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

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution