BBC Breakfast; or, the Manufacturing of Ruthlessness

This morning BBC Breakfast ran a story on a study that has been carried out which shows that British youngsters lack the ambition and ruthlessness of their European counterparts (because, of course, Britain isn’t in Europe). After a video report shot at a posh international school down south, in which these findings were unsurprisingly ratified, a ‘discussion’ (for which read ‘mutual appreciation and united front against a common enemy’) was held with the head of OFSTED and an ex-‘businesswoman of the year’. At no point in this discussion was the glorification of ambition and ruthlessness ever put into question: the presupposition of the entire report was that ruthlessness is a positive human attribute and should be aspired to. That British youngsters apparently do not was seen as a grave disappointment. Indeed, it was the trigger for an all-out and decidedly spiteful attack on the ‘youth of today’ and their namby-pamby, mollycoddled upbringing. Schools that do not hold competitive sports days or which demonstrate in any way whatsoever that competition and ruthlessness are not virtuous ends-in-themselves were mocked and ridiculed. At one point, the businesswoman went so far as to suggest that because children are not physically hungry and because they enjoy themselves too much (both of which she associated with the ‘nanny state’), they lack the requisite ambition. The implication was that enforced starvation and a ban on state-provided services would be good for them and ‘Britain’.

There are several conclusions to be drawn from this. Firstly, the BBC is a key ideological apparatus in the manufacturing of an inhuman way of life: a moral and political disgrace. Secondly, genuine compassionate humanity can find no place in the current state of affairs: if you desire a life worthy of a fully human being, you are condemned to fighting the status quo. Thirdly, if the nineteenth century had have had TV, it would have looked like that.

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6 thoughts on “BBC Breakfast; or, the Manufacturing of Ruthlessness

  1. Dean Broadhurst says:

    “The implication was that enforced starvation and a ban on state-provided services would be good for them and ‘Britain’.”

    Hyperbole and a half.

      1. Dean Broadhurst says:

        Whilst I have no direct evidence, a viewing of any BBC news show or bulletin will quickly reveal just how far removed they are from the delusional proclamation that they are providing people with impartial reporting. My gripe is not necessarily that their portrayal of the news is evocative and subjective, but rather the manner in which they go about it. This happens in two ways – firstly by making the false claim aforementioned that the report is objective and, as you state, “a ‘discussion’”, when it clearly is not, and secondly by presenting these opinions as facts.

        Moving on, and if I have understood correctly, this is both similar and dissimilar to your post. Similarly, we both believe the BBC are not as liberal as they declare themselves to be. However, it seems that you have made the extraordinary leap into damning them for their views. Whilst I would applaud the dressing-down of such propaganda, it is not the opinion itself which is wrong, rather the way it is presented. I get the impression you are chastising both, with a heavy loading towards the opinion rather than the execution.

        Opinions cannot be true or false. However, telling people an opinion is truth borders on indoctrination – perhaps something the BBC do, either with or without intent, several times a day. By telling me how to feel about this morning’s broadcast and informing me of the conclusions that result, I fear that you may be singing from the same proverbial hymn sheet as those at the BBC.

      2. Daniel Hartley says:

        Hey Dean,

        Yeah, I understand what you’re saying. It’s just I disagree with it. Generally, people writing on blogs don’t aim for a ‘neutrality’ or ‘objectivity’ (I’ll come back to those words). They write their opinion. That’s what I did. I criticised the pretence of objectivity on the part of the BBC and I gave my opinion of the (falsely objective) views they presented.

        At the same time I disagree with some of the presuppositions of your argument. It seems that, essentially, you’d’ve been happy with the BBC report if it’d have had guests on it that put the alternative view across: that ruthlessness isn’t everything and that there are other human attributes that are more worthwhile. In other words, you’d be happy to perceive the BBC itself as a neutral background on which differing viewpoints are presented in the foreground between which I can choose. The problem for me comes with the background being perceived as neutral. The ground of debates is almost never neutral. It is preconstituted by the dominant ideology (or hegemony): it consists of a whole series of unspoken assumptions – hidden, sometimes unconscious agreements between all the participants of the debate – on the basis of which the debate itself can take place.

        For me, the real debate is the battle for the ground itself, not the opinions which are discussed on its basis. In this respect, the BBC Breakfast episode was quite unusual in that it collapsed the ground and the surface into one (the ground being that capitalism is a just and admirable mode of production and the surface being the types of characteristics that we should promote the better to enable that ground to flourish). My blog post, then, was, I would argue, a manoeuvre in the battle for objectivity, for what does and should constitute an ‘objective’ point of view.

        It is in this sense that I disagree with your claim that no opinion is true or false. It all depends on how you define truth or falsity. We don’t need to get into the philosophy of it here, but I would argue that your implicit assumption that there is a neutral ground on which opinions of equal merit can be reasonably debated is similar to your implicit view that all opinions are inexact and superficial phenomena that fail to cohere with an ultimate ground of inaccessible truth. In both cases, I’d suggest that the ground is socially constituted and therefore open to dispute. Which means that my conception of an ‘opinion’ is very different to yours, since mine conceives it as that which has the power to convince others of its validity, to unite others around that viewpoint and, on that basis, to attempt to institute a new hegemony – a new social objectivity, a new ground or truth.

        This isn’t to say that my views are necessarily right. On the contrary, if they fail to convince you or others, then that simply means that the current hegemony of the ground of debate remains in place until further notice.

        Hope all that makes sense.

  2. Dean Broadhurst says:

    Hi Dan

    I wasn’t suggesting that the BBC give us both sides of the argument to ensure their objectivity – I wasn’t suggesting anything. If I were to have suggested something, it would have been that news broadcasts should never be used to present any form of opinion – it should be completely anhedonic, serving us, the viewer, with nothing more than unadulterated facts. There’s a scene in Peep Show during which David Mitchell’s character says sarcastically “I suppose the news should just be a dispassionate account of all the events of the day – except it would take forever”. Well, taking forever or not, if it is insisted that news broadcasts exist, then that would be my suggestion.

    Additionally, I don’t assume that there is neutral ground for a debate and, therefore, I must return to the original point to clarify. Presenting opinions as facts is wrong. I was saying nothing more than saying your presentation of opinion was equal to that of the BBC’s – both were portraying them as fact. Most importantly, this is not a criticism – it is a reminder. It would be foolish if I did not recognise that we all do this on a regular basis. However, I am baffled that someone can be so aggressively committed to their own opinion (and so unashamedly damning of that of another) when the debate exists in a realm that has no absolute truth. You say that you believe an opinion can establish “a new social objectivity, a new ground or truth”, and I agree. Yet this newly established truth is not the truth. It is a form of truth. It is a believed or perceived truth, very separate to that of an absolute truth.

    It appears that in the passionate throws of a socialist romance, the ability to empathise diminishes with increasing ferocity. The emotion seems to cloud the portrayal of a point. It feels like the equivalent of unleashing a tirade of obscenities at a child for eating too many sweets before teatime, when a reasoned and compassionate explanation would be far more fitting. All that happens is that your potentially rational argument is muffled by the saliva foaming from your mouth as you bark it out.

    1. Daniel Hartley says:

      I don’t want this to turn into a protracted argument because let’s face it: it’s the BBC, it’s not really worth it. Nonetheless, I would like to defend myself against accusations of being a rabid socialist incapable of compassion! I genuinely want this to be a fruitful discussion, not a case of petty one-upmanship. In that comradely spirit, I’ll respond to the essential bits of your reply.

      There’s a basic contradiction in your argument. On the one hand, you claim there’s no absolute truth. On the other hand, the pristine presentation of ‘unadulterated facts’ would seem to come close to constituting an absolute truth. It just happens to be a truth that no one has access to (a bit like the Ding-an-sich in Kant’s philosophy).

      The problem is that facts are always adulterated: the fact-value distinction is not absolute. Say, for example, that I’m a tour guide. I take tourists round the sites of London and as we go past important buildings I tell them the dates they were built. These dates are facts, pure and simple: they can be proved or disproved. But then suddenly one of the tourists shouts: “Why do you keep telling me when buildings were built? Where I come from the most important thing about a building is which direction it faces, and yet you haven’t told me once if a building faces north, east, south, or west!” It doesn’t stop the date of a building’s origin being true, it simply highlights that there are a whole host of unconscious assumptions and values which underlie the selection of facts we think it is worth making. The same would go for the ideal news report. You could make it as long as you want, but it’ll still be selective, there will still be a whole nexus of historically produced values which inform the editing/ filming/ news item prioritisation.

      But that is a quite specific example. In the case of the BBC Breakfast piece, we’re more or less in the realm of values alone. What would the ‘unadulterated facts’ of the ruthlessness or non-ruthlessness of human beings look like? It doesn’t even make sense. We could, of course, look back at historical examples, see how humans have behaved until now (less than well on the whole), or we could look at the overall modes of production and organisation/ the institutions in which and through which humans have been forced to live their lives and discuss how this has generated certain forms of behaviour. Either way, we’re still not really in a realm of ‘unadulterated facts’. We’d be arguing about what humans were, are and should be. It’d be that constant mixture of indicative and subjunctive which characterises almost all such discussions: mainly because humans have the capacity to transform themselves and their environment, thus we are never absolutely either this way or that. Any argument about how we are now is always part of the attempt to work towards how we might be in the future. It was in this context that I made my comments in the blog piece.

      Another crucial part of this problem is that you seem to think of the BBC presenters as individuals in some sort of ahistorical realm, and that they were only voicing their ‘own personal opinions’ which I was heartless and dogmatic enough to suggest were wrong. But irrespective of whether or not the presenters actually do hold these views as individuals, their role in that program is a public, political and ideological one. BBC Breakfast is a programme broadcast via the mass medium of TV and watched by millions; TV itself is a major component in how viewers come to understand the world and how they should act in it. Consequently, what you call the presenter’s and guest’s ‘opinions’ I would call, given their context and potential mass influence, the ‘dominant ideology of the ruling class’. It is precisely because I want people to be able to come reasonably to their own conclusions of what is right and wrong, what is best for them and for others – in other words, it is because I want to enable a genuine democracy to flourish – that I criticise without reserve such blatant propaganda.

      It is at this point that we come to compassion (and empathy). The BBC supported the invasion of Iraq which has killed over a million people and made many more millions homeless. When Israel recently invaded Gaza and murdered 1,300 people, the BBC refused to broadcast a hotline number which would enable people to phone in and give financial aid to charities helping the wounded. They did this in the name of ‘objectivity’. This is not real objectivity. And it is far from being a mere ‘opinion’. True compassion – which I would suggest is inseparable from objectivity – involves siding with the victim against the powerful. It is not a matter of a warm fuzzy feeling inside, but of fighting for justice. Likewise, objectivity is not always a matter of cool, contemplative distance; on the contrary, often you have to be fiery and passionate in a given situation in order to grasp its true dynamics – what seems like cooly objective reasoning to you might strike those really involved in a situation as cruel heartlessness. Sometimes, as you rightly suggest, compassion takes the form of explaining reasonably and lovingly to a small child that eating too many sweets is bad for them; but sometimes compassion also entails a heartless critique of propaganda. Different contexts call for different responses. Objectivity – real, humane, non-instrumental objectivity – requires compassion. Likewise, socialism without compassion – genuine, non-hypocritical compassion – is no socialism at all.

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