Yewtree, moral responsibility and the impossibility of a way out

It couldn’t have been timed better. We know the story well enough: the post-war liberals who fled the sterile consumerism of Australia, where even the Supremes barely charted during the 1960s, and made Britain fresher, more tolerant, more open, back before Anglospherism curdled, and another wave came from the same direction to revise our future, to replace post-war paternalism with something nastier, pettier, more closed, the opposite of the genuine improvement we’d looked likely to get before. The complicated story – in its own way, as much a battle of post-colonialism as anything involving any former British colony which does have a Left pass – hinted at in the Then Play Long and Music Sounds Better with Two pieces about the Seekers (if MSBWT had dealt with “Sun Arise” – an NME #2 – back in 2011 the same sense would have no doubt come through, but at this point it had not brought the NME charts back in, probably one of several factors – the others are more directly related to what I will write about below – in its slowing to a trickle). But BBC Four’s transmission of the first part of its Rebels of Oz series – you could say it’s about one set of rebels who fought a long pitched battle with another, and eventually won liberal-intellectual battles but lost the wider capitalist wars – seemed almost a living counterfactual when set alongside the outcome of two trials related – one by extension, one directly – to two rather different Australians, one of which showed how much the dominant forces of neoliberalism have staked on retaining their hold, and how hard it has become to even imagine removing them, the other of which would be said by some to have only happened because the British state’s ritualistic attempt to retake power had been stillborn and impotent, and showed that there was no idyll, no perfect, morally incorruptible world before neoliberalism, no lost Eden.

I know why the conspiracy theories about Yewtree exist: that it was stirred up so as to discredit, and destroy any attempts to recover, the post-war public culture, just at a time when even Elisabeth Murdoch was rehabilitating it and arguing that some aspects of it could be revived and modernised, when Charles Moore was finally beginning to realise that socialism (in its 1945 sense as opposed to its post-1968 one) is the only way his idea of standards can ever be protected, and when it was clear that the Leveson Report would call for its effective, or at least attempted, restoration by statute. There is no doubt that there was, in an incredibly short period after The Sun launched in its current form in 1969 and the Daily Mail did likewise eighteen months later, an effective revolution within British popular journalism (the third such, after the development of such newspapers in the first place at the beginning of the 20th Century – the long-term legacy of the expansion of education in 1870 expanding literacy among those who would have found The Times and its ilk unapproachable, just as most current government policies represent the endgame of those instituted during the 1980s – and the Daily Mirror‘s reinvention of itself in terms of campaigning journalism during the Second World War, with all that would lead to politically) which did more than anything else to unseat and destabilise the old paternalistic establishment and lay the foundation stone for Thatcherism and everything after. There is no doubt that the attempt at a statutory body for press regulation was an attempt to take that power back. There is no doubt that its impotence, and the lack of any real commitment towards it on the government’s part, has been a sign of how hard these forces are to defeat, and of how happy the government is to leave them in place, knowing that its own tactic of dividing and conquering – its long-term victory in the great clash of freedoms which emerged during the 1970s – would be impossible without them.

But I never believed that public culture was perfect: I always knew it had faults burnt right into it, faults on which its very existence was conditional. I always knew, specifically, that its handling of pop – and especially those parts of pop which were conspicuously “black” in the sense that that is a political identity in itself – was its greatest flaw, which would probably have rendered it unsustainable even without Thatcherism. I always had a sense that those astounding achievements that still echo today were conditional on pop being treated as a mere passing fancy, a mere fad that left no deep cultural marks, and that if the Hierarchy of Art Forms had been broken then it might have been impossible for the great canonical works in the rest of British television to be made in the same way with quite the same feeling behind them. That we had a fundamental and irreconcilable choice between two cultures which I sometimes thought I was the only person in the world to love and feel and sense equally, and want them both to thrive and prosper. And even before October 2012, it hurt me. But that was not something a lot of people could understand or grasp. If they went no further into black pop than “Sing Baby Sing” or “It’s Time for Love” or indeed “Three Times a Lady” – and that was the case with huge numbers of basically admirable people, people politically far closer to me than not; it was also, tellingly, the case with a lot of people who loved many of the same things I did and had the grounding I was raised for even as it was dying around me deep in their hearts – then the post-war public culture, even in its declining years, gave them all they really wanted or needed in pop terms.

But they know what it means now, just as much as anyone who ever revered James Brown, or in the very last years of the old duopoly Public Enemy, always knew what it meant. And it would be cruel, vicious, callous and a disgrace to all we have ever stood for to dismiss the victims of that public culture’s faults – the holes within it which were the inevitable result of the lack of equal application of moral responsibility in all fields, the belief that some fields were inherently more worthy of such responsibility than others (an attitude which, in the cases of Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris, was simply a self-fulfilling prophecy) – as “inconvenient victims” or “the wrong kind of victims”. It would be a travesty of everything the Left should stand for, just as it was when certain people on “our” side dismissed and almost mocked the victims of the 2014 floods in England. If “liberal humanism” is to be an insult, then we might as well give up now and let “them” bring back the workhouse. We should show nothing but sympathy and understanding for those who suffered from the exploitation of those areas which paternalism could not understand or grasp the importance of, the small-time exploitation – a use of the brute force of monopoly which Reith never imagined when he enshrined that guiding principle – which the multichannel era has made much harder, and if facing the latter shakes our basic principles of what broadcasting should be, perhaps it must. Nobody said you could always go through life never having your expectations shaken. Even if some of what happened to these people is being used for the wrong reasons, we should never – for one second – use that as an excuse to pretend it didn’t happen at all, but rather as a starting point to use it for the right reasons, even if those reasons are unbearably painful and unanswerable and chimaeric.

The thing is – see the Adrian Tempany piece I wrote about here in March for an example – that certain people on “our” side had almost imagined that child molestation was invented on 3rd May 1979. That’s a deliberately exaggerated metaphor, of course, but there had been a definite tendency to imagine that humanity had fallen to earth in my lifetime, that deregulation, or the prioritisation of entertainment over Reithian ideas of culture, had almost created these terrible things and the parts of people’s minds and thoughts which drive them to do them. This was probably especially marked in my own case: born after the Winter of Discontent, I had from an early age constructed a private universe – my own kingdom, the sort of childhood I could only have in my head, not in the world that would have existed around me in any era (indeed, in any previous era it would have been very considerably worse) – based around an idealisation of a world I hadn’t been around to see, an overriding sense that I had been betrayed, cheated, denied my inheritance, even my kingdom. And of course this world whose dying embers I kept smelling as hard as I could, aware that the fire would soon be out forever, would have been a place where no bad things could ever happen: built into it was the implicit subtext that any kind of abuse of power and responsibility was a recent imposition, forced on an innocent world by the forces of neoliberalism in whose heartland I was raised but which I instinctively rejected.

Among a certain set of people older than me with interests not entirely removed from my own, the whole business has simply strengthened their paranoia at the very concept of cultural studies, their fear and anger that their childhood is being “stolen”. But life is never that simple, and we can’t go through it pretending it is. All my life I have built for myself private kingdoms, wanting everyone else to live in a common culture – the same common culture whose underbelly, of separation of high and low, of posh and pop, was exploited by the likes of Savile, Hall and Harris (Max Clifford was something entirely different, a first-generation Murdochian exploiting the early manifestation of the wholly separate culture which would eventually largely supplant BBC light-ent) – as a compensation for not being able to live in one myself. Expecting everyone else to “make up” every second of their lives for what I cannot be. Now I know that there is no way out: no way out, within the current economic and political system, of the power that was merely shaken but not exploded altogether by phone-hacking, and no way out of the problems caused by – pace Elisabeth Murdoch, in late August 2012 just before the balance of power shifted back again – the worst of the old Britain. Both are deeply problematic and disturbing. Both are inexorably bound up: step out of one, fight one, even defeat one, and you’re confronted with the other. That might be the single most appalling fact of any of our lives, which freezes you to the spot and takes you out of social interaction, out of what you thought you knew. You always thought that there was a world without either. Now you wonder.

You can build your own kingdom – if you are as I am, you have to – but you can’t sit on a crown of thorns. For a lot of people, the “other” BBC of the Yewtree years is a model, a vision, a dream. I know entirely why it is. There are many reasons why it deserves to be seen as such. For many years, it was to me. For quite a big part of me, it still is. I wish it could be so completely, then I could convince myself that these terrible abuses happened despite what was going on in the next studio, the next office, in a separate city-state in a building of fiefdoms mutually contemptuous towards each other (you remember that it took John Birt really to change that, and if it is possible an even deeper wound is opened). But there is this unsettling voice in your head telling you that they happened because of all the other stuff: that it was the same system facilitating greatness and vileness through the same methodology, and almost for the same reasons. I know the case against saying this. It’s a strong one. If I believed it entirely I could walk through the world with a good deal more confidence, could ride horses again, could blend into the crowd again. I just cannot stop myself thinking that, if the one that deserved to be stopped had been stopped, the one that didn’t deserve to be stopped would have had to be stopped too, far before its time (indeed, part of me still believes that this could be its time, if we had the will, and part of the thrill of summer 2011 to autumn 2012 was actually being able to half-believe that), and it crawls under my skin, eats away at my soul.

The post-war public culture was my kingdom (what does it say about me that the only kingdom I ever felt I had was one in which I had never actually lived?): its greatest and most emblematic space – the South Bank, back when I almost lived on trains – was my palace. I wish it still could be. But somehow I don’t feel it can anymore; somehow I can’t get that sense of myself back, can’t grab that connection before it passes. The love can still be there from a distance, but even as others love it all the more passionately as the world that existed in parallel is viciously tainted, I find I can’t love it quite as fervently now; where for others it confirms what they already knew, it makes me wonder whether I knew quite what I thought I knew. I have to find a new love, a new feeling, a new sense of myself. A new kingdom. This is, without doubt, the most nakedly honest piece I’d ever written. What a shame that it takes unthinkable abuses to others to bring it out of me.

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