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New Media

They Won. It Sucks.

I spent a good proportion of Thursday afternoon assessing the impact of something Andrew Keen called ‘digital Darwinism’ – the phenomenon that in the networked age, the voice that shouts loudest is the one that gets heard, no matter how irrelevant the content might be. Keen addresses this to bloggers, suggesting (usually rightfully – for both good and bad reasons) that once writing on the digital network became commonplace, then the collective voice – mob rule – becomes the decider of democratic opinion.

I’ve spent time addressing Andrew Keen before – we agree and disagree on an even number of issues, and he’s certainly made me think about the stances I adopt. This week, though, proved him right, and brought an instance of digital Darwinism that I found both repugnant and a disturbing signal for our future.

The Daily Mail’s ill-thought-out (and-completely-batshit. Sorry – had to say it) campaign to bring root and branch reform to the BBC took another step forward with the censure of Jonathan Ross for 3 months, and the resignation of Lesley Douglas from her position as controller of Radio 2. Whether or not this was the right thing to do, I believe is actually an irrelevance – there have been statements for and against all day, including staff at the BBC describing the relationship between Russell Brand’s production team and the BBC in terms and detail I’m hardly surprised by. What happened though is a travesty of the notion that we live in a democratic society, or that new media has brought about anything new with regard to censorship. If Mary Whitehouse were alive today, she’d be rejoicing.

30,000 people complained about the existence of a broadcast that a precious few of them had actually heard, but their newspaper of choice saw fit to instruct them to address in the strongest possible terms. That’s 30,000 people. Complaining because they were told to. Somewhat less than a majority platform from which to operate a political vehicle, and likely reflective of the reach of the Mail’s influence.

But, this week, 30,000 people, a tiny minority of the British public (assuming 60M population, and 20% of them under 16: 0.000625% of the population), have now dictated public policy for the largest broadcaster in the UK.

So – learning from this groundbreaking moment in UK broadcast policy, if I want Eastenders replaced because it offends my northern-ness, I have to gather about 30,000 signatories, and it’ll happen. Ban everyone who votes Liberal Democrat from the centre of any large town? Looks like 30,000 people again.

Or maybe we ought to apply the 0.000625% rule?

I work in a University. We must employ something in the region of 2000 academics. By the Daily Mail’s ruling, I need 1.25 (or 0.000625%) of them to affect a change in teaching policy. Maybe we ought to make the inclusion of Marxism a mandatory element of every programme. My colleague, Sue, is a keen Marxist. She’d love it. Even if she wasn’t completely serious, then it’d be approaching the 0.25 I need in addition to me.

Yeah, it’s ridiculous, isn’t it.

But it did just happen. And no-one objected.

Well, not so you’d notice, after all, they didn’t have a national newspaper standing behind them.


9 comments for “They Won. It Sucks.”

  1. I largely agree, with only one little objection: If you assume a population of 60M or excluding the under 16 year olds (why?), 48M – then 30,000 is a much larger percentage than you reckoned. To be exact, its about 100 times as much: 0.0625%. This however doesn’t have any impact on your Marxism proposition since 0.0625% of 2000 are still 1.25 academics. And besides, do you really still believe in democracy?

    Posted by Paz | October 31, 2008, 10:25 pm
  2. I’m going to be contrary here.

    Democracy isn’t a part of the governance of the BBC any more in this case than in any other. It’s never been a democratic institution. There’s a lot to be dissatisfied with in the Brand/Ross case, but the democracy angle is a red herring.

    This slavish adherence to populist opinion is simply a mark of consistency on the part of the BBC. It’s that populism that caused them to hire witless buffoons like Ross and Brand, it’s only fair that it also results in their departure.

    Also the university is a bad example since universities aren’t democratically governed. Almost any example would have been ridiculous because we live in a society whose governance structures (institutions, corporations) are based on a military hierarchy with precious little democracy in our day to day lives.

    We are lucky to have what little democracy we have, but it is a process that is the exception rather than the norm.

    Our norm is feudalism with occasional populist genuflections and the Ross/Brand affair is more of that same.

    Of course I’m probably just bitter because they don’t even bother with the genuflections in my home country, but at least Russell Brand managed to knock that from the front page here in the UK. :-D

    There’s also nothing digital about this process. There’s a reason why they call it a witch-hunt, our best analogies for the phenomenon are medieval, it’s not a signal of our future but of our past, our nature as a social animal.

    Posted by Baldur Bjarnason | October 31, 2008, 10:48 pm
  3. @Paz: Democracy, when applied, largely works. When people like Ricardo Semler and W. L. Gore have applied it to remove the militaristic traditions of their companies’ management structures it largely resulted in increased profits, job satisfaction and an overall strategic advantage for the companies.

    Democratically run companies such as Semler’s Semco are also more likely to survive a downturn or a depression than a company with the standard militaristic hierarchy.

    Humans function better in democratic structures, or at least in partially democratic social structures.

    The problem with the western world today isn’t that democracy doesn’t work but that it’s rare and badly applied.

    Again, universities are a particularly bad example as academics have rarely been fans of the democratic concept, even Plato thought it was an abomination that lead to detestable things like Athen’s abolition of slavery (how anybody could read Plato and not think that he and Socrates were scumbags is beyond me).

    Posted by Baldur Bjarnason | October 31, 2008, 11:04 pm
  4. It’s depressing beyond words but everyone is to blame to an extent here. The BBC should never have paid Ross so much – he’s horribly overexposed and though capable of good broadcasting, spends most of his time (as I have opined before) making shitty, lazy, smutty crap which is so dumbed down as to be generally offensive to the educated viewer / listener, regardless of its content. His occasional moments of quality only serve to underline how puerile and unfunny 90% of his output is.

    Brand is a feckless ballbag who has never been even remotely funny and has been given opportunities way beyond his meagre talents. Sounding like Dot Cotton and looking like Keith Richards does not make you funny, it makes you a desperately unfunny, irritating tit who should really be subjected to a couple of years of dental torture in a dank basement. Nobody has ever seen fit to point out to him that strutting around like a particularly self-important peacock and blathering on about your “winkle” does not make you worth listening to. You also need some demonstrable skills at something. Anything. He appeals to the kids, but these are the same kids who like Winehouse, Doherty and Razorlight. So you can see where I’m going with that.

    The Daily Heil is beneath contempt just like all the other tabloids and some of the “quality” press. It’s not a great stretch to imagine that the kinds of braindead fartknockers who need to be spoon fed their opinions by scummy tabloids are the same vapid sea cows who drivel bigoted, staggeringly ill-thought out right wing toss all over the BBC message boards. It is absolutely terrifying that these people exist in such numbers as they almost certainly do. They’re the same people who thought that Bernard Manning was an “honest bloke”, and “told it how it was” rather than that he was a fat, despicable racist without whom the world is a measurably better place.

    There’s an irony in the fact that BBC News 24 ran this story to death, just like they do with everything in their insatiable quest to fill 24 hours of news with noise and pictures. And in the process, ensured that it didn’t go away and actually snowballed.

    But returning (finally) to Tom’s point, knee jerk reactions and making policy on the hoof like this are a sad fact of a 24 hour news culture – one perpetuated by the BBC amongst others. The whole 37,000 complaints thing was complete bullshit. People complaining just to see how high they could get the number of complaints. Ross and Brand deserved to be taken down a peg or two. They represent both the low standards we have of our “stars” and the vast sums they are given for talking unfunny crap. What they did was moronic, but the reaction has had very little to do with the event itself. It’s been a self-created and self-perpetuating media shitstorm, fueled partly by the idiocy of the presenters, the ludicrous amount of power and money they command, arrogance at the BBC, the stupidity of the average tabloid “reader” and the ability of 24 hour news to keep repeating something so often that a small problem quickly becomes a huge problem.

    I’ll get me coat.

    Posted by mongo | October 31, 2008, 11:41 pm
  5. Maybe 30,001 people should have asked for them not to have been sacked.

    Whether the people who complained were right/wrong/informed/knee-jerking or not, if we want a democracy in this or any other country I guess we have to live with the fact that the majority of people can make decisions we don’t agree with – however they come to make these decisions. Or maybe you’d like to take away people’s right to vote or comment?

    You know my feelings about the BBC and it’s license fee. The arrogance that if the BBC didn’t exist we’d all drown in crap TV. That from the age of 18 we are allowed to choose our representatives who can decide to tax us and send us to war, but we can’t be trusted to choose our own light entertainment. Personally I hope this is the start of the end for them, all caused by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand. Yay!

    Posted by Andy | November 2, 2008, 12:25 am
  6. “we have to live with the fact that the majority of people can make decisions we don’t agree with”

    But the majority of people are stupid, barely informed, bigoted, easily manipulated assflaps who would struggle to tie their Pony trainers without The Scum to tell them what to think.

    “Or maybe you’d like to take away people’s right to vote or comment?”

    Yes. I think people should have to pass some sort of test to prove that they have even basic literacy skills, are not a practicing Nazi and know their arse from a hole in the ground before they are allowed to even own a pair of trousers or leave the house, let alone drivel their embarrassingly vapid “opinions” handed to them by agenda-mad tabloids all over the country. The BBC website’s comments section would be very fucking quiet as 97% of its rabid, psychotic contributors would fail the test.

    Posted by mongo | November 2, 2008, 1:59 am
  7. Well there it is. Democracy in action.

    Posted by Andy | November 2, 2008, 2:02 am
  8. Anyone fancy a pint?

    Posted by mongo | November 2, 2008, 10:25 am
  9. Posted by mongo | November 3, 2008, 11:54 am

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