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  1. Politics
8 July 2015

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.

By Jason Cowley

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.

 

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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. 

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