Media Activist Jay Baker: Ads, Politics and TV

talks news, adverts n if we can really make the best of the box...

Ah, the television. The TV, the tube, the box, the brainwashing device - whatever you want to call it, you can't deny it changed the world.

Its popularisation born out of post-war consumerism pitched as a patriotic act under the supposed threat of communism, buying a TV in the West was the first step towards doing a duty for your country, not just a luxury. In turn, through the TV set came images of commercialism: buy the suburban house; buy the car to get to work from that house; work to afford appliances to fill that house with. It was perfect. The state even had the ability to filter information to the public through the living room's glowing device at the axis around which the nuclear family slowly began to revolve.

That's not to say that the TV is inherently evil. However, others from a more counter-cultural perspective surely disagree: marketing man Kalle Lasn's Adbusters Media Foundation has made money through a marketing strategy of selling products urging people not to buy. If that's not oxymoronic enough for you, they've also promoted TV Turnoff week (the last one just came and went at time of writing).

Adbusters' clever campaign has had its moments of genius, though: they've compared the consumption of TV to the consumption of other products, such as food and drink. They feel that the physical effects of a meal are comparable to the mental effects of TV; that, essentially, both warrant health-warning labels before we sit down to tuck in. This is a good point; it's known that TV has effects on the population, not least through corporations using children's television programming to market direct to kids (why else do you think they call it programming?) But Adbusters have discredited their campaign by taking it, once again, into downright countercultural territory.

Let's look at the arguments about climate change, for example. While my fellow Doncastrian, Jeremy Clarkson, goes on TV and dismisses the need to save green space and pile more people onto vehicles via public transport, it remains a fact that no matter how many hybrids¬Ě we come up with, no matter how many alternative fuels we create for cars, the more people use cars, then the more roads are built to try to accommodate them (and, as we saw in the 1950s, people are encouraged to buy into suburban sprawl rather than stay in cities with easier access to facilities). So, we can then surmise that cars are inherently flawed. Of course, despite 70% of the British population wanting the railways taken back into government control from the corporations driven by profit, people are going to keep using cars until that happens, and a responsible government takes transport seriously.

However, unlike cars, shopping is not inherently flawed. It would be ridiculous to suggest otherwise. So yet again, while Lasn's Adbusters promote Buy Nothing Day, discouraging people from buying anything at all (except, I imagine, their official magazine that promotes it). But surely shopping for groceries, clothing, and even newspapers isn't a bad thing? If so, then to paraphrase Kent Brockman on The Simpsons, it may be time to crack open each others' heads and feast on the goo inside.

Like shopping, television in itself is not inherently evil. Before the internet, TV was as good as it got: news bulletins were instant, and so were the weather reports; documentaries were broadcast, offering information that, unlike through a book, could be enjoyed in a social context among friends and family; there were even music videos to enhance great songs through the years. We got to see Walter Cronkite report on JFK's assassination, we saw the LAPD assaulting Rodney King, and the LA riots that followed the acquittal of his attackers, and we witnessed the planes hitting the twin towers of the World Trade Center that collapsed moments later. The crux of the issue about TV is that we didn't get to see US military forces conquering the democracy of Chile on September 11th, 1973, or the CIA-backed Venezuelan coup and kidnapping of Hugo Chavez, or a wide-angle shot of a bunch of soldiers and journalists surrounding the statue of Saddam Hussein to much apathy from the Iraqi people feeling far from liberated at the time.

Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher deregulated the media, which mogul Rupert Murdoch took advantage of, in return putting his top-selling tabloid solidly behind her party in its partisan press approach. Since then, the BBC - though far from perfect - has been weakened by being blamed for the death of their source Dr David Kelly (though the Labour government were the ones who leaked his identity) and by playing its objective card in refusing to promote a Palestine appeal. But for all its faults and flaws, the BBC, holding onto its values Lord Reith described as information, education and entertainment, has remained relatively free from the influence of any one particular political party.

The post-Thatcher years and their adoption of Milton Friedman economics that arguably led to the financial mess we find ourselves in today led us to believe, though, that the BBC were not about being free. Instead, they told us, we had a free market of free enterprise and a media free from restraint - everything was free, it seemed, except the people. Where was their media? U.S. politician and activist Ralph Nader suggests the people's only media is the street. Civil liberties campaigner Shami Chakrabarti told me in my documentary Escape from Doncatraz that people aren't any less political than they've ever been – they're just less party political. Even feeling suspicious and cynical towards the whole parliamentary system and its elite politicians is itself a political position. Politics isn't just about rich white men in sharp suits. But the trick to a democracy is, you either use it or lose it - which is why extreme groups like the BNP have enjoyed a larger percentage of an electorate that has been staying at home instead of voting. But in order for TV to reflect these feelings, the frustrations, we need our own TV stations. We need our own media.

TV isn't a bad thing, it's a good thing. Like a democracy, it's all about how we use it.

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