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When the people made television: the BBC’s Community Programme Unit

An exhibition revisiting a radically different, democratic approach to programming in the 1970s prompts Andrew Dolan to consider whether another BBC is still imaginable today

5 to 6 minute read

The exterior of the BBC Television Centre in London

The recent Gary Lineker controversy exposed a deep crisis of legitimacy for the BBC. Yet in the ongoing debate over its future, progressives need a vision for the UK’s public/state broadcaster as well as a critique. When formulating this, we can take inspiration from moments of radical experimentation that have occasionally flourished within the BBC’s establishment environment. The Community Programme Unit (CPU) was such a moment. 

Created in 1973, the CPU’s mission was to support members of the public to create their own programmes, and its work was the central focus of the People Make Television exhibition recently at Raven Row. The exhibition features multiple rooms with TVs playing any one of hundreds of programmes, mostly from the CPU but also from a handful of local cable stations that sprang up in the 1970s. 

The programmes from the CPU are from a series called Open Door (later re-launched as Open Space), which pioneered a boldly democratic approach to TV, with community and activist groups being supported to make their own programmes and tell their own stories. While the BBC provided funding and technical support, editorial control remained predominantly with the groups.

The result was many novel and politically striking programmes covering a huge range of issues and struggles: gentrification, poverty, racism, and industrial disputes. This combination of method and subject produced a forcefulness at odds with the BBC’s wider programming, which was shaped by a conservatism born out of the organisation’s intertwinement with establishment and empire.

An alien experience

Programmes I watched at the exhibition included one on police violence in Southall, made by the Monitoring Group; one on young punks in Telford and their struggle to find community spaces, made by youth workers and local teenagers; and one made by militant pensioners documenting their campaign against desperate poverty. I watched the first of these in a room with 20 others, many spread across the floor. It was a surprisingly collective experience that felt alien to someone accustomed to consuming content individually in front of a laptop.

Programmes like these set the emotional and political tone of the exhibition, and beyond the story of publicly-funded DIY television, they tell another story of a diverse array of community groups then organising at the sharp edges of a political and economic system marked by racism, sexism and deep inequality, at a time when the post-war consensus was quickly breaking down. 

Many of the issues dealt with by Open Door are still relevant today and provide a stark reminder that the progress promised by social democracy has severely faltered

The experience of these groups with the BBC, a key pillar of UK social democracy, seems mostly to have been positive (though not always without tensions) – but many used their programmes to document their struggles against the state, whether politicians, the police or hostile bureaucracies, as well as other parts of the media.

This marks the CPU as a rare experiment in democratising public institutions in the post-war period, similar to the attempts at popular participation at the Greater London Council in the 1980s – both against the grain of an increasing tendency towards centralisation and managerialism in the UK political system and BBC alike.  

Lost futures

Like the GLC, the CPU feels like a lost future where public resources could be used for democratic projects at the grassroots, and this sense of radical promise was typical of the times. The winds of 1968 were still blowing strong when the CPU was formed in 1973, just before the miners struck in 1974 and helped bring down the Conservative government in a general election that also delivered a staggering 78.8 percent turnout. Just six years later UK trade union membership reached a peak. 

This was a period of confident working-class militancy, democratic participation and cultural experimentation that might have provided foundations for a new political and economic settlement. The CPU was a product of this environment, but while it did outlast Thatcher’s reign, many of the groups it platformed did not – victims of a government that ushered in a more rapacious form of capitalism, smashed the labour movement, and closed down much of the political space and infrastructure for autonomous community activity. 

This combination of method and subject produced a forcefulness at odds with the BBC’s wider programming

Yet while much has changed, much remains the same. Many of the issues dealt with by Open Door are still relevant today and provide a stark reminder that the progress promised by social democracy has severely faltered. Who can watch a scene of pensioners using a local hall as a warm bank in the 1970s and not think with dread of pensioners today who cannot afford to heat their homes? The exhibition provokes similar comparisons throughout, sparking regret and outrage. 

The sheer volume of programmes at People Make Television meant that one could only watch a small fraction, and the immense amount of material was also lightly curated. It would be politically useful to link the struggles covered  with their contemporary forms, and to make the material permanently public and accessible to groups fighting the same battles today.

Additionally, while detailed essays in the accompanying exhibition pamphlet provide the social and political context of the CPU, the exhibition itself does this less. There is also arguably a missed opportunity to draw more explicit links with the BBC today, as the CPU has much to say about how another BBC is possible. 

Another BBC is possible

Despite momentous technological change, the media today is in many ways similar to that of the 1970s. The BBC is still intertwined with the state and establishment – especially at board level and through its political journalists – and still uncomfortable with meaningful discussion of community and industrial struggles, as exemplified by coverage of recent strikes. 

More widely, print circulation may have collapsed but many legacy media outlets have converted their institutional power into dominance of the digital sphere, even if there is also space for new media outlets to disrupt traditional information monopolies while covering topics otherwise ignored. But this is true for the right as much as it is for progressives, and across the world dark money pours into digital advertising and fake news works its way through vast information ecologies to devastating effect.

The BBC is in a vulnerable position: untrusted and in many ways unfit for purpose, despite excelling in some programming. Yet by virtue of its isolation from direct corporate influence, a radically reformed BBC remains indispensable if we are to have the healthy media a functioning democracy needs. 

This is why the debate over the future of the BBC is so important, and why this exhilarating if imperfect exhibition is such a valuable contribution to it. It reminds us that there is another way to make television and that democratic practice can be successfully merged with large and complex public institutions such as the BBC that do so much to shape the politics and culture of this country.

Andrew Dolan is a writer and former co-editor of Red Pepper

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