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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The future of the Left is London

Far from debating it and arid pamphlets, local politicians in City Hall and across the country are bringing change today, says Fiona Twycross. 

Broadly, London is viewed as a left-wing city. This is an assumption backed up by polling. That same city, however, has twice voted in Boris Johnson defying tribalism and defining a new order in which politicians will be defined less by the colour of their rosette and more by their pragmatism and how they make you feel about the world.

With the concepts of left and right as inaccessible and irrelevant as ever to most members of the public, the future of political ideas will be understood and judged by voters less by their ideological purity and more by their actions and effectiveness. On a recent canvass session on a housing estate in Outer London, it was a change to the bus route not Trident the people I spoke to wanted to discuss.

The future of the left – and of the Labour Party – isn’t something that will be shaped in the future. The future of the left is being shaped now. It is being shaped wherever those of us who define ourselves as left of centre are using whatever power we have to directly or indirectly effect change. In Labour run town halls, in Select Committees, through carefully worded press releases – however, we can. Limited by the budgets and rules laid out by central government – with the Tories in Westminster, politics is a game in which the dice are loaded against the left but in which we can sometimes win a round.

At the London Assembly, we have played a part in shaping the direction. We have won the occasional round. London Assembly Members have proven that shaping the debate is not only reserved for those who wield power. The banning of water cannon, the promotion of universal free school meals, the Government’s climb-down over devastating cuts to the police budget and not least exposing the Mayor’s vast record of vanity projects. As the largest party in City Hall, Labour has achieved sometimes small but often fundamental victories against Boris Johnson. Victories that have allowed the public to better understand the alternative we could provide as politicians who stand with their communities and protect the services they rely upon.

City Hall offers a challenging yet pragmatic forum to shape policies. With just 25 members in total, and no party having a majority, you really have to be able to work together to get anything done. The electoral make-up of the Assembly, including groups from minority parties as well as the two main parties requires a much higher degree of pragmatism, collaboration and in the end compromise than Parliament. As a result, policy - particularly that coming out of City Hall’s scrutiny committees - often commands cross-party support and a certain degree of legitimacy that political point scoring rarely achieves.

However, while we can change things round the edges; highlight injustices and propose alternatives that may sometimes be adopted, we must never lose sight of the fact that you can do immeasurably more if you are in power. Winning power to enact positive change, should be the guiding aim of any centre left politician.

With the next general election still likely to be more than four years off, the first major electoral challenge since 2015 comes in the shape of this May’s elections in local councils across the country, in devolved countries and in London.

The upcoming Mayoral election means throwing off the abstract and painting an image for Londoners of what a left wing alternative in London would look like. That picture will resonate far beyond London - the future of the left really is being shaped today.

That is exactly what we are doing and what Sadiq Khan is offering. Standing up for hard pressed Londoners who are increasingly forced into poverty or priced out of the capital altogether.

From building affordable homes to tackling London’s air quality. From freezing fares to protecting neighbourhood policing. All of these are policies with mass appeal but at the same time, all are ones which disproportionately benefit the least well off in our society. The left, if anything has to stand for a fairness.

But voters don't want just abstract vision, they want tangible change. Sadiq Khan is putting forward ambitious, progressive policies for London, but to implement them as Mayor, with the Conservatives in power nationally, he will have to not just argue with government but make the arguments for London to get the best deal he can. 

With high levels of child poverty in Conservative run boroughs like Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea, he knows he can’t afford only to be able to work with Labour boroughs if he wants all young Londoners to have better life chances. What matters isn’t just what works it is working with all those you need to build and deliver change.

From City bankers to environmentalists, a Labour Mayor will need a range of allies. In charting his own course, having his own voice and putting London and Londoners at the heart of his policies. What works for London won't necessarily work everywhere, that will mean a necessary element of independence, that's not disloyal, its the job. 

Whether in London or beyond, the left needs a message relevant to people like those I met on that housing estate in outer London. Authenticity and independence matter. In a world where tribal politics has broken down ensuring you don’t look like you put your party before the people you represent matters. But you can do this and still stay true to your values.

Our opponents like to paint a horror story image of what the country would look like under Labour. A win in London offers the chance to dispel that myth and will show the success to be had with a Labour politician who is willing to govern in the interests of the majority rather than just the few.

A win in London will show the progressive left has a future, here and now. A future that delivers.