Viewers are replacing remote controllers

Colin Thomas says the vast changes in communications technology have opened up opportunities for film-makers and other artists to by-pass the game-keepers of our culture

Tensions between artist and patron are nothing new – history teems with examples. Rembrandt trying to wring payment for his ‘Night Watch’ painting out of penny pinching members of the Archers Company, Beethoven yelling at his aristocratic audience during a recital “I will not play for such swine”[i] and producer Samuel Goldwyn exploding “Every director bites the hand that lays the golden egg.”

So when that relationship is a harmonious one, it tends to be remembered warmly. Many programme makers look back to the early days of Channel Four and S4C with nostalgia. One of them, the late Phillip Whitehead, described Channel Four in the 1980s as being like a publishing house where the creative people, the programme makers, were valued. Commissioners then, he said “didn’t see it as their job to tell you what programmes they wanted made”.[ii]

I’m very much aware that there’s a tendency to look back on earlier years with a rosy glow. But I’m certain that I would never have been allowed to get away with what happened to the history of Wales The Dragon Has Two Tongues, which I was brought in by HTV to produce and direct for Channel Four. Instead of the one presenter who they had chosen for the series – Wynford Vaughan Thomas – we simply told them that henceforth the Dragon would have two tongues – Wynford Vaughan Thomas and Professor Gwyn Alf Williams. Whatever anxiety that caused at C4, they made no attempt to insist that we stick to the original brief and boldly accepted the risk involved.

At S4C, commissioners like Euryn Ogwen Williams and Chris Grace decided which programme makers they would put their trust in, and then let them get on with it.  An outstanding example of the wisdom of that approach is Joanna Quinn. At the time she was working – on a tiny budget – at Chapter in Cardiff on her animation Body Beautiful. Chris Grace talent-spotted her potential and provided the funds to enable her to complete the film.

Joanna was allowed to complete the film just as she wanted to make it, with minimal intervention. And she wasn’t the only one to be given a chance. Chris Grace commissioned a number of talented young animators throughout his time at S4C. The channel also gave a frustrated BBC film editor the opportunity he craved – a few years later Paul Turner directed the first Welsh language film to get on to the Oscar short list.

I am not suggesting that we can simply step back to the way things were a quarter of a century ago. There have been huge technological changes since then that have transformed the media, especially television. The emergence of comparatively cheap, lightweight video cameras, and editing facilities available on every computer, have opened up opportunities that were previously limited to the privileged few – that is to say to people like me. Above all the internet has transformed everything, a scale of change comparable to that brought about by Guttenberg’s Press and the emergence of the printed book.

For a time it seemed as if the hold of the gatekeepers had been undermined, that the old power structures had gone. Dissident perspectives – in Tibet and Burma for example – could be recorded on video and rapidly disseminated. The utopian vision of Marshall McLuhan’s ‘global village’ seemed to be coming true. “We have now become aware” he had written in The Medium is the Message, “of the possibility of arranging the entire human environment as a work of art, as a teaching machine designed to maximise perception and to make everyday learning a process of discovery.[iii]

But, of course, the gate keepers weren’t going to give up their control easily. If the gates weren’t strong enough, they would build walls. Most infamously, the Great Firewall of China. This enables the Chinese government to control the flow of information on the internet, letting in what it approves of and blocking what it does not. Some multinationals like Yahoo and News International have shamefully collaborated with this process. Despite proclaiming that “only market economics can deliver both political freedom and economic well-being”, Rupert Murdoch has demonstrated that he was prepared to remove the BBC from his STAR TV satellite service, because it could be picked up in parts of China, and to have his HarperCollins publishing company dump a book thought likely to offend the Chinese government.[iv]

Control in the UK is less brutal but it exists. Of course, there is legitimate concern about child pornography and terrorism. However, because the authorities can apply pressure to the Internet through its most vulnerable point, the intermediary – the Internet Service Provider – the risk is that bodies like the Internet Watch Foundation can effectively become regulatory agents, so privatising the process of online censorship.[v] That is what has happened in Australia where Wikileaks is now on the blacklist of the Australian Media Authority for –would you believe it? – publishing the Danish government’s list of blacklisted websites.

The September edition the New Internationalist refers to “the rather creepily entitled Intercept Modernisation Programme which proposes to expand the UK government’s ability to snoop on web users at will and to store all individual users’ web-surfing habits in a centralised data base.” But it also says:

“Thanks to the Web, it is now easier to build diverse communities; easier to communicate with potentially massive audiences; and easier to subvert the traditional control structures that imposed – at times arbitrary, at times ruthless – limits on human expression.”[vi]

And it is on the internet’s potential to subvert the control of our current media gate-keepers that I would want to put the main emphasis.

There are plenty of examples in Wales of those with something to say who are not prepared to join the endless queue of supplicants trying to get their ideas accepted by those all-powerful commissioning editors. A brave few just go-ahead and get on with it. The admirable Undercurrents in Swansea for example who, as well as their activist based television channel Vision On, are the originators of what they call Swansea Telly. Even the Western Mail now puts out its own Arts Show on the internet.

But the one I want to highlight vividly demonstrates the possibilities that have opened up, as well as the limit to those possibilities. M.J. Delaney and her friends were fired by New York State of Mind and decided to make their own version, based on Newport. Imagine if the idea had had first to be approved and, of course amended, by the television hierarchy of executive producer, head of department, commissioning editor, channel controller and, a recent new edition, the scheduler. Fortunately, M.J. Delaney and her friends didn’t try that route. Instead, they did it their way. It cost them just £100 to make and attracted nearly 2,500,000 hits on YouTube, that is two-and-a-half million viewers.

It is still possible to find a way to Newport State of Mind on the internet. But, pressured by the makers of New York State of Mind, EMI had its Newport pastiche taken off YouTube. The powers of those gatekeepers remain considerable.

The BBC is one of those gatekeepers. Whose side are we on in the wrestling match between Mark – what we have we hold – Thompson and that infamous tag team, the Murderous Murdochs? There are times when I find the hierarchical, still highly centralised structure of the BBC, infuriating, especially at a time when ITV, its once vigorous competitor, is so much weaker. ITV Wales’ hours have dropped from seven hours a week, first to four, then to three and now to a mere 90 minutes.

Murdoch Junior has the cheek to claim that the dominance of the BBC threatens independent journalism in the UK. This is from a representative of the organisation that has allowed Fox News to become the voice of the Tea Party zealots in the USA! The risks to diversity and freedom of expression posed by News International far exceed the dangers posed by the BBC. An important battle is now going on to prevent the Murdochs’ News Corporation from increasing its shareholding in BSkyB from 39 per cent to 100 per cent. Closely related is the struggle to prevent the London coalition government from starving the BBC of future funding. In those two contests, it is vital to put aside misgivings and to spring to the BBC’s defence.

BBC Wales and the Arts Council of Wales will continue to be key funders of the arts in Wales and it would be absurd to suggest that artists, writers and film makers should turn their back on them, especially in straitened times. But the new media, with the old distinctions between print and television beginning to blur, suggest new opportunities which we will have to grab with both hands. I was astonished that, at a time when the readership of almost every newspaper in Britain is dropping year after year, some defenders of the Welsh language chose to fight for a daily newspaper.

There seems to me to be alarmingly little realisation of what convergence will mean for the future of Welsh media. Only Y Lolfa, it seems, is producing books in Welsh that can be read on a Kindle or e-book – though I did notice that another Welsh publisher – Accent – has brought out an e-book entitled, Naughty Spanking – 20 Erotic Stories. There are no plans for a Welsh language version.

And no Welsh publisher is producing what the New York Review of Books calls the ‘vook’, a book in which video material is directly incorporated. This already exists as an app – that is, an application – accessible on an Iphone or an Ipad. Last year Y Lolfa and I nearly got there with a sort of hybrid, a book/video or video/book – Dreaming A City. To suggest what the next step could be, a couple of geeky friends have helped me to produce a crude version of what it would look like in ‘vook’ form.

Most of my working life I’ve been a film maker, a television producer and director, but in the last couple of years I have ventured outside my comfort zone, into writing Dreaming A City, and writing and directing a theatre play Mr Stanley’s Magic Lantern, the former financed by Y Lolfa, the latter mainly by the Arts Council of Wales. What I’ve discovered is that, although the money is far less than that available for a broadcast television production, there is far more creative freedom. Perhaps that has always been the case in artistic patronage – that he who pays the piper the most, then has the most right to demand the tunes of his choice.

When making film and television was colossally expensive and when there were very few channels, it was perhaps inevitable that the piper payers, those gatekeepers, would keep rigid control. The massive change in technology in the last twenty five years has changed all that. Public service channels need to recognize their changed role and accept that the very word ‘channel controller’ is now losing its meaning. Control is now moving to the mouse and to the remote controller that each viewer holds in his or her own hands. And, despite the period of austerity we are entering, writers, designers, musicians, artists and film makers need to seize the opportunities that the new technology has opened up. We no longer have to go through the main gate – now we can slither through the gaps in the fence.

[i] “Paying the Piper” edited by Judith Huggins Balfe published by University of Illinois Press 1993 p15.

[ii] Quoted in “Independents Struggle” by Michael Darlow published by Quartet Books 2004 p321

[iii] Quoted in “Fractal Dreams” edited by Jon Dovey published by Lawrence and Wishart in 1996 p116.

[iv] Julian Petley “Censorship” published by One World Oxford 2009 p148

[v] Ibid p117

[vi] Adam Ma’anit “A world wide web of change” in “New Internationalist” Sept.2010 p21

Colin Thomas is a freelance film director and producer. This is the presentation he gave at the IWA’s recent Creativity in Hard Times conference.

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