in high street stores and invade a political party's headquarters?

The BBC ends up looking a hundred times more democratic, open and progressive than the Liberal Democrats, or contemporary British politics, could ever hope to be.

Apparently Jarvis Cocker will be speaking at the demonstration in central London tomorrow, but somehow I don't think David Cameron will be paying much attention. If only someone could persuade Morrissey to lead the troops down Whitehall...


christophermhin said...

Wait, Jarvis? Didn't he write a song about protests being useless or something like that? "C-word are still Running the World", that's it.
I have no strong opinion about Jarvis and his music, me, being an immigrant toddler during the Britpop years. But you know what, he says things that are quite prophetic.

Rory O'Connell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rory O'Connell said...

The weirdest thing is that we don't even get a say in who runs the BBC, because as you say they aren't like a government. Yet they still gave way to the concerns of a relative minority.

The Lib Dems, on the other hand, got where they did because people voted for them, but once they were in, they shut up shop. Happy to spout the virtues of democracy and democratic reform until it got them elected, then happy to ignore it for the next five years. Obviously our system doesn't require that MPs are legally obliged to vote according to their constituents' wishes, but this is a joke.