The unravelling of the reputation of the BBC casts new light on the feud between Mary Whitehouse and Sir Hugh Greene. At least part of the BBC under Sir Hugh was indeed engaged in systemically corrupting the young and her rehabilitation may be under way, despite the continuing comments of apologists for the adolescent smut that often concealed genuinely predatory behaviour.
In reading the headlines on the protagonists we tend to forget that Mary Whitehouse became concerned as a result of her experiences as an art teacher responsible for sex education at a secondary modern school in Shropshire, which borders Clwyd – where the Wrexham cover up, probably to protect local rather than national reputations, is finally beginning to unravel. She represented blue collar, lower middle class England (and its values) against the metropolitan elite (and their values). The latter had to rubbish her, lest she destroy political support for their 1930s style license fees and arts subsidies.
We also forget that Hugh Greene was Head of German Services during that period when the BBC was described, along with the Times as one of two “truly world class propaganda machines, compared to which the Germans were mere amateurs”. The record of that speach (in 1946), together with the rest of the career of Sir Robert Renwick (who received Britain’s last hereditary peerage in return for not writing his memoirs) has been air-brushed out of history. Neither the BBC nor the Times reported the death of Churchill’s head of electronic warfare R&D (including the supply of equipment to Bletchley) and first chairman of ATV. They were deeply offended by what Sir Robert had intended as a compliment.
But we can also see the unravelling of the idea that the Internet as a whole (i.e. not just the BBC) is a source of truth. Those who followed the nudge, nudge, wink wink links to find the names being covered up found the names used by pederasts and their protectors to conceal their true identities. I fear that some of the predictions in my 2001 essay on the next forty years of business computing were only too accurate:
“How will we be able to believe what we see?
One can see the evolution of Western Culture since the Renaissance as an attempt to achieve ever increasing exactitude of representation of all forms of experience: the camera, the mathematics of perspective, shorthand, sound recording, were all phases of this. The achievement of visual reproduction, through many technologies, is one dimension of a vast collective project. The process of reproduction, from photography onwards, stemmed from a desire to capture, (possess), experience but the irony was that progressive attempts to achieve realism in the cinema, from 3D and Omnimax to Cinemascope, have actually been a voyage of improvement in animated delusion. Analogue technologies produced a “print” of reality, albeit airbrushed to remove the unwanted face or blemish. The digitised “transcript” can now be “cleaned” and “edited” to whatever image of perfection or fantasy is desired by the producer.
Virtual reality is to imagination as the hammer is to the hand. The optimistic view is that the more familiar we are with the way the image is created the more able we are to see through it. The consequence of using improved visualisation techniques in the media is that we now believe less and less of what we see. But the political and regulatory implications of the impossibility of telling electronically edited truth from fiction are profound.
Should we strive to preserve organisations like the BBC with a reputation for impartiality? Or is that reputation itself merely a fitting tribute to the propaganda skills that the BBC demonstrated to the world in 1940, editing unwelcome reality into sustainable mythology. Hitler used his mastery of the hypnotic power of radio based oratory to reinforce the mass emotion of his rallies relayed by film and newsreel to every cinema. Meanwhile the BBC showed how the illusion of honest candour could be used to equally mislead those to whom such raw emotion and crowd psychology was supposedly anathema. How can we prevent those with equal mastery of the inter-active multi-media of tomorrow from exercising similar power over the imaginations of their target audiences, including the sceptical and well educated who are all the more vulnerable because they think they understand how they are being manipulated?
The development and use of trusted technologies, which provide an unalterable record of what happened for use as evidence, will be essential. Once they are in widespread use the way in which we record transactions and agreements will also change. We will be able to play back a trusted record of what was done or agreed. The police electronic notebook, an unalterable record of what the officer or surveillance system saw and heard, will transform the legal process. Lawyers will then create a new world of obfuscation about what it meant.
Before then we may have to pass through a period when parchment, vellum and physical witnesses may be the only truly “trusted” record. Encryption techniques will come and go as their flaws, more likely to be of management and application than of mathematics, are found and exploited. By 2051 verifiable, write once, read many technologies recording at the place of transaction will be essential to enable the evidence to be admissible.
Industrial and Social Convergence?
Computers are already being embedded into a growing variety of devices and editing and recording machines let alone controls. Over the next fifty years they will be as ubiquitous as the electric motor or fuse, all but vanishing into business and domestic products and services hanging off the networks. After they have recovered from the shock of recession investors will focus on providers of value-added transmission services (including of censorship and tax collection under the control of government, suppliers or users according to the local market rules), on creators and publishers of content (from research and education to news and entertainment), on the impact on the marketing and distribution of physical goods and on the effects on travel and financial services.
Meanwhile those expected to plan the way forward are crippled by information overload now that de-layering has removed the information filters of middle management and the communication filters of secretaries and personal assistants. The anywhere office and martini (any time, any place, any where) communications today paralyse those who dare not use the “off” button. Over the next fifty years we will have to take back control in order to survive.”
I would like to think that some of my thoughts on how we can retake control may still be realistic but that is another reason why my main retirement project is to get the brightest of today’s post graduate students looking at how we shorten the period of pain before we can rebuild trust in the on-line world. Hence also my anger at those who fail to realise what the current deepening lack of trust is costing (including paying profitable business during a recession when players are fighting for survival) those who would like to help the rest of the world go confidently on-line.