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On the Politics of Docs

By Charlie Phillips 20 September, 2011

Last night I went to a listen to a panel as part of the Ken Loach season at the BFI Southbank – a season that, as we’re tweeted about a number of times, has set out its stall to be about his documentaries as much as his fictions. This is good, because he’s not known for his docs, partly because they’ve had a nasty habit of being banned.

The banning of his Save The Children doc from the 70s has been written about a fair bit – I’ve still not seen it, but I hear it’s got an awareness built into it of the likelihood of a good banning. But last night, the panel was discussing his other famous banned docs, the “Questions of Leadership” season he made in the early 80s that pinned the decline of industrial workers’ strengths onto their corporatist leadership. Scheduled to go out on Channel 4 in 1983, a mysterious pressure was allegedly put on the various boards of Channel 4, the IBO (forerunner to OFCOM), Central Television and whoever else allegedly pulled the strings in British telly at the time.

I’ve no way of knowing whether Ken’s claims, and the outraged red-faced claims of a Brunel University academic next to him on the panel who retained the anger of the 30 year old banning, were entirely accurate. Water’s gone under the bridge and been churned and turned back again many times. Ken’s done OK for himself even with the bannings, the union movement did have a massive decline in power, Thatcher got her wish to emasculate the unions and withdraw manufacturing from the UK and TV got less willing to commission docs like Questions of Leadership in the first place, let alone then go and ban them later. 30 years have passed, I was barely born when it first happened, and the battles have been fought and analysed.

So the panel tasked itself with contextualising this ban today, and seeing whether we still have censorship before docs hit the living room. There was a obligatory complaint about the BBC’s coverage of Israel-Palestine – because a left-wing panel is contractually obliged to feature a mention of this regardless of context or people aren’t getting their money’s worth – and a reaffirmation that still now, impartiality obligations of public service broadcasters are used partially and prohibit progressive ideas in documentaries or current affairs getting on TV.

There was some accusatory talk of more space being given to the ‘extreme’-ish Right than the ‘extreme’-ish Left but the general drift was more that TV commissioning is all centre-centre-centre, apolitical, fluffy, terrified of any radical talk. And so, Mainstream Media isn’t transmitting radical politics, and Ken’s docs wouldn’t be commissioned, screened, or supported today by TV people.

OK let’s pause. Many of you would argue with this analysis and give examples of radical docs you’ve seen or commissioned, and though definitions of ‘radical’ would vary, you might be broadly right. In the current affairs zone perhaps more than docs, but you’d be right with at least some of those examples. Many of you could give personal experience of being turned down for a radical political doc by a broadcaster, or know of times when a doc you’d heard about as a commission or in development mysteriously never emerged. You’d also be right – there aren’t any commissioners that I know of who explicitly want to showcase socialist, cooperative or class-conscious programming on a large basis. Was there in 1983? I don’t know – I was a toddler.

But now here’s where my irritation at a missed opportunity rose last night. Ken Loach et al, meet the internet. You say you’ve met it, but that it’s not something you really understand, even though you know should. So the biggest opportunity for a grassroots, cooperative, structurally-radical technological platform since the invention of TV isn’t something you choose to understand or use? That, to me, is not good. Dismissing the internet as not the Mainstream Media when it is actually less marginal than broadcast for a lot of people, is not good. Complaining to an audience of like-minded souls that a small collection of people won’t show your films, when millions of people would willingly watch them (and pay for them) online, is not good. Put your “Questions of Leadership” docs online, Ken, and that audience who needs to hear these radical voices will do. There’s really not a problem here, apart from an unwillingness to move beyond complaints about commissioners. Online distribution solves it.

I understand concerns that online, no-one will accidently stumble across radicalism in the way that they may have done in the 80s. But those times, if they ever existed (and I suspect not), are no more. With a good understanding of marketing, social networking and champions to advocate them, these films would be seen by a lot of people online, and not just the predicable audience. In every other art form, consumers don’t wait for the media to come to them, they’re getting it by recommendation and grassroots spreading. This is the alternative media distribution that Ken and co were dreaming of and it’s here. How do new grassroots political movements emerge now? Through organisation online and decentred distribution of information. Is film doing this? It’s starting to, but not very much.

I’m bullish about this. Ken Loach, our most treasured and wonderful political filmmaker, should be too. The dream is here of our own networks for distributing radical documentaries to big numbers. So why am I watching a panel complaining about commissions in 1983?