Volume 1 - Issue 1 - Editorial

By Vertigo

In the past decade, the British media have undergone seismic changes, leaving chaos, demoralisation, fear and uncertainty in their wake. Upheavals in the film and television industries include:

  • the withdrawal of virtually all forms of state aid to and support for the film industry

  • the Broadcasting Act, resulting in the turning-upside-down of ITV, the unthought-out, ill-prepared plans for Channel 5 and a debilitating state of uncertainty at Channel 4, all in the name of crackpot economic theory and an (unstated) detestation of broadcasting institutions which, unlike the press, have at least attempted to maintain some sort of objectivity and independence

  • the Hurd ban, the Broadcasting Standards Council, the bringing of television under the Obscene Publications Act and other forms of creeping censorship

  • the ludicrous 'Impartiality Code' foisted on to the ITC, and thence on to ITV/Channel 4, by some of the least impartial voices in the land

  • the launch of Sky and the ensuing BSkyB debacle – both Murdoch's rewards for his unstinting devotion to the Thatcher cause – which began a process whereby Murdoch will do to British television what his takeover of the Sun did to the British press.

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.' – Charles Dickens, A Tale Of Two Cities

Of course these changes have to be seen in the wider political context of rule by what Terry Eagleton has characterised as 'the most ideologically aggressive and explicit regime of living political memory' in Britain. Its policies have included: a wholesale attack on the very notion of a public sector, leading to massive economic deregulation, wholesale privatisation and, at its most lunatic and obsessive, a denial of the very existence of society; an onslaught on the trade unions which has left their members virtually powerless and worse off than any of their Western European counterparts; the rolling back of the state in the economic domain, coupled with its distinct rolling forward in other areas; and a bleak hostility towards all forms of dissent, the attempted suppression of which has involved force majeure, recourse to the judiciary (itself thoroughly compromised, though occasionally showing signs of independence) and the ever-loyal Fleet Street's ridiculing of even the mildest criticism as the laughable and self-interested whingeing of the 'chattering classes' – a tag quite simply unthinkable in any other culture.

'... Every day and in every way things seem to be getting worse here. You see a league table about "standards" of European cities or the world's pecking order in mathematical ability or wages or diet or teeth or whatever, and you know that the UK will be at or near the bottom.

'But is the media creating this mood or merely reflecting it? After all, there is a real reason, a real decline, a real tyranny of incompetence, a real growth in strangulating centralisation, a real innumeracy in Westminster, a real undervaluing of teachers in universities and researchers. But where, anywhere, is there a voice which can make itself heard and which is saying "We can and will change all this"? Has anyone of our generation got a future to offer?

'I do not hear it, and perhaps it is for lack of that voice that 50 per cent have decided that a future which cannot be drawn has no place for them. It is a failure of imagination. Most strong contemporary images are works of decline, they seek to provoke derision or envy or they incite an impacted despair. Envy is the new realism as people feel more and more trapped. Frustration declines into butchery and understandably young people want nothing to do with it. It is a landscape of dead ends.' – Melvyn Bragg, Guardian

But there's another context, too, in which the current state of the media has to be considered and that's the wider cultural one. We live in a culture which is absolutely saturated by images and 'information' of one kind or another, and which is, as Raymond Williams so aptly put it over 15 years ago, 'rotten with criticism': as acute a symptom as can be imagined of the postmodern condition. What's the future for public service broadcasting in this overloaded media landscape, this hyperreality? What place for cinema – if any – in this increasingly domestic and 'privatised' image culture? How do we deal with all these images? Which of the clamouring, competing critical approaches are of any use to us now, and how do we decide?

In the UK this situation has not exactly been helped by the disappearance or transformation of a series of spaces for informed critical debate. The 80s saw the death of Stills and then The Listener. In the 90s, the BFI's Monthly Film Bulletin was swallowed up by a re-vamped, monthly Sight and Sound which, at its worst, comes across as an up-market Premiere, and, at best, is a bit like offering nouvelle cuisine to someone who's literally dying of hunger. And just to hammer home the point, last autumn saw the arrival of the so-called 'UK Edition' of Premiere, 'specially tailored to fit with the needs of the UK moviegoer'. These 'needs' clearly preclude seeing UK films, since the magazine contained precisely nothing on the British film industry, let alone on other European cinemas.

'The thought of the future torments us and the past is holding us back, that is why the present is slipping from our grasp.' Gustave Flaubert, Letters

Faced with so many changes on so many fronts it is, indeed, hard not to feel a sense of vertigo. But at the same time, it's never been more necessary to maintain a critical spirit and sense of direction, to understand not just where we are but how we got here, and to know where we want to go.

Are we alone in feeling this? Undoubtedly not, though it sometimes feels like it. But while there are hundreds of books on media theory, on the pros and cons of postmodernism and analyses of Thatcherism from Left, Right and Centre, it's all too often possible to read the trade press, Sight and Sound, the 'heavy' journals like Screen, the academic media texts and the media pages of the broadsheets without getting the slightest inkling of a sense that the media are in a state of constant and anxious crisis, and this crisis is itself part of a more general upheaval. Naturally, there are exceptions: the Guardian media pages do consistently address the media crisis in a critical and far-ranging spirit and, furthermore, have resisted the drift of the paper's other arts pages towards becoming an adjunct of the Modern Review. On the other hand, the almost unbelievably pernicious and self-serving media pages of The Times and the Sunday Times, which reached some sort of journalistic nadir in the campaign against Death On The Rock, are as acute a symptom of the crisis as anyone could possibly wish for.

'Have the velocities of recent change been so great that we do not know how to trace these lines of force, that no sensibility, least of all narrative, has been able to articulate them' – David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity

Of course, there are limits to the numbers of articles on the same subject that any one newspaper or magazine can carry. But it's not really a matter of quantity – rather the problem lies in the lack of an animating spirit, of a sense of wider contexts and – dare one say it? – of politics. But we do sense that there is a hunger for debate of this kind. Maybe that's why people reacted so strongly to Michael Grade's rather unexceptional remarks at last year's Edinburgh Television Festival, simply because at last someone was expressing publicly their worries and fears in a fairly forthright language. (Of course, Grade was fortunate in being able to make these kinds of remarks without having to look fearfully over his shoulder all the time. One of the most depressing things about the current media environment is just how afraid people are to speak out, constantly worrying about losing jobs or commissions.)

will address these crises in all their various manifestations and contexts, providing a much-needed space for a wider and sharper range of critical views than those currently on offer in the mainstream; not only for adults, but also for children and young people who, after all, are key customers for sections of the media; not only (or even for the great and the good, but also the mad, the bad and the dangerous-to-know.

'A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.' – Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

We shall also be looking at areas of media activity routinely ignored (or, worse still, trivialised) by mainstream publications, such as video art and the products of the film and video workshops. This is what used to be called the 'independent sector', but it is yet another symptom of the crisis in broadcasting that the term 'independent' has now lost virtually all meaning through over-use and misapplication.

In the old days there was just Independent Television; that is, that television which wasn't the BBC and was therefore supposedly 'independent of government'. Then there were the radical film-makers gathered into the Independent Film-makers Association, who were not so much independent of the mainstream film industry as decidedly opposed to it. Later there were the independent programme-makers of the IPPA (now PACT) variety, largely brought into being by the birth of Channel 4, and then given a boost by the government's determination that the BBC and ITV should take 25% of their output from this sector.

And this is the sector which, willingly or not, has been used by the government as the motor force of change in the television industry, cutting back the permanently-staffed production base of the big broadcasting institutions in favour of a vast pool of casualised and insecure labour, no longer sure where its training (if any) is coming from, increasingly forced into self-exploitation in its eagerness for commissions at any price and no longer able to rely on a strong trade union for help. For whilst it's embraced the independents with one hand, the government has thrashed the broadcasting unions with the other.

Given all the above, an endless outpouring of pessimism and misery might be understandable. However, the last ten years have also witnessed the production of extraordinary work both in the cinema and television. It has also seen the survival of that work despite all the assaults, occasional wilful negligence and the seemingly insuperable contradictions which have accompanied its production. Vertigo comes out of that experience. It is here, now, not just to interrupt the flow of images with memory and history, but also to illuminate what the present decade promises – the flowering of that independent work.

Our second issue is already well under way. The overall theme will be the traffic of images between North and South, and we would welcome contributions on this, or any other, theme. Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy the first issue of Vertigo.