Rihanna's BBHMM music video is an example of the Ballardian Atrocity Exhibition. Photo: YouTube Screengrab
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BBC imperialism, the enigma of John Freeman, and Rihanna’s Atrocity Exhibition

The Rihanna video is a prime exhibit in what J G Ballard called modern society’s Atrocity Exhibition.

George Osborne is correct to question the “imperial” ambitions of the BBC and demand that it spend the licence fee with more care. The BBC – especially the excellence of its foreign news and Radio 4 – remains one of the reasons to live in Britain, but overall as an institution it is complacent and excessively bureaucratic, tries to do too much and is obsessed with America. Much has been written denouncing the high pay of senior management. But what about the high pay of the BBC’s so-called talent, the multimillion-pound salaries that have been paid to Jonathan Ross, Jeremy Clarkson and many others?

Why is the “talent” so highly rewarded when so many excellent support staff – ­editors, producers, researchers, sound engineers – have insecure freelance contracts or no contracts at all? Why, in addition to his lavish pension, expenses and management salary, does Alan Yentob, who is 68, receive an additional six-figure fee to present the arts programme Imagine, which often burnishes the reputation of his friends? Why does the BBC website operate as if it is in competition with national newspapers and magazines, which are subject to the cold realities of the market? I value the BBC but it is only right that it be forced to justify its purpose and overhaul its practices. It ought to do much less, and to do what it does better.

 

Free spirit

On Tuesday evening I spoke at the launch of Hugh Purcell’s biography of John Freeman, A Very Private Celebrity. The title is apposite. Married four times, Freeman had even more public roles than wives. He was a war hero, Labour MP, journalist, television interviewer (of Face to Face fame), diplomat (his old friend Harold Wilson appointed him high commissioner to India and then ambassador to the US), media executive (at LWT) and, in retirement, a champion bowls player. And yet he disliked publicity, published no books or autobiographical essays and refused to collaborate with Purcell on a biography. A short while before his death in 2014, Freeman had a conversation with his old friend and colleague Paul Johnson. Resident in a nursing home, Freeman said: “I can hardly hear, I can hardly see, I don’t want to speak to anyone . . . but the food’s not bad.” He remained an enigma to the last.

 

Traffic ahead

In August the New Statesman will launch its new and greatly enhanced website, the latest phase in the transformation of our fortunes. When I became editor I had two models in mind: the American magazine the Atlantic, which after much struggle had successfully reinvented itself as a modern print and digital title, and the New Statesman as it was during the 1950s and 1960s, when John Freeman worked on it (he succeeded Kingsley Martin as editor in 1961).

Yet, somewhere along the way, in the years following Martin’s retirement and Freeman’s departure, the NS lost ­something of its sceptical intelligence as well as its authority. By the early 1980s, it was running out of money and, during subsequent periods of crisis, was captured by vested interests, from the extra-parliamentary left to the Labour Party. But now, with magazine sales rising and our website traffic at a record high, I’m delighted to say our journalism is reaching more readers than ever before – and without public subsidy.

 

Rihanna slashes across the line

Without wishing to sound like a high court judge, dare I offer a few words on the young Bajan pop sensation Rihanna, who has become one of the world’s most famous women, having sold more digital downloads than any other recording artist. Her shtick is to shock and outrage while keeping just on the right side of the line of pop-cultural acceptability. Perhaps for the first time, in her new video, the elegantly titled “Bitch Better Have My Money”, which she co-directed, she crosses that line. The video is a work of grotesque misogyny, as my colleague Helen Lewis wrote in a blog on our website. It features an attractive white woman – tall, tanned, blonde cascading hair, obligatory silicone-enhanced breasts – who is kidnapped, stripped naked and tortured by “Rihanna” and two female associates. There is seemingly no limit to the indignities inflicted upon her.

The kidnapping is an act of revenge. The blonde is the partner of a rich white guy who has swindled “Rihanna” out of some money – hence the title. During the torture scenes, the women smoke, swig alcohol and get high on crystal meth. It ends with a murder: a naked, blood-spattered “Rihanna” coolly carves up the swindler with a butcher’s knife. Its influences include hardcore pornography, gangsta rap and the NBC television series Hannibal. The last time I checked, the video had been watched more than 14 million times, and Helen has been serially abused on Twitter for having the temerity to denounce its misogyny.

 

Ballard the prophet

The Rihanna video is a prime exhibit in what J G Ballard called modern society’s Atrocity Exhibition. Ballard’s best work was published in a pre-internet era but he anticipated today’s media landscape, in which representations of sex and violence have become all-pervasive, and we are tyrannised by the instantly accessible and endlessly shareable and repeatable digital image. Events such as the murder of British tourists on a Tunisian beach by a self-styled warrior of God, the immolation of a caged Jordanian military pilot by the Isis terror group, and a naked blonde model being tortured in the name of mainstream mass entertainment have become as much part of the white noise of our everyday lives as the football results or the weather forecast.

The result is the creation of a peculiarly disturbed collective psychopathology and what Ballardians call a “mediatised reality”, in thrall to the pornography of violence. We’ve travelled a long way indeed from the NS of the 1950s. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The austerity war

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.