Stuart Hood Part II

By Marc Karlin, James Leahy and Julian Petley

Stuart Hood gives voice to a tradition, in conversation with Marc Karlin, James Leahy and Julian Petley. Edited by James Leahy with Stuart Hood.

This is the second instalment of Vertigo’s interview with Stuart Hood, which took place last autumn. The first instalment appeared in Vertigo No. 1. At the BBC, Stuart Hood was successively Head of the General Overseas Service, Editor of Television News, then BBC Television Controller of Programmes. Now a freelance programme-maker, he is also the author of the classic study On Television, and of a volume of war memoirs Pebbles From My Skull (revised as Carlino). He has also published several novels of which, A Den Of Foxes, a critical memory of war and the Left, is the most recent.

Understanding the present

Julian Petley
: Why is it, do you think, that young people today have so little sense of the past? Is it to do with our living in the eternal present that Kundera talks about in The Book Of Laughter And Forgetting? Is it that there’s been a deliberate attempt actually to stop history at a certain point? We know that the Tories don’t want history taught in schools beyond a certain historical moment.

Stuart Hood
: Nowadays, even more than when I was many years ago a kid at school, history is taught as a number of disconnected and inexplicable phenomena. Kids will do a project on the Vikings, and do another one on the Great Wall of China, another one on the Aztecs, and there is no connection between any of these things whatsoever; they’re not presented with any sort of time-scale, any sort of continuum. There’s no sense of a continuum of history, problematic as that concept may be, but still there is a quite fundamental notion that, from the year dot to last year, something did happen, in some kind of sequence. That concept has gone from the thinking. They’ve scuppered that.

This reaction is also encouraged, as you say, by the presentation of history, at least in schools, as something that stops at some point. Well, if history stops at some point, then what’s the relevance of it to us today? That’s what young people go on to say. It’s out of our ken. And we are caught in a present which we’d better come to terms with, as that’s all we’ve got.

And that leads to a kind of immanence at present. The other things they find very difficult to see. What they do see is that the generation before the present one felt that they had something hanging over them, and that was the Bomb. What I think the present generation is thinking about is ecology, what’s going to happen to the planet. These are the things that they do engage in, and obviously for very proper reasons. Now how you then cope with such immense topics is actually another matter. And as far as I’m concerned it’s quite clear that one can’t really understand the present unless one goes to the past and deals with the legends of the past, engages with history.

James Leahy
: Some people have suggested that the very instantaneous nature particularly of TV reporting rather encourages this kind of lack of awareness. This week it’s Bosnia, next week it’s Somalia, the week before it was Southern Africa, where there’s going to be a famine which has been aggravated by civil war, and so on. This continuous flood of images, giving no space for reflection, does, it seems to me, discourage understanding.

: In a curious and I think quite reactionary way, [John] Birt was trying to do something about this with his idea of contextualisation. However, if as an audience you’ve got no kind of general view of how societies work and how the economic structures of our societies are set up and what the great moments and the great pressures are, you can’t begin to put things together at all.

Marc Karlin
: But surely the responsibility is on the viewer to come to terms with the images? You can’t blame the information, you can’t just say it’s because we’ve got a surfeit of images. We have to learn how to deal with this surfeit. So how do you encourage that sense of responsibility?

: The problem seems to me that as a result of our educational system and the attitudes of people who hold the power in our society no attempt is made to fit people with the kind of tools that might enable them to do this. I don’t blame the people for not being able to deal with it – how can they? First of all, there’s the imposition of a view of society and social change that denies the possibility of people making any kind of sense of what they’re shown and told. How then do you expect people to cope with all this flow of images? If you look at the question, for instance, of the rise of racism in France, the question of their resistance and that of other governments to taking refugees from the South – that can only be understood in the context of a situation in which perhaps in the next five to ten years we’re going to see a whole shift of people from impoverished countries into Western Europe. And why the hell shouldn’t they? People went from impoverished Europe to America in the 19th century, and to Australia and elsewhere. They did not ask permission from the indigenous peoples. The same thing’s going to happen in Europe. And that is one of the roots of racism here. People say; ‘We’ve got to defend ourselves against that.’

It eventually comes back to an educational problem. And my own view is that if one is a teacher and an intellectual, what one has got to try to do is interest people in knowing where they came from and why they got where they are. This runs counter to the present idea of what history should be taught in schools. It seems to me that it would be extremely important in this country to have in the teaching of history a large section devoted to explaining how black people came to be here at all. How they got to the Caribbean, how they came here; how the Indians and Pakistanis came here, where they came from. The latter question raises the whole issue of indentured Indian labour in East Africa, the whole question of slavery in the West Indies. All that is part of our history, and yet it is totally neglected. It would, I think, be of extreme importance not only for young black people, young Indians and young Pakistanis to understand and come to grips with it, but for young whites as well. And for our society to admit to all that, because it’s hidden away. That is why I think that a sense of history is of extreme importance. What I’m asking for, and this is probably very difficult to achieve, is that, in the history curriculum the role of Empire should be honestly discussed. And of course you should include Ireland. The kids in Kilburn, down the road from here, ought to know what went on in Ireland.

: This seems precisely the kind of engagement with history that our current society and our current bureaucrats and administrators and political leaders encourage us not to produce and not to have.

Not long ago, I met up with someone I knew at university who’s not in the DES, and involved with the teaching of history in the National Curriculum. He dismissed the idea that the government should support the British film industry – not on economic grounds, but because he didn’t believe someone like me would ever be involved in a film which was likely to be good for this country’s image abroad!

: I was asked back to Italy in the spring of this year, to the town of Prato in Tuscany, and I found myself with some very distinguished people on a platform in a big secondary school, with a very large fifth and sixth form. The headmaster, and a representative of the Town Council, made a short statement saying: ‘History is not simply read about in books. History is living. You young people are living through a very difficult moment in history right now. And these people on this platform are going to talk about how the Republic was founded out of the Resistance. Where it came from. The ideas on which it was based.’

And the kids all sat there and listened, and they came up afterwards and asked questions. It was a very interesting attempt by educationalists to expose these children to what we thought the Resistance had been about, what the Italian Republic had been founded for and what needs to be stressed and reinforced today. I thought it was amazing. It was very good.

: What are the factors in Italy which allow this to happen?

: The short answer is that this was a Communist municipality. The Resistance was very strong there, and it’s still strongly felt. There are still people there who were part of the Resistance.

There is, of course, the whole question of the mythology of the Resistance, which is another chapter altogether. One of the problems I experience when I go back to Tuscany is that they make me fit into a history, and into a legend. I have to be careful what I say so as not to trample on too many people’s toes. So it’s not unproblematic.

: How far is the existence of such alternative centres of power – Communist municipalities and so on – reflected in the Italian media?

: The Italian media are subject to that process they call lottizazione. That is a dividing up of the spoils, so that TV1 is Christian Democrat, TV2 is Socialist and TV3 is Communist. And that extends right through Italian life, and has become very hierarchical, very schematic and in many cases an obstacle to progress of every kind. It’s become a very conservative mode of operating. In Italy this summer, however, I was struck that in every small town and large village the names of great figures of the Left have not been removed. Gramsci’s name is still there. There’s a Karl Marx Strada and so on. So that tradition is still being celebrated. Then, in every one of them there was a Festa del Unità, celebrating the Communist Party newspaper and both communist parties were taking part in celebrations separately. But one had a feeling that there was some kind of political life at a grassroots level. It may not be quite sure where it’s going at the moment, but it’s there, and it won’t be shaken by all the shifts in the hierarchies of the Communist Party.

: What about history and national identity? Look at the horror story about the Carthage Film Festival last year: a collection of work by black British film-makers was invited, including Young Soul Rebels and Playing Away, which is about a cricket team! The Foreign Office refused financial support to freight them out. They justified themselves with comments such as: ‘Not likely to be representative of the British cinema... Would possibly give a bad image of Britain to outsiders... After all, they’re not exactly Howard’s End’! Apparently no-one had troubled even to look at any of the films. So for me the idea that we should take a clear look at ourselves and our history in the schools or in the media sounds almost naïvely utopian.

: But I think that one of the functions of intellectuals, on the Left in particular, is precisely to have utopias. Things which may not be totally possible, but which one strives towards, as a goal. And to keep these utopias alive. Like Marx’s saying that humankind has always had a dream of something. And to keep that dream alive, and to give it body and objective being. This seems to me the function of intellectuals

Negotiating the 90s

: Where concretely do you see node of the question of public service broadcasting?

SH: That is an extremely difficult question to answer. Where does the BBC have friends and supporters in places of power? That’s one question. Another is: where does the BBC have friends and supporters outside the areas of power, but inside civil society, who might root for it in the big debate over the Charter? I think, with the disappearance of Thatcher as Prime Minister, that within the Conservative Party the element which has tended to approve of the BBC is probably dominant at the moment. Major went out of his way to compliment the BBC on the coverage of the Gulf War. We might have arguments about the nature of that coverage, but Major is not one, I think, for a root and branch attack on the BBC. That is for Conservative reasons. The BBC can be seen from that point of view as a supporter of the establishment, as a solid part of civil society.

The other support can come from a very different direction. That is from people who have worked in the media, who are interested in the media and who, to put it in a crude way, are intellectuals involved in media studies, in media activities. They, I think, see in the current debate a possibility of trying to stiffen the resolve of the BBC, to make it stand up for the need for a public service broadcasting system, to argue the case for it to be funded properly, and for be funded safely and securely, and not commercialised. Now where one then goes outside into what one might call the general public’s domain, is quite another matter, because here one really does run up against the powers of the press and the BBC goes back to the very origins of the Corporation.

The press saw the BBC as a threat in the 20s and 30s, and it has to be said in Reith’s favour that he consistently fought for the right of the BBC to report the news, to cover events and to have a proper news service. Originally, you may remember, BBC news bulletins were assembled only from tape services, and at the end of each bulletin was an acknowledgement which said that this bulletin comes to you from three tape services, three named press agencies. The BBC was not allowed to make its own news in any shape or form. Reith fought for the ability to cover events, to broadcast things like the Derby, outside broadcasting, and to have the BBC’s own newsroom, which made its own newscasts.

There’s always, I think, been a tension at certain levels between the BBC and the press in general. Not only the popular press but largely the popular press. It sees in the BBC some kind of enemy, and it attacks on various fronts. One is what you might call the populist attack, which is that the BBC is an elitist organisation, it’s way above the heads of the ordinary people, and therefore no good to anybody. That’s one level of attack. Another level is that of bureaucracy, that the BBC is a bloated and over-staffed organisation. The third level is that of public service. This links up with the idea that public service is a concept which is outmoded, it’s condescending and generally out-of-date. And the BBC should really be utterly and thoroughly reformed. Quite apart from the fact that the BBC is accused from time to time of being a nest of radicals!

I think these are the main lines on which the BBC is depicted by the press, the popular press in particular, as something to be censured, something to be attacked. Something to be discredited in the mind of the readers. This, of course, links up quite clearly with Murdoch and his whole stance. I think that he is very anti-BBC and this shows, certainly in his papers. It has shown right through the big debates which have taken place in the past few years.

Nevertheless, there is the possibility of a debate arising, perhaps rather like the debate that arose when Channel 4 was first proposed. This might help to rescue what is rescuable and what is worth supporting in the concept of public service broadcasting. But it would need to be a big and strong lobby to do that.

MK: Given the fragmentation of society, do you still see any reason or future for public service broadcasting? What deserves to be rescued?

SH: This is addressing the problem from another angle, isn’t it? There is no doubt that the public has been fragmented in a variety of ways. One is that very many families now have more than one TV set. So the idea of the family as a group, or a number of people inside one domicile as a group, has gone. However, there is still a group of people who severally and distinctly watch programmes, who might come together to work in situations or other situations, with some kind of sharing experience on that level.

The other way in which the public has been fragmented is, of course, by niche broadcasting, which is the preferred method of the advertisers. And then, without indulging in conspiracy theories, one has to ask oneself to what extent the splitting up of the audience is done with perhaps some deliberation, in order to loosen the ties between the citizens and the make them less liable to expand in a common way, or in an area of shared experience, which might have political consequences.

I think one’s got to be very careful about conspiracy theories. But this does fit in with the Thatcherite concept of there being no society. If there’s no society, then you can chop ‘society’ up into many little bits and it doesn’t matter. It’s a good thing to do so.

JL: Many of the things which conspire towards this kind of change in social behaviour operate, it seems to me, at a totally unconscious level, with structures and ideologies competing for space and exerting their dominance when they have it. And perhaps as a result making permanent and substantial, even structural changes.

SH: I think this raises the question of hegemony, and how it operates in our society today. I think that you could argue that at one time the BBC was crucial to the establishment and the government in maintaining hegemony. It still tries to do that but it’s more difficult for it now. What it is unable or unwilling to do is recognise that its role now might not be that of hegemonic support, but in fact to reflect difference inside our society. This might be more fruitful than trying to be the mouthpiece of some cult of consensus in society.

JL: That seems to me to be a very important idea. But of course as soon as one operates as a reflector of difference inside society one is open to all the populist or demagogic attacks from those who only like difference to be articulated within certain very confining limits.

SH: That is the big problem, and it raises the whole question of the spectrum of opinion that you allow to be expressed in public service broadcasting. The question of censorship, where you draw lines, becomes quite immediate and difficult.

JL: We’ve had some very striking examples of that in recent months. The subtitling of Bernadette McAliskey seems to me a very real extension of such censorship, and one which was perpetrated by the BBC itself.

SH: Yes. I find that quite a monstrous event. It was interesting, however, that the BBC then said that it would like the rule to be changed, did it not? Maybe they saw the absolute idiocy of the situation. But whether they’ll be able to get the politicians, the Conservatives, to agree to any change in that rule is quite another matter. It’ll be difficult. I don’t think they did it in an attempt to show up the system. Having done it, and been confronted with it, somebody said: ‘Look, this really is idiotic.’ It’s a bit like the attitude the BBC used to have to the vetting of its staff. Many people inside the BBC knew this was idiotic, but it required somebody outside to say so before they could then say: ‘Maybe you’ve got something there. We ought to change the system.’

MK: Hans Magnus Enzensberger says that we should be pleased to live in an age of mediocrity and that intellectuals should stop bleating about lack of standards. He praises Mr Pooter, who never killed anybody. How do you see yourself, and intellectuals for that matter, in this valueless age?

SH: This is the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Well (laughs) I am a self-confessed intellectual, and have been a teacher for quite a part of my life. I think that, as intellectuals, we have got a certain inheritance, which we have got to look at critically, to try and pass on that inheritance to further generations, other generations, encouraging them to look at it critically as well. I think that’s the most important function we can perform in society, to examine ideas, to present ideas, and not to present them dogmatically, but rather to say: ‘Look. These are interesting ideas. Important ideas. Think about them and engage with them.’ That seems to me to be crucial.

And I think that for Enzenberger, who’s an intellectual par excellence, to say this really is quite ridiculous actually. Quite apart from the fact that the economic infrastructure underpinning Mr. Pooter’s harmlessness was derived, in great part, from the often ruthlessly violent economic exploitation of colonial territories over several centuries. Enzensberger doesn’t in fact himself, I think, enjoy living in mediocrity.

It’s this kind of jumping overboard into a curious kind of populism that I find deeply depressing at the present time. If one can engage in dialogue with people, and discuss whether football team A is better that football team B, which one certainly can, I don’t see why one can’t engage in a debate which says that author A is better than author B, or that, in his own field, musician A is better than B. It seems to me that it is possible to make judgements of this kind, and that it is necessary to make judgements of this kind. People may disagree with you, but I think one has, again, to provoke a debate on this subject, and not accept a sort of whitewash over everything which really says: ‘Well, nothing matters. It’s all a great soup of mediocrity. Let’s just accept the soup.’ I don’t actually do that.

MK: What stance do you think Pasolini would have taken if he were alive today?

SH: Pasolini, of course, was a very odd character and, I think, very much of his time. It would be curious to see which way he would have gone, where he would have ended up in a postmodern world. He was very much not postmodern, I think, and he was living out a particular paradox or enigma, which was that on the one hand he would define himself as Marxist, on the other had he was undoubtedly a Catholic. And the attempt to resolve that contradiction lay at the heart of much of his work and thinking.

He was a supporter of the Italian Communist Party at a period when, in my view and the view of many Italians, it had become the party of law and order. I think that is another great paradox that ought to be explored.

JL: Going back to teaching, and the role that we both have as teachers, I accept your analysis of the situation, and of the role of the intellectual as teacher. On the other hand, I’m very aware that we’re only a small minority even within higher education, attempting to articulate the importance of an awareness of history, the past, and so on. Often the kind of value judgements that are articulated in relation to the artistic and cultural past are very conservative and narrow-minded. Perhaps less so than 20 years ago, but they still exalt the traditional élite corpus. Anne Karpf recently pointed out in the Guardian how the term ‘politically correct’ has now become a term of condemnation, used to dismiss arguments or works, as if studying a book by a black woman which has just been put on the syllabus in the States is ridiculous, a threat to civilisation as we know it!

SH: I think that is one knot that one has to try and unravel. And clearly what one has to be open to is the concept of a spectrum, a cultural spectrum, not a number of cultural separate boxes. And that one must discuss with the same seriousness Heavy Metal, any cultural manifestation.

One of the problems attached to what I would call a spectrum view is that sometimes there’s this sub-text which says it’s all equally important. Equally good. And I take the view that it’s not all equally good. It may be equally important sociologically, but some of it is better than others. Within the various genres there are good and bad examples, in cinema as anywhere else. Therefore, one has to encourage one’s students to be critical. And they are. Very critical, in fact. They make great distinctions.

One has also to suggest that one can’t write off the past entirely. One has to look at it in different perspectives, and be open to alternative syllabuses, alternative reading lists, to put it in the crudest possible way. And that the old canon is really outmoded, and has to be thought over again.

JL: What for me is a more fundamental point in relation to teaching is the fact that not only are people of our way of thinking perhaps in a minority in higher education but that we are reaching only a tiny, and in some sense élite, fragment of society. I agree that is important and meaningful to engage with these critical and historical concerns in that area where we can operate a practice, but I sometimes get depressed in terms of relating more generally.

SH: Yes. I can make a parallel. I was talking last year in Germany to some people who had been in the German Left in the 60s. The SDS, all that left-wing movement that went across into the Baader Meinhoff.

We were having discussions about the role of the politics of it. And I posed the question to one person who’d been very active at that time: ‘What do you think came out of it all?’ And he said: ‘Well, we clearly did not achieve our aims in the terms they were expressed at the time. And it may be that Habermas was right in thinking that they were wrongly posed. However, throughout German society today in all kinds of positions – as teachers, as administrators, in very many levels and ranks of life – there are people who went through that experience, and took on board certain ideas about anti-authoritarianism, about thinking critically, about how one deals with children, about how one deals with relationships with women. That’s a kind of leaven, a general leaven in German society, which has had a big effect.’

So I think that one’s got to say to oneself that I’ve been talking to students, who may then become teachers. Or I’ve taught teachers, and they’ve gone away, perhaps, with ideas which they will carry on and which will act as a leaven inside society. I think that’s as much as one can hope for, but maybe that’s quite a positive thing to do.

JL: When you mentioned anti-authoritarianism, perhaps because I’m becoming cynical about this country specifically, I felt that anti-authoritarianism here seems to be becoming more and more right-wing anti-authoritarianism.

SH: Yes, I think that may be true. I think one fairly interesting and instructive phenomenon is the way in which the Right in this country has stolen the clothes of the Left. For their own reasons. And that’s very difficult to cope with. Things like the criticisms of the BBC, and of the educational system. All kinds of things. There are echoes there which they have grabbed and taken. The same has happened in Italy, and all over the place. There is a right radical element inside European thought at the moment which has adopted in some cases the vocabulary and in other cases the actual thought, the building blocks of left-wing thought. I think that where this is important and dangerous is that, if you go back into the origins of fascism, it Italy and in Germany, that’s precisely what they did. A right radical element which was critical, but which in the last analysis was for the status quo.

If one thinks of a very pessimistic scenario, a deepening economic crisis, a deepening social and political crisis, I see a real danger of a very nasty situation. People reacting to deprivation and alienation in violent ways, which might be directed against intellectuals, against minorities. That’s my real fear. I’m frightened of that.

MK: You’re frightened?

SH: I am.

MK: And when you talk to your students, are they frightened of it, or aware of it?

SH: Yes and no...

MK: Or are they part of the anomie?

SH: No, no... They’re aware of racism: racism and sexism are the things they’re very aware of: they’re all issues that they talk about. Whether they then consider going on to take action is another matter. But they have no home to go to. No political home. That’s their problem.