‘The challenge is to get across without selling out’

I interviewed Richard Hoggart, who has died aged 95, in 2005. I’d read The Uses of Literacy at university and several other of his books since and hugely admired the man and his writing. I was a bit in awe of him, but he was welcoming, generous and kind; everything, in short, we hope our heroes will be. We talked in the main about broadcasting and democracy, but he also told me about his passion for adult education and his belief in the transformative power of  culture, all in that familiar voice: honest, straightforward and eloquent, all underpinned by a fierce sense of social justice.  Here’s the interview in full 

The British system of broadcasting is among the country’s outstanding achievements. But the notion of public service broadcasting is under threat and the new Communications Act, which opens up parts of the British broadcasting network to foreign ownership, is likely to do further damage, Richard Hoggart tells Paul Stanistreet

‘Triviality is worse for the soul than wickedness’, said R.H. Tawney. It is an axiom Richard Hoggart is fond of quoting and an apt one, he believes, for policymakers and programmers reviewing the condition of British broadcasting in the light of the new Communications Act. In the 40 years since the Pilkington Committee – on which Hoggart served – published its landmark report criticising the funding of commercial television and defending a public service broadcasting philosophy, the slippage from the outstanding early achievements of British broadcasting has been dramatic. People can no longer expect to be led ‘beyond familiar boundaries’ by the television they watch. Instead, Hoggart says, they get a regular diet of celebrity trivia and ‘reality’ TV, with the occasional sop – such as BBC4 – to satisfy those who still fondly recall all three verbs of the BBC’s founding remit. With the Communications Act opening the door to foreign ownership of parts of the British broadcasting system, there is no sign that the tide is about to turn.

The Pilkington Committee report – sections of which were drafted by Hoggart – was published in 1962, at a time when commercial television was widely perceived to be ignoring public service provision and pushing less audience-grabbing programmes to the margins. Its key recommendation – the separation of programming and advertising functions – was rejected by the Conservative government of the day. Since then, Hoggart argues, successive governments have failed to grasp the nettle in respect of declining broadcasting standards. Although he had the satisfaction of seeing Channel 4 established along lines set out in the Pilkington Committee’s report, Hoggart believes Lord Reith’s simple injunction – to inform, educate and entertain – has been too often ignored, with both Channel 4 and the BBC among the culpable. The ‘most effective public service broadcasting system to be found anywhere’ may be in terminal decline.

I met Richard Hoggart at his home in Norwich. Now in his 80s, he continues to press his often-unfashionable views, unfazed by the strength of the tide against him. Since marking the change from an urban culture ‘of the people’ towards ‘the creation of a mass culture’, in his 1957 book The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart has been critical of much in the changing cultural climate, urging the cultivation of ‘critical literacy’ as an essential tool of citizenship within commercial, democratic society. The likely cultivators – adult educators – face a ‘bigger and deeper’ task than did Hoggart and the other members of the extraordinary post-war generation of university adult educators to which he belonged, since, increasingly, he says, we do not know what we are missing, ‘what it is possible for us to have’. Yet without critical literacy, Hoggart thinks, we will prove easy prey to those, such as Rupert Murdoch, who are eager to exploit democracy’s ‘essential wide-open spaces’.

Critics of the Communications Act, which received royal assent in July, believe that the ‘public interest’ hurdle to the purchase of Channel Five – fought for in the Lords by David Puttnam – is unlikely to prove much of a deterrent either to Murdoch or to prospective buyers in the United States. Puttnam’s amendment (the so-called ‘plurality test’) means that the DTI can order Ofcom to report the implications of any purchase of Five which raises ‘a specified public interest concern in relation to plurality’. However, the main thrust of the Communications Bill and its key tenets – to drop the ban on national newspaper groups buying television stations and to permit the foreign ownership of British broadcasting franchises – remain. It is the latter prospect that most troubles Hoggart. The international purchase of elements of the system can, he believes, only add to the already well-advanced demolition of the public service tradition in British broadcasting.

‘Everyone knows that the bids would come from America or they would come from Murdoch,’ he says. ‘They know that he has probably got an eye on it. And if Murdoch or some Murdoch-supported body took over Channel Five, you would see at once that it would go dead centre for the mass market’. Prospective purchasers will be motivated, he says, not by an admiration for our broadcasting achievements, but by the money they stand to make, seeking ever-bigger audiences to attract the advertisers who fill their coffers. Such purchasers are unlikely to be put off by inhibitive legislation and Hoggart is unimpressed by those who point to much-acclaimed American programmes such as The Sopranos. Such programmes reflect only a tiny proportion of U.S. broadcasting output. ‘An early chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said that American broadcasting was one “vast wasteland”. Advertising is taking up more and more time. It is also getting to define the terms. For example, news content is now being determined more and more by what the advertisers want. They don’t say, what is the big item of the day, is it something on Biafra or our environmental record? It is what will not worry people and what will amuse them.’

Of the three ways in which we might have organised broadcasting in this country – as an arm of government, of advertisers or as a separate, independent body – we, Hoggart says, ‘chose the free way’. ‘The British opted for a system that is not government owned or controlled, that does not take advertising. And that’s where the trickiness comes into it. Who is going to pay for it and how are they going to pay for it? We introduced the licence fee, called by some MPs “a regressive poll tax”. What they mean is that it is like having to buy a dog licence when you haven’t got a dog, that it falls on everyone whether they listen or view, or don’t. The real test is whether a tax of that kind is the best way of doing what you are trying to do. The only other way people have suggested is subscription, by which you only pay for what you view or listen to. That looks attractive. It looks democratic. But it cuts off people from all sorts of information, education, entertainment, which might take them by surprise and widen their horizons. It might, in many respects, produce quite good programmes, but it won’t have that universal sweep that broadcasting, as a regressive poll tax, has.

‘I’m constantly impressed by the simplicity of the original aims of the BBC. Think about the founding verbs – the aim of broadcasting, as laid down, was to inform, educate and entertain. You don’t need to say much else. There’s no pompous language and abstract verbs in it, about what you owe to the people and all that. It just says inform, educate and entertain. You’ve covered it. The setting up of the BBC, under the royal charter, was deliberate. It was to give them more freedom. A body which has the royal charter does not have to report to parliament. Mind you, you might think that many MPs don’t know that. Oddly enough, the BBC is now, under a Labour government, being more attacked than anyone expected. But most MPs don’t understand what the record is and how dangerous it would be to tamper with it. The BBC in its first decades under Lord Reith, with all its limitations, stood for something that mattered, in society and in broadcasting. It wasn’t a creature of any government or any advertiser. By the time of the Second World War, it was giving warnings, and it was standing as a free voice. Throughout the War it was listened to clandestinely across Europe as the voice of freedom. These things didn’t happen by accident.’

Much of what the BBC has traditionally done well in programming terms, such as original drama and intelligent comedy, programmes ‘educative without being labelled education’, doesn’t fit with the grabbing of mass audiences, Hoggart says. The rot really set in during the Thatcher years. ‘One of the many things for which Mrs Thatcher will be judged someday, I expect, if only by her biographers, is her communications bill,’ he says. ‘What she did was to undermine the BBC. She opened the gates to commercial television and she ensured that they would move away from representing a great range of opinion, instead going for what would bring them the most money through adverts. Before that it was required that a range of programmes in arts and education be provided for, even if you were a commercial channel. Mrs Thatcher removed that at a blow

‘That set off the process that the BBC has been under ever since. She talked about making them free and all sorts, but that was nonsense, unless she meant it was making them free to make more money out of broadcasting, which it did. And the BBC had to challenge it, because the moment they ceased to challenge it, in that way, the organs of opinion on the side of the Tories would say what’s the good of the licence, why should we have the licence. So they had to copy it and they are doing it rather too successfully, for me. If you look at the kind of programmes which, by any intelligent count, are rubbish now, as many of them are from the BBC as are not. An organisation gets the staff it needs for the job it has in hand and the BBC has got a new job. It’s saving itself. So you get people in the BBC now who wouldn’t even know the original axiom, “inform, educate and entertain”. All they know is that they are in pop, or whatever it might be, and they are going to beat the competition. That’s what they are hired for.’

There are, however, things which the BBC could do to ‘stop the leak’, which would not involve enormous change. One would be to halt the drift towards the trivial in news broadcasting. ‘If a big national broadcasting organisation with international repute starts the news by saying footballer so-and-so has left his wife, and then says, in Yugoslavia just now 100,000 people were murdered, you wonder what has gone wrong. This is trivialising in the extreme. I think they have got to put their foot down on this. They could stop the stream of vapid situation comedies. What you need to do is get a bunch of people together, give them good conditions and say to them, don’t give twopence about the audience, what you ask is “is this funny?”. The BBC could do that tomorrow. It could gather a group of people together and say consider the medium, not the audience or the competition. You have to pull the eye away from the audience, towards the meaningfulness of the programme, especially if you’re doing comedy.’

The Pilkington report – ‘the finest statement on broadcasting we ever had’ – provided a basis for protecting public service broadcasting in a commercial context, later taken up by Channel 4. ‘If you are going to get money through advertising and not through a licence fee, then the advertisement revenue gathering function must be separated entirely from the programmes. No programmes should be affected by the fact that it might have an impact on advertising revenue. Jeremy Isaacs knew what he was after. He had a very wide range of interests and he disliked tosh.’ But, for Hoggart, Channel 4 has ‘lost its way’. ‘What they’re doing now is putting on some quite good, interesting programmes, which appeal to a minority, and then they are putting out some that should never be shown. They think that if they have got the ones that please the “high-brow” minority, then they’ve fulfilled their brief and they can then get away with whatever rubbish they like, say, Big Brother, or whatever it may be. That is an absolutely classic state of ignorance. When we are arguing about better quality TV, we’re not just saying, we want something because we are high brows. We want everyone to have good programmes. This is what Channel 4 has stepped right into. We put some things on that even Jeremy Isaacs would have approved of, but, at the same time, we’ll get the bigger audiences from trivia. That is the cardinal mistake now. And the BBC is just as bad. If you go and talk to them, they’ll say we’ve got this and this, and they have and they are all good in their way, but you’ve also got this, this and this, which are just rubbish. They won’t face that one.

What is missing, according to Hoggart, is the sort of radical thinking, about education and culture, which is no longer fashionable. ‘They are too much caught up in the world as it is. The idea of really radical reform on a cultural matter that might affect some people’s taste and make them angry is a long way away from their thinking.’ When Hoggart started out as an adult educator, with the likes of John Harrison, Edward Thompson and Raymond Williams, ‘it was about things that mattered to you as a human being, as a citizen, not as a subject, but as a citizen. That has gone very slowly, but firmly, downwards. Classes about things that matter to the citizen, politics, economics, social matters, have been marginalised for 20, 30 years. There’s more to it, of course, than this. The great thrust of our consumer society is to the total persuasion, every day, that all you need to do is buy and enjoy yourself and watch the telly. It’s an undermining of the free civic spirit. In the nineteenth century, it’s astonishing what workers’ bodies said and did. It was desperately serious. It wasn’t just that they wanted a better franchise. When Byron died, people felt bereft and I’m talking about the man in the street. It’s not just a matter of education, it’s a matter of the whole spirit of the age.

‘We believed we had a purpose and it was a social and imaginative purpose, in relation to the students and what they would get out of it. I coined a phrase which Roy Shaw [one-time WEA literature tutor and Director of the Extra-Mural Department at Keele University] liked a lot: “the point of adult education classes, the challenge, is to get across without selling out”. There was a temptation to reduce the demands of the class, whether through the choice of authors you studied, or whatever. I would persuade them to try Shakespeare and I would do King Lear. They paid real serious attention to it. The classes got slower and slower. You didn’t do Jane Austen one week and George Eliot the next. You did King Lear and it slowed up because you were going through all the marvellous implications of it.

‘That still has left a shadow, a sort of beam on us, because we were the first post-war group and we were doing something we believed in, something that was not vocational. It’s not for me to say how far that spirit is still alive. From an institutional point of view, there is more pressure to follow the vocational line. The pressures are different. They are the pressures of a commodity society, a society that has lost its purpose. Some people really do want civic society, but we are fighting against all these other voices. In a society like this, to bring people to the point of education only at which they can swallow all the guff is not education properly. We have to have critical literacy. There is a good tradition of bloody-mindedness in working class life. We have to build on it. We have got to open up the imagination and you do not do that by going for the mass market. The system of broadcasting in this country is one of the best things we have done for a long time. We should leave broadcasters free to inform, educate and entertain, neutrally, objectively. Anything that reduces that is wrong.’