Thursday, 27 January 2011

Keys, Gray and dinosaurs

Yes, I know, four months, &c, &c, &c.

But cast your mind back, if you can bear it, to August 1992. Working-class culture and unity as a political force had just received its final defeat - indeed, now it was not only socialism but social democracy that was decisively beaten - but one important aspect of working-class culture, which had teetered on the brink of oblivion through the years of squalor and violence which were a natural consequence first of the working class's abandonment of its side in the Butskellite bargain and then of the revenge destruction that followed, was BACK! Not only was it back but it was reborn and reinvented for a new era. A new, ostentatiously classless and mid-Atlantic face of football was, it had to be accepted even by the most fervent socialists considering what we'd been through in the previous decade, the only way out.

But what we were already seeing was the purloining of a genuinely progressive agenda by short-term capitalists who, only a few years earlier, would have been happy to see the sport collapse into oblivion. The game was, in truth, saved not by the Murdoch organisation but by the strong efforts of the fanzine movement, the well-organised mobilisation against the Thatcher government's identity card scheme, the genuine public sympathy and goodwill and desire to save such a significant, embedded part of British life which spread, quite unexpectedly and quicker than most newspapers sensed, after the "never again" moment of Hillsborough, the impetus for reconstruction set out in the Taylor Report, and a couple of fortuitous moments of good luck for the game spread entirely through terrestrial television - the Liverpool-Arsenal match six weeks after Hillsborough which convinced the residual aldermen of the Football League, and many others besides, that the game and dramatic live television could be the most natural bedfellows, and England's well-documented World Cup campaign of 1990.

All these occurred at a time when Sky was struggling to stay afloat, and showed no interest in football other than as co-owners of the original Eurosport. When the triumvirate that remained unbroken until this week - Richard Keys, Andy Gray and Martin Tyler - all deserted an ITV knowing that its original role could not last, they in fact joined the Sports Channel of BSB, the IBA's doomed attempt to keep the old broadcasting values alive in the new world. This organisation's very name, like most of the positive and progressive forces without which Sky would never have had a product to market at all, has rarely if ever been mentioned by Sky, for the simple reason that - like the overwhelmingly socialist fanzines and equally heartfelt left-wing campaigns against both the Tebbitists and the unashamedly lumpenproletariat thugs who posed an equal and remarkably similar threat to football's future at that time (what were the former, ever, but a more "respectable" version of the latter?) - it is politically embarrassing to acknowledge, not least because Richard Keys spent those years working for TV-am, the Daily Mail on screen and the place where the organised working class decisively lost its stake in broadcasting. The truth is that, just as the Labour Party was already in a strong electoral position on 12th May 1994, football was recovering anyway without Sky, and would have continued to do so - and in a direction that would have maintained the best elements of the old game while, if anything (because far more left-wing and democratic in the true, non-Blairite sense) more determined to throw out the worst aspects, especially the attitudes that Keys & Gray never even attempted to lose.

As their purloining for ultra-capitalist means of reforms that could never have happened without deep-rooted left-wing convictions gathered pace, Sky benefited initially from the fact that there was still a residual Reithianism at the BBC and a residual "right-on" stance at Channel 4, which gave them a sheen of rebellion and outsiderdom that they didn't deserve. The undeniable technical advancement for the time of their early Premier League coverage, coupled with the unprecedented commercialism of their presentation (mainly derived, as were many other aspects of their coverage, from the Channel 4 coverage of American football which had reached its peak at our own game's nadir), made veteran pundits such as Jimmy Hill, who twenty years earlier had reinvented football coverage just as much as Sky would do, and especially Saint & Greavsie, who quickly disappeared from ITV's shrivelled coverage, seem how Keys & Gray seem now - stupid, irrelevant old men. But this, as has been made brutally clear this week, was only on the superficial level of appearances. The actual attitudes and assumptions remained as backward and outmoded as they had ever been, rendered more so by the very force - global capitalism - which made them falsely appear to be different.

If Keys & Gray's neo-imperialist arrogance could very briefly claim to be set against a residually social democratic or paternalist broadcasting establishment, this was only the case at the very beginning of the Premier League era, for a number of forces rapidly came together to ensure that Sky's values gained more and more influence over the established broadcasters. Halfway through the first season of Sky's Whole New Ball Game, Channel 4 began to sell its own advertising airtime, effectively eroding the window of opportunity which for the previous decade had given Guardian values a mass television platform. The new system of ITV introduced at the same time decisively ended the era when even the most populist face of British TV had to be backed up with serious and unashamed aspirations to public service respectability. And even the BBC, faced with the unappealing alternative of the "Himalayan Option" which would have removed forever its claim to universality and confined it to an ever-diminishing Reithian ghetto (and of course destroy the outlet which was soon to spawn Britpop), began to play more and more by the rules of the market. Moreover, the cultural and political Left in the mid-90s decisively abandoned many of the principles that had guided the likes of the old Channel 4 and the fanzine movement, and began to accept if not actively celebrate neoliberal politics, a crude success-orientated attitude to popular culture, and social views (with wafer-thin justifications of "irony") far closer to those displayed at Molineux last Saturday than to anything that could be described as progressive. Keys & Gray were setting the agenda for an age. While it was always acknowledged that, say, the "New Football Writing" of the mid-90s came from a different cultural starting point, they were widely seen as at least allies of convenience for such a movement to an extent that, like much else about that era, is truly shaming when looked back on today.

The rebels, just like the Blairite rock'n'rollers to whom they became so close, had become the rulers. They had conquered the awestruck heights of British broadcasting; the whole system was being reshaped in their image. Incompetent and ill-thought-out attempts to dethrone them - such as ITV's idiotic attempt to develop digital terrestrial television as a low-rent competitor to Sky, and to build its own pay-TV sports channel around the continuing Football League and lesser Champions' League matches - only made them stronger, and made their competitors ever more laughable, caught frustratedly between the stools of erstwhile public service duopoly and hamfisted attempts to find a deregulated niche. No matter that huge numbers of the population never had, and have still never had, Sky; it became impossible to live without its influence unless you chose to isolate yourself from all mass media. The result was the inevitable outcome of those whose sole definition was how "anti-establishment" they were becoming the unquestioned, unquestionable rulers; like their counterparts in Blairite (and of course latterly Cameronite) rock music, they became drunk on power, so certain of their position that it never occurred to them to think before they spoke, or to think very much at all. All the time, right up to this week, the pretence remained that, just as Keys & Gray had moved the presentation of football on from the 1980s, they had also moved it on in terms of underlying attitudes and values. What really died this week is an important sustaining myth of the Britain of the last 15 years.

On an internal level for Sky themselves, the challenge now is to reinvent their own coverage in the same way they reinvented football coverage generally when Keys & Gray were the fresh young faces. No doubt, with the immense political and cultural power they have developed, they will succeed. But for the rest of us a more interesting point is this: if the faces of Sky throughout its existence are now recognised and accepted to be the very definition of dinosaurs, does that not show that the people they got rich by taunting with that description simply for daring to be socialist were never anything of the kind, merely people who had the temerity to hold to unfashionable ideas? If these most potent faces of 90s and 00s neoliberalism stand discredited and ruined, just as their creed is taking a more extreme and dangerous form in government than ever before, that could be an unexpectedly potent way back for the rest of us.

At any rate, a delusion died this week, a delusion that has shaped the second half of my life so far just as assuredly as the different (though related) delusions of Thatcherism shaped the first. Richard Keys and Andy Gray have fallen on their swords by the crudest rules of trial by media. To destroy the myths of neoliberalism which they so deeply embodied will be a far deeper challenge.