On Monday evening, Loach introduced a panel discussion on the politics of documentary censorship at the British Film Institute. The audience watched some extracts from Loach's four-part 1983 documentary A Question of Leadership, a film made for Channel 4 which exposed the complicity of the unions in strangling a variety of industrial disputes. The film also gave a voice to rank and file union members and exposed the machiavellianism of union leaders. As Loach himself commented, the film aired arguments that simply were not - and still are not - ever heard in the mainstream media. It was therefore almost inevitable that the documentary would not be broadcast.
After the screening, Loach was joined onstage by Brunel University's Julian Petley (who has written about the censorship of Loach's film) and Jo Glanville of the Index on Censorship to discuss the process by which the broadcasting of the film was prevented. As Petley observed, a variety of legal machinations and delaying tactics were used to kick Loach's film into the long grass. The board of the regulator, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, was stacked with members of the SDP (for non-Brits: a short-lived 'centrist' party formed by right-wing ex-Labourites). Indeed, as Loach wrote in The Guardian at the time:
"Television institutions are dominated by political appointments. Edmund Dell, chairman of Channel 4, and George Thomson, chairman of IBA, are both ex-Labour ministers. Dell is now in the SDP. They are in television to do a political job, to make sure that this most powerful of medium reflects, by and large, the interests of the establishment."
Of Loach's four original films for the documentary, it was originally proposed that only three should shown; but eventually none were broadcast. The viewpoints heard in Loach's film, it was claimed, were 'unrepresentative', meaning, as Petley explained, that they were not views usually heard in the media. Thus the very fact that the views were marginal was used further to suppress them! Loach's documentary, said the regulator, needed to be 'balanced' by other films offering alternative views; but as Petley observed, Loach's film was the balance, since its arguments were not to be heard anywhere else in the media. Loach's opponents also slowed down and confused the legal process by shifting the grounds of criticism from suggestions of partiality to allegations of defamation.
Overall, the screening and discussion provided a valuable insight into political censorship in the UK at a time of enormous political and social volatility. Yet the issues discussed have hardly gone away. Working class political perspectives remain more or less absent from broadcast journalism - and the situation is worsening rather than improving. As Petley suggested, the sharpening of commercial imperatives in British broadcasting following the Broadcasting Act of 1990 has made politically challenging television journalism harder than ever to produce.
The event got me thinking about the representation of the working class on British television in general. Working class people appear all the time in factual and fictional television programmes (although they are frequently depicted in popular televison programmes as feckless and work-shy, as discussed by me here). But working class political positions are another thing altogether. Perhaps it is useful here to distinguish between the working class, understood in sociological terms as a category or identity to be represented, and the proletariat - Marx's 'class for itself'. What was so scandalous to the ruling class about Loach's work in the early 1980s is precisely what gives politicians, union leaders and television producers the shivers today: the voicing of proletarian perspectives that defy the logic of 'representation' in defence of working class interests.