1 Governing by TV: BBC’s Educational Programming and Geopolitics in the “Long” 1970s
In June 1970, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) showcased its new documentary series directed by the French filmmaker Louis Malle. Phantom India was Malle’s cinematic voyage to India in the shape of a personal film essay. The Criterion Collection continues to advertise the piece as Malle’s “most personal film… infused with his sense of discovery, as well as occasional outrage, intrigue, and joy.”1 Made as a seven-part mini-series, with a single episode lasting 50-minutes, its broadcast on the newly established BBC-2 channel was part of an effort to bring British audiences high-quality television and showcase the new possibilities of colour broadcasting. Indeed, the Corporation’s second channel BBC-2 became world-renowned for its documentary series such as Kenneth Clark’s history of Western art Civilisation (1969) and Jacob Bronowski’s history of science The Ascent of Man (1973).2 While audiences applauded the BBC-2 series and North American production companies offered future co-production deals, former British colonies, such as India, saw this novel educational format as an imperial onslaught. As Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s government concluded, Phantom India was no objective portrayal of the modern Indian state but an intentional sabotage of the country’s post-imperial independence.3 The diplomatic scandal, dubbed by the Indian press “the Louis Malle affair,” had far-reaching consequences for India’s Pre-Emergency government as well as for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). BBC’s Bureau Chief, Mark Tully, was expelled from India and the government enacted various forms of media censorship. But, most importantly, this diplomatic crisis urged the NAM to draft strategies for a decolonised global media network. These efforts culminated in 1976 when the NAM established its Broadcasting Commission in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. Emboldened by these new developments, UNESCO formed the 1980 MacBride Commission for the New World Information and Communication Order. In protest, the U.S. government under Ronald Reagan left UNESCO in 1984, while Margaret Thatcher’s government criticised the Commission for adhering to “socialist” demands. How did European educational television initiate such far-reaching debates over media ownership?
This article revisits the forgotten 1970s debates over media ownership by looking at how Phantom India disparaged worldwide decolonisation projects through its unflattering depictions of post-1947 India. On the one hand, the BBC docu-series were developed to attract an audience previously excluded from educational broadcasting while, on the other hand, address the diminishing role of former imperial powers such as Britain. My point is that these seemingly unrelated trends, the expansion of educational television to adult viewers as well as the weaning position of Western liberal states, were connected. By 1968, it became clear to both political elites and citizens that the post-World War II consensus had come to a definite end; the year uncovered multiple ruptures in what historians have called “the modern world-system” or Western liberal states’ global network of economic and political dominance.4 The BBC docu-series were intentionally created to address this pervasive feeling of cultural decline. Consider, for example, the inaugural docu-series program Civilisation (1969). The show was motivated by two central questions—what made the West unique and how might it be inoculated from global political instability? Civilisation’s presenter, art historian Kenneth Clark, launched the docu-series through this memorable passage:
Looking at those great works of Western man and remembering all that he has achieved in philosophy, poetry, science, lawmaking, it does seem hard to believe that the European civilization can ever vanish. And yet, you know, it has happened once. All the lifegiving human activities that we lumped together under the word civilization have been obliterated once in Western Europe when the Barbarians ran over the Roman Empire. For two centuries, the heart of European civilization almost stopped beating. We got through by the skin of our teeth. In the last few years, we developed an uneasy feeling that this could happen again.
Undoubtedly, Clark’s appearance, the Harris Tweed coats, and his “stiff but cordial” presentation reminded one of older notions of Britishness that seemed to have been disappearing ever since the 1948 docking of HMT Empire Windrush.5 And yet, Civilisation centered its analysis of decline on the threat posed by “unbridled” politics or waves of protests throughout the 1960s. These first truly global protests, from Czechoslovakia to Mexico, erupted in 1968 over a variety of issues, not least the rising unemployment rates, women’s rights, and the bureaucratisation of politics. But what all of them had in common was general dissatisfaction with how post-World War II economic and political reconstruction failed to create a form of popular government. Civilisation echoed this sentiment of cultural turmoil while also undermining the protests’ political demands.6 As a result, the BBC projected educational television as ambitious enough to tackle the period’s “crisis of confidence” without legitimising political action.
Perhaps in no other decade did television expand so rapidly. The 1960s were the golden age of TV documentaries because of a growing sense that people needed to be informed about the increasingly fast-paced world.7 New forms of documentary filmmaking such as cinema vérité and direct cinema alongside the recruitment of documentary practitioners to work on television, helped establish educational documentaries as one of television’s fastest-growing TV genres.8 In the words of Duncan Ross, an offspring of the British Documentary Movement who worked at establishing BBC’s documentary programming, television was documentary’s natural terrain for it provided a growing audience able to be persuaded on the necessity of self-betterment.9 This was an old idea of documentary media, espoused in the 1930s by John Grierson, that sought to enact popular governance through visual means.10 Undoubtedly, it was imperative for Cold War bureaucrats to comprehend that television, a medium they personally disliked, or more often, failed to understand, was increasingly central to everyday life.11 But to analyse the rise of educational television in this fraught political and economic period of the 1960s, we need to expand our usual understanding of instructional media.
Educators and child psychologists have studied educational television from its earliest days by exploring effects of prolonged exposure to screens and television’s suitability for children’s psychophysical development.12 These writings were rarely attentive to analysing educational media as a cultural practice, whereas television studies were, up until the last decade, disinterested in what TV scholars perceived as a fairly uncontroversial, to some even “tedious” TV genre.13 Fortunately, this neglected form of television has recently garnered increased attention. One example is Anna McCarthy’s book The Citizen Machine, which argues that early U.S. television adopted educational broadcasting to create a distinctly post-World War II definition of democracy to suit the country’s Cold War geopolitics.14 Charitable organisations tied to large U.S. corporations, such as the Ford Foundation and DuPont, sponsored educational shows that propagated the values of classical liberalism (i.e., economic freedom and individualism) in an effort to ensure unrestricted circulation of capital on the global market. As such, educational television was developed in the 1950s and 1960s as a form of biopolitical power. In a similar Foucauldian vein, literary scholar Ian Hunter long argued that organised education should be seen as a set of cultural techniques which institute new forms of being in the world.15 In contrast to a purely ideological study of educational television, which recognised state-sponsored education as repressive for the “authentic” national culture and class-consciousness, Hunter used Foucault’s descriptive method to show how organised education produced new subjectivities. Surely, educational television acquired a more prominent place in European broadcasting when it transitioned from what scholars have called “School TV” to general self-improvement.16
But the U.S. context has been well-documented through the crucial place public broadcasting has had in debates between the Democratic, and Republican Party from the 1960s onwards. As media scholars have shown, U.S. educational television was instituted as a core value of public broadcasting through the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act and ever since, criticised by right-wing factions within the Republican party for its “liberal bias.”17 In a far less controversial manner, European public broadcasting has upheld its educational mission as central to the ways broadcasting developed across the continent. Legislators and media scholars have defined European educational broadcasting as public television’s core mission. But historically, such powerful rhetoric has not inoculated educational content from debates on the dominance of Western media corporations like the BBC. Because the Corporation was among the first to reform and expand educational broadcasting beyond its traditional school-age audience, it is pertinent to uncover how educating, and thus governing by television was adopted, and contested in countries not traditionally part of the Western world. Two countries perhaps most responsible for establishing and leading the Non-Aligned Movement, Yugoslavia, and India, are good counterarguments for studying the ways in which European educational television provoked reactions to its new cultural techniques.
What follows is a story of how one successful mini-series, Phantom India, sought to reposition the Western televisual gaze at a moment when the NAM seriously challenged its global influence. In the first part of this article, I offer a close reading of Phantom India to show how the series undermined post-imperial India, and why the program generated such a strong opposition within the Indian government, and the NAM. In this volatile political and economic period, educational television emerged as a terrain on which the future world order was debated and redefined through the Movement’s institutionalisation in the 1970s. And yet, in the second part, I present the unfortunate failure of the NAM’s efforts through the example of Yugoslav broadcasting. I interject this socialist country in the Anglo-Indian diplomatic affair because Yugoslav broadcasting and its TV executives were essential to the NAM’s media policy. Yugoslav TV executives headed the NAM’s Commission for Broadcasting, and Yugoslav TV workers helped build other NAM member state’s broadcasting systems. But reconciling Yugoslav Third World internationalism and TV executives’ desire to develop Yugoslav television on-par with Western public broadcasting, not least the BBC, was a fraught endeavour.
2 Phantom India
The second BBC television channel was established in 1964 to supplement the perceived cultural and educational needs of the British public.18 From its inception, BBC-2 struggled to achieve an appropriate balance between high-brow programming and the audience’s engagement.19 Although this trend would mark the channel’s early years, the introduction of colour television in 1967 managed to temporarily curtail these anxieties by fusing a novel televisual technology (colour) with an ambitious new form (TV history). Purposefully, the BBC-2 docu-series were produced to showcase all the possibilities of colour. Up until the mid-1960s, educational television was exclusively produced in TV studios with simple décor and a mise-en-scène, often mimicking a school lectern. Likewise, educational programming was often relegated, in both Western and Eastern Europe, to the early morning hours to fulfil the needs of school-age children.20 But since colour television was propagated, in the 1960s, as an immersive experience, ideally suited to exploration of new worlds, the BBC docu-series were exclusively produced out-of-studio.21
One of the first shows to revolutionise educational broadcasting on BBC-2 was the above-mentioned Civilisation. Presented by the acclaimed historian of art and the wartime Ministry of Information bureaucrat Kenneth Clark, the show fulfilled diverse functions. On the one hand, it was an educational show that pedantically studied important historical periods of Western European art; on the other hand, it was a revived celebration of Western civilisation. By televising original historical sites and museums, the show provided an expanded vision of Western cultural heritage equally suitable for the growing colour TV industry. Likewise, Malle’s Phantom India was both a visually rich exploration of “an exotic land” as well as an authoritative account of Britain’s most important ex-colony. Colour television, specifically in Phantom India, managed to fuse and make evident the newly formed relationship between the modern expansion of capital with older notions of colonial exploration.
The production of Phantom India was influenced by the uneasiness of former imperial powers over their colonial heritage. Consider the 1956 Suez crisis, during which Britain was internationally reprimanded and embarrassed for infringing on Egypt’s sovereignty. For Britain, the post-World War II order ushered in an era of what Paul Gilroy called “postimperial melancholia,” or a pervasive feeling of uncertainty in once imperial metropoles.22 Especially through its antithetical relationship to Hollywood, European auteur cinema was particularly self-conscious and, to an extent, aware of its ideological stakes. In the Phantom India’s inaugurating episode, this observation is bluntly invoked: “Everywhere we go, the first things we see are their eyes, their stares. In a moment, we are surrounded by Indians. We came to see them, but they are the ones looking at us… The roles have reversed: We’ve become the show and they the audience.”
Scholars have defined this sensitivity in cultural production as redemptive. In other words, European art cinema appropriated modernist filmmaking techniques to make sense of the post-imperial moment.23 For example, Phantom India mimics the old colonial genre of travel writing while also self-consciously “liberating” it from the constraints of the dominant Western gaze; the series seemingly invites a returned gaze. By undermining the importance of the Indian elite and the expert class in post-1947 India, Malle’s documentary fixates on the subaltern. Malle’s on-screen voyage fixates on, what Ranjani Mazumdar termed, “the spectacle of inequality.”24 The series represents India as a paradox as it relies on the one hand, a well-read and well-educated middle-class, while on the other hand, slave-like labour. 25 Such stark dichotomies constitute an experience of “shock” present in the logic of modern Indian cities. However, Malle does not employ the distanced perspective, akin to the Bombay film spectacles that utilise the aerial shot as a disciplining, almost Panopticon-like, function of transforming the unruly into observable and controllable subjects. Reminiscent of the cinema vérité style, Malle’s camera glides through the crowd and establishes its veracity by supposedly becoming one with the ordinary, the crude, and the everyday.
Additionally, in episode four ‘Dream and Reality,’ Malle represents post-independence India as a pre-modern slavery, in which impoverished inhabitants, in no way citizens for Malle, toil away: building mudbricks, picking tea leaves, or manually expanding the British-era railroad. By showing images of almost feudal-like labour, Phantom India emphasises the apparently gruesome living conditions in modern India.26 The documentary series did not cause outrage just for the unfavourable representations of Indian slums but also for other, soon-to-be, controversial markers of PM Indira Gandhi’s rule. For example, in episode two, the viewers are given glimpses of the family planning exhibit at the Madras Fair. Malle’s cynical commentary subtly condemns the government’s sterilisation practice: “Yet the campaign does not lack imagination, it offers a free radio to any man who agrees to be sterilised.” Forced sterilisations produced, perhaps, the harshest criticism of Gandhi’s first government. By representing India’s policy with sarcastic commentary, juxtaposed with unflattering close-up shots portraying dangling (Malle adds “Russian”) condoms, Phantom India ridiculed the country’s state-sponsored visual education undertaken by India’s Films Division.
Only by the end of the BBC-2 series, in episode seven, do audiences get a glimpse of objects and places akin to the Films Division’s documentaries such as Hindustan Ambassador cars or Bombay’s petrochemical industry.27 Yet, Bombay was still presented as rife with vice. Prostitution, crowds, and unsanitary conditions all visually represented the experience of modern-day Bombay. In contrast, the Films Division’s interview documentary We Want to Live (1970), produced at the height of the Affair, gave far more attention to the problems of Bombay’s sex workers; it refused to relegate them to a slum spectacle. Comparing Malle’s view of India with the decades-long state propaganda, it becomes understandable why there was such a strong diplomatic retribution. In part, the Affair was a result of visual dissonance, because for decades, India’s Films Division developed a particular notion of India’s post-imperial modernity that Malle sought to disrupt.
3 The Non-Aligned Movement’s Response and Yugoslavia’s challenge
The Non-Aligned countries reached several conclusions around the time of Phantom India’s broadcast on the BBC-2 channel. First, recently decolonised countries finally understood that Western democracies would not allow them to be fully independent, nor would they help them develop economic stability; any reform had to be initiated within the countries themselves and by developing trade networks with other NAM members. Perhaps most importantly, the NAM countries understood that as traditional imperial networks retreated, new forms of dominance were being established. While classical liberalism of the nineteenth century heavily relied on military power, post-World War II (neo)liberalism was based on supranational financial, legal, and media institutions.28
Before the 1970s, the NAM lacked a stable institutional framework that would help translate conclusions from their annual meetings into policy. The Phantom India scandal coincided with the NAM’s efforts to create an international axis of economic and political power through regular meetings and a robust international economic and media network. Historian Jürgen Dinkel reads the opportunity to do this in the 1970s, and not in the decade prior, as a symptom of the NAM’s struggle to pierce through a fiercely bipolar world dominated by the U.S.-Soviet conflict.29 Paradoxically, the destruction of the Bretton Woods system in 1971 provided an opportunity. The Bretton Woods was a post-World War II monetary institution, developed to control the exchange of foreign currency pegged to the U.S. dollar at a fixed rate. Once the system fell through, due to Richard Nixon’s ad-hoc measure at curbing U.S. stagflation, all currencies imploded. To stabilise foreign trade, the NAM countries undertook bold economic experiments. The starkest example of these new economic measures was the oil embargo instituted by the NAM’s oil-producing countries (OPEC) to regain control over their natural resources.
Undoubtedly, the NAM countries understood that these economic measures would have to be supported by an equally ambitious media network—favourable public opinion was indispensable to the NAM’s geopolitical aims. In the words of the Yugoslav Federal Secretary of Information, Ismail Bajra, new forms of Western imperialism extended to culture by maintaining a one-way flow of information through the dominance of Western press agencies.30 Efforts to envision an independent media network culminated in 1976 with the establishment of the NAM’s Commission for Broadcasting. As a direct answer to the Phantom India diplomatic scandal, NAM sought to curtail future unflattering representations of its member states by producing more “honest” media depictions.31 This was the main goal agreed upon at the first conference in Sarajevo, a city purposefully chosen to signal the struggle against Western colonialism; it was here that Gavrilo Princip mortally wounded the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This infamous prelude to World War I was represented in Yugoslav historiography as the first step in the international struggle against imperialism. Indeed, four European empires disintegrated after the War which seriously destabilised the liberal world-system.32 It was, perhaps, the only claim Yugoslavia had in its fight against world imperialism. In other words, Yugoslavia remained an oddball in the Movement even though it was essential to establishing and leading the NAM’s Commission for Broadcasting. This contradictory position was perhaps most visible in Yugoslavia’s TV culture, and it severely strained the NAM’s efforts to reform global communication.33
Reading archival documents of Yugoslav TV’s Executive Board meetings, one gets an impression that goals proposed at the NAM’s meetings were not easily translated to the countries’ domestic setting. Consider, for example, an early-1968 meeting held in Belgrade during which the Yugoslav TV executives displayed unusual reluctance in hosting a TV director from Nigeria (a fellow NAM member since 1964). Ivko Pustišek, the Yugoslav Radio-Television (JRT) Director, concluded: “Comrades, I think we have no interest in hosting the Nigerian TV executive. That can only be of interest for the Federation, and if that is so, they should pay for it.” Moreover, Boris Mikoš, TV Ljubljana’s General Director, sarcastically remarked that the Nigerian executive’s visit would consist of, after all, coming “to one’s house for lunch, the others for dinner, and asking for magnetophonon tapes.”34 Yet, minutes later, the Board enthusiastically welcomed the Danish TV executive’s visit to Yugoslavia in what they deemed as a remarkable opportunity to strengthen their ties with Denmark. Noticing the inconsistency, Vojo Savić, director of TV Sarajevo and president of the Yugoslav TV Executive Board, suggested that their decision to decline the Nigerian TV’s General Director was contradictory given Yugoslavia’s role in the Movement: “We are dismissing those that are less developed. Although with them our exchange and collaboration are less likely than with Denmark.”35 The kerfuffle ended with the Board finally agreeing to host the Nigerian guest because, as they openly acknowledged, rattling Yugoslavia’s political echelon could potentially deny them future funding.
This brief historical episode exemplifies what other scholars have called Yugoslavia’s “performative solidarity” in the Movement.36 Indeed, the country failed to interrogate and denounce racialised structures of world imperialism by maintaining their European superiority vis-à-vis “those less developed.”37 But the archival anecdote also shows how Yugoslav Third World internationalism, the core of its foreign policy, ran contrary to Yugoslav TV executives’ desire to build television along Western lines. Merely years after the NAM’s consequential 1961 Belgrade Meeting, Yugoslavia was already showing contradictions in its foreign and domestic policy. In 1965 when the Yugoslav economy underwent a tectonic shift by instituting “economic reforms,” a euphemism for a market economy, its television stations had to be financially self-sufficient. Even though there was no real competition among Yugoslav television stations akin to those present in British broadcasting, where the BBC competed with the commercial ITV network, Yugoslav television still needed to financially sustain itself through popular programming. Consequently, Yugoslav television imported the bulk of its programme from Britain and the United States, including hit shows such as Peyton Place, the Perry Mason Show, and Civilisation. Programme exchange with developing countries, in the eyes of those running Yugoslav television, was neither culturally desirable nor financially necessary.
After all, Yugoslavia was one of the founding members of the European Broadcasting Union in 1950 and participated in developing European television before it had a domestic TV system. Hence, it is not surprising that a BBC-2 docu-series such as Civilisation received accolades in Yugoslavia, an official recognition in 1969 at the Yugoslav TV Festival on Lake Bled, followed by a successful book version of the series.38 In the 1970s, Yugoslav television extensively collaborated with Western broadcasters which made Yugoslav know-how essential to the NAM’s Commission for Broadcasting. But unlike their predecessors from the late-1960s, Yugoslav TV professionals involved with the Commission, such as Anton Krašovec, TV Ljubljana’s General Director and the head of the NAM’s Broadcasting Commission, and Zlatko Sinobad, former Yugoslav Ambassador to Finland, were not dismissive towards developing countries and sought to support their TV systems. Nevertheless, they were frustrated by the Movement’s, and Yugoslav policymakers’ inability to bypass rhetorical commitment and offer a substantial change in the global media system.39
Perhaps more tragically, similar inconsistencies were present across the Movement. As the NAM accused Western countries of censorship, multiple member states were infringing on media and human rights back home. But perhaps the surest sign of NAM’s inability to devise a genuinely independent media culture was the member states’ overwhelming focus on Western models of communication and entertainment. For example, one of the most critical conclusions from the conference held in Baghdad in 1978 was that all NAM members should create an official media “portrait” of their countries to control the representation of their image.40 India already succeeded in producing one such portrait. Still, it was developed, by mimicking BBC-2 docu-histories. The Indian government sought to discredit Phantom India by producing, paradoxically, a similar visual history at the height of the Emergency era in 1976. The five-part documentary series Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi, directed by S. Krishnaswamy, was an ambitious visual history marketed by Warner Bros, the film’s international distributor, as an answer to the BBC’s documentaries. The series’ trailer directly countered the discourse around the Phantom India Affair and the visual tropes it established. The images of slums were juxtaposed to India’s steel industry and enhanced by the trailer’s commentary that explained India’s persistent poverty through the on-screen “heroic efforts to solve our problems.” Shots like these equate the eradication of slums to unwavering modernisation and complement the Films Division’s visual rhetoric. The trailer ends with a promise to “change your perception of India” as an additional assurance of its righteousness over false Western representations such as Phantom India. Krishnaswamy’s documentary instantaneously became a national treasure with mandatory screenings for school-age children, and special broadcasts on the Indian TV network Doordarshan during historic events such as PM Indira Gandhi’s 1984 Assassination.41 But in repeating the cultural techniques set by the BBC, the series failed to provide an independent media experience from the one already undertaken by Western educational series.
Phantom India’s broadcast reverberated in several directions. First, it produced years long diplomatic strife between India and Britain. Apart from expelling the BBC’s correspondent, India closed off the country for British media corporations and stifled the production of subsequent series such as The Ascent of Man (1973) and The Age of Uncertainty (1977). Second, the Louis Malle Affair emboldened the Non-Aligned Movement to interrogate ways in which new forms of imperial dominance were being enacted through global informational systems. Although Phantom India was a single case study, it managed to rally non-aligned member states against what they perceived as negative portrayals of decolonisation. Although NAM understood the need to fight against media dominance as a new form of corporate imperialism, it failed to create a sustainable alternative. Yugoslav TV executives were particularly ill-suited to lead the Commission; their desire to develop Yugoslav television on the model of the BBC and other Western media corporations was in stark discord with Yugoslav Third World internationalism. Moreover, new educational programmes such as the BBC-2 docu-series were influential to domestic documentary productions in India and elsewhere. Internationally, the NAM countries sought to counter Western media models, but domestically, providing an independent media language was often relegated to emulating Western European and U.S. television. By adopting Western-style communication and entertainment, alongside the urgency to tame political and economic crises at home, the Non-Aligned Movement failed to tackle Western media corporations’ cultural hegemony.
This study has taken multiple directions and produced a collection of what others, such as historian Kris Manjapra, called the history of entanglements.42 Entanglements provide a liberating terrain for the study of multiple events inspired by or emanating from Phantom India. My point is that if we want to understand the fraught 1970s, we need to study the BBC-2 docu-series’ entangled histories with Western and Non-Aligned countries. Getting this history right matters because it expands our usual understanding of European public broadcasting. Even though its impetus to educate and inform continues to be lauded by legislators, educational television was historically entangled with a variety of geopolitical struggles. Docu-series such as Civilisation and Phantom India were produced to counter Western “cultural decline” and provide a revitalised form of the liberal world-system. While the BBC initially began exporting the series to garner foreign currency under the first substantial crumble of Britain’s welfare system in the mid-1960s, the docu-series became central to the period’s political and economic debates. What made the BBC-2 documentary series so relevant to geopolitics was their successful amalgamation of education and entertainment presented through “a personal view” of charismatic public intellectuals and filmmakers. The intricacies of an increasingly globalised world in the 1970s, when former imperial powers and newly emerging nation-states fought for political and economic dominance, were perhaps most noticeable through the decade’s educational television. But despite the decade’s crises, it is paramount for historians today to narrate the period as not one of just stagnating economic growth and inflation but as an era of missed opportunity to persist with policy reforms initiated in the 1970s.43