The Night Before Christmas

John Elsom*

With the arrival of the Internet, the role of the ministry of culture has changed. As well as being the guardian of the arts, it seeks to monitor the Web. Whether it can do so successfully is one challenge, but another is that “culture” must be defined in a different way. It is not just a leisure activity, but the way in which we are learning how to think. The flow of digitalised information has de-stabilised the financial markets, overthrown dictatorships and exposed secrets of governments. But the extension in our powers to share and communicate opens out the prospect of a true cultural revolution, more open, global and democratic than in the past. Will it be allowed to happen? 
Keywords: Culture, Internet, ministries of culture, theatre

The ministry of culture in the U.K. is known by its acronym, DCMS, which stands for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. In 2017, this replaced the department for Culture, Media and Sport (CMS), brought into being by Prime Minister Blair’s Labour government in 1997, which raised the money for the London Olympics in 2012. The CMS took over from the Department of National Heritage, Britain’s first ministry of culture, which was formed in 1992, from various smaller offices, scattered around bigger ministries, such as Education, Trade and Industry, the Foreign and Home Offices.

These names, departments and different occupations illustrate the wider area of doubt as to what is meant by “culture.” In the U.K., the word can be applied narrowly to “the arts” or broadly in such phrases as “street” or “Chinese” culture. These extremes have their political dimensions. Right-wingers usually apply the word “culture” to the “high arts,” as opposed to “entertainment.” Opera is “culture”: rock’n’roll is not. Left-wingers are inclined to embrace “high” and “low” cultures but can be pernickety when it comes to social content. Can “racist” literature be considered “cultural”? Only, they might argue, in a historical sense . . .

In 1978, I wrote a consultation document for the Liberals, our third political party, which first proposed a British ministry of culture. I chaired the consultative committees to explore the potential range of the new ministry, and what should be included in its remit. Sometimes, I acted as the party’s spokesperson or drafted speeches for senior politicians. In 1988, I resigned, when a key proposal to introduce broadband across the U.K. was rejected at a party conference. It was blamed for alienating the media. That, I argued, was the point.

Another political career ended in abject failure, but I do not regret the years of debate, writing minutes and reports, the hard work (unpaid) and the shame of making well-publicised mistakes, because it taught me that government is a messy business. Perhaps it has to be. A tidy government leaves too many harsh edges, where the duties of one department end and others begin, but offers no space for the deserving misfit. Governments are formed in the haze of good will after an election, when the victors heave a deep breath, look at their in-trays, piled high with problems, and hand the poisoned chocolates around.

This helps to explain the chaotic title, DCMS, of the British ministry of culture. This verbal combination makes no logical sense. Digital is an adjective, not a noun. Does it stand for the digital industries? Which are they? So many areas of human activity have been digitalised over the past fifty years that it would be absurd to limit the title to the Internet or Big Data, when it equally applies to the local betting shop. Might digitalisation itself be described as an expression of Western culture, whose history stretches back through Leibnitz to Pythagoras? Yes, it can, but few politicians would dare to be so retro.

“Media” is another problematic word. In the U.K., it is used as shorthand for the press, broadcasting companies and some news websites, but, strictly, it is the plural for medium. It applies to the means through which a message is conveyed. The wall upon which Banksy paints is also a medium; and in his case, the medium is certainly part of the message. Can we distinguish between the vision of the artist from the canvas on which it has been painted? This has its wider implications. Can a website like Facebook claim to be a “platform,” and not take responsibility for what is being said on that platform? The jury is still out.

Such verbal muddles may seem pedantic, but when they are turned into policies and applied to many kinds of activities, they can generate an absurdity of their own. As a generic word, sport is more coherent, but sits uneasily with the other items on the list, unless we assume that they are all leisure activities. If we do, we clip the wings of what we mean both by sport and culture, which are surely more than things that we do in our spare time. 

Photo: Web

In 1978, the “high arts” were tucked into the small Office of Arts and Libraries within the Department of Education. Its practical arm, the Arts Council of Great Britain (ACGB), had its own headquarters at 105 Piccadilly. ‘Broadcasting” was not “culture.” It belonged within the Postmaster General’s patch, the communications department. The record industry was not “culture”: it belonged within the Board of Trade. Festivals, such as the Edinburgh International Festival, were not “culture.” They were supported by the city council, the British Council, tourism and even the Foreign Office. Military bands were financed through the Ministry of Defence, royal ceremonials through the Sovereign Grant.

The very phrase, ministry of culture, was pejorative. It was associated with brain-washing, propaganda and totalitarian foreign powers. It was un-British. In a free society, the government has no right to dictate its cultural policy to the people. In 1990, after the Velvet Revolution transformed what was still Czechoslovakia, my friend, Milan Lukacs, a member of the AICT/IATC Board, became the new Czech Minister for Culture. One of his first tasks was to appoint four bishops. I was rather shocked. Surely, the Church with its divine inspiration was above mere “culture.” I lived in a country, where the head of the established Church was her Majesty the Queen. Was “culture” above the monarchy as well?

Nowadays, however, this all-embracing use of the word seems very hard to avoid. Is there any other way in which “culture” can be defined? The Internet has made us aware of how religion, politics, myths and national narratives are deeply entangled. They are expressed and explored through the arts. Culture can be summarised as the way in which we have been taught to think. It is acquired, rather than innate, and applies to our habits of mind rather than the neurological functioning of the brain. It derives from many different sources. Some may be personal, but others come from the societies in which we live.

It would be a mistake to assume that national cultures, however different they may be, are equally “good.” Some are violent and terrible, others are weak and fanciful, which is why ministries of culture, if they are to live up to their titles, are not minor adjuncts of larger ministries, but are the key to the success (or failure) of them all. In countries that have democratic structures, their cultures drive the national debates. To what extent is there or can there be free speech? Are dissidents tolerated? Are majority decisions respected?

If we accept these wide-ranging parameters, the remit of a ministry of culture becomes huge and unwieldy. Its task would no longer be just to sustain the institutions—museums, theatres, concert halls and libraries—but how to regulate (if regulation is needed) the processes of culture. It is not “the economy, stupid” that wins or loses elections, but how we choose to define our economies, by the stock market or the homeless on the street. Almost every facet of government would come under its aegis.

During the lengthy and cantankerous debates which led to the U.K.’s departure from the EU, the Leave-EU campaign employed the services of Cambridge Analytica (CA), one of many companies that analyse the Internet to provide profiles of the public, in the form of algorithms, according to their likes and dislikes. CA obtained, probably illegally, some 50 million Facebook entries to assist the targeting of voters during the Trump campaign in 2016. In Britain and the U.S., political messages are now sold to the electorate like commercial products, but without the same legal safeguards. In commercial advertising, there are laws against making false or misleading claims. The same cannot be said for politics.

In Europe (and across the world), we have had much experience of governments that have tried to dominate and control their cultures. Some have collapsed in ignominy: others have left ugly traces of repression. But even those, like the British, which have defended the principle of “free speech,” and brought to an end many centuries of formal censorship, can tamper with their cultures for political reasons in many smaller, but still fundamental, ways.

In the ten years, 1978–88, when I was an advisor to the Liberals, political decisions were taken, which greatly changed the cultural landscape. State funding for arts institutions was supplemented, and then largely replaced, by commercial sponsorship. The arts, like sports, drifted towards becoming a tool for marketing. This transformation was defended by Thatcher’s Conservative government as a step towards cultural freedom, in that it liberated the arts from the arms of the state, but they then became vulnerable to the demands of big business, which could be just as dictatorial. Whole festivals and sports events were cancelled, if they lost their sponsorship. And then there was lottery funding . . .

Fresh streams of money flooded the market place, which benefited the compliant rather than the deserving. The layers of veneer, intended to separate the interests of patrons, state or private, from those of the artists, were scraped away. The arm’s length principle was neglected or ignored. The original aim of the ACGB was to support culture at a local level. The local repertory theatres and concert halls benefitted. Soon, however, national priorities prevailed. The prestigious theatres (NT and RSC) received disproportionately high levels of state funding and were in a better position to seek commercial sponsorship as well. They flew the cultural flag for the country, travelled on state visits and benefitted from commercial transfers. In some cases, such as the NT’s Amadeus, an American commercial producer used the support from the British taxpayer to produce a hit show for Broadway.

Even the BBC, whose independence was protected (in theory) by its Royal Charter, came under increasing pressure from the government. Its funding through the license fee was threatened, its remit increased, and its board of governors was appointed more to control its executive management than to safeguard its freedoms. Might it still speak truth to power? Yes, but less incisively, and at times too reluctantly. Impartiality in news coverage drifted towards moral equivalence and, to save money, the BBC’s World Services were curtailed.

During the years that led to the referendum on Brexit in 2016, roughly 120 hours of viewing time each week on Freeview were devoted to how we won the Second World War. These ranged from old favourites, such as the comedy series, Dad’s Army, still running after sixty years, to ripping yarns (Where Eagles Dare) and documentaries (Nazi Megastructures). We have become sensitive, even ashamed, of the colonial epics where black servants whisper gratefully to a benevolent Englishman, “Yes, baas”’; but Germans are still presented as goose-stepping Prussians, French as wimps of la Belle Epoque and Italians as priests or roués. In common with other countries, we have a poor sense of history, but a genius for nostalgia.

During the pandemic, with theatres closed and filming of new drama restricted, there has been a lot of ancient goggle-box to watch. Those who wish to forget the last world war have had the opportunity to re-live the game shows and soap operas from yesteryear. We were once proud of the excellence of British television, but COVID-19 has taught us many lessons, among them that yesterday’s jokes and sitcoms wear thin, sometimes very thin.

Fortunately, there is the Internet. In 1988, when I was trumpeting the merits of broadband, and telling a startled party conference that we could have “libraries on our desks,” I could barely imagine how YouTube, Facebook and social media would transform our lives. In 1989, the World Wide Web was established, a free service to assist global browsing, run by a not-for-profit company, in the interests of human discourse without the constraints of media ownership. It was a glorious vision to which the youthful pioneers of the Internet joyfully responded. It is still glorious, and my life, in common with so many others, would be much impoverished without the daily contact with friends, the access to websites and the amazing tools for browsing.

It would be foolish, however, not to acknowledge the havoc that has been caused over the past forty years by the arrival of so powerful a means of communication. By-passing Big Bang Monday (1986) which globalised money markets and led to a world recession, tip-toeing past the Arab Spring which overthrew dictatorships friendly to the West and circum-venting Wikileaks which exposed the U.S. military to accusations of torture, there were smaller ways in which our Anglo-centric lives were disrupted.

In the U.K., the Conservative government installed broadband by private companies at a rate “to be determined by the market.” Richer places were cabled first, while poorer ones and country districts had to wait. Some are still waiting. The gulf between the haves and have-nots has been greatly increased by the politics of installation. During the pandemic, this has led to the loss of jobs, lives and educational opportunities.

In the Liberals’ first green paper (circa 1983), which I drafted, the ministry of culture would have been responsible for the installation of the network, evenly spread around the country, and, since we were worried by the possible infringements of copyright, we wanted to insist that every message on the net should be attributable to the person who posted it. We were still thinking of the Internet as an extension of postal service. We had no model for hacking, fake facts, phony web-sites and trolling. We could not imagine how the President of the United States would be prevented from using a social media site like Twitter—because his tweets might incite insurrection—or that an on-line company like Amazon could become wealthier (in terms of money) than the GDPs of several countries in Europe.

I am somewhat relieved that major sites have taken steps to curb hate speech and calls for mob violence, but alarmed that private companies should be expected to take on the role of censoring access to the Internet. Governments are negotiating with social media companies as to what content may be allowed or banned, but these self-imposed restrictions can often be avoided by shifting the site elsewhere. This is not the only way in which a powerful media company can avoid some control by national administrations. In a global environment, it can escape taxes by changing the jurisdictions.

How can we control the Internet or, better still, make the most of the opportunities which satellites and broadband provide? In my view, the only appropriate body would be a ministry of culture, but like no other ministry that we have yet seen. Its role would not be to censor or subsidise, as in the past, but rather to oversee the processes by which opinions and information are shared. We should think of culture, as we do the environment, more as a natural resource, than in terms of products, trades and institutions.

In Britain, the mail, telephonic and broadcasting services began as private companies, which were taken over by the state to ensure that all parts of the country were evenly served. It was a mistake on the part of Mrs. Thatcher’s government that broadband was not installed in a similar way. Since 1840, it has been an offence to tamper with the delivery of the mail, although any letter may contain libels and menaces, for nothing should interfere with the way in which we communicate. The principle of free speech should be sacrosanct, even though in practice, we may say things that are dangerous or may regret.

In an open society, the diversity of opinion provides its own safeguards. Fake facts should be exposed, threats countered and lies contradicted. One benefit of the Internet is that we have discovered how deeply racist sections of our supposedly liberal societies are. The confrontation with prejudice has forced us to choose, to make up our minds between good and evil, and to become more responsible for our lives. Do black lives matter? Yes. It is less dangerous that we make use of our own personal powers of discrimination than to expect some public authority to do so on our behalf. A government cannot legislate for goodness. Even prime ministers are human.

To achieve this level of freedom, however, we have to take care that the environment of the Internet is relatively free from interference, that access is widely and cheaply available, that all posts are attributable and, where they are not, suitable warnings are given. Criminal behaviour must still be banned. The powers of browsing websites to manipulate opinion must be monitored and, where necessary, curbed. Authorities as the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics should work within a cultural ministry, for there are no facts in the world that have not be carefully selected and are above opinion. Fact-check sites should gain their clients by the reliability of their services, rather than their claims of infallibility.

Zheng was a vassal state in China during the Zhou Dynasty (1046–221 B.C.) located in the centre of ancient China in modern-day Henan Province on the North China Plain. Photo: Web/Wikipedia

My ideal ministry of culture would always seek to support the inquiring human spirit, rather than to tame it, much as ecologists seek to work with nature rather than to dominate it. One hundred schools of thought should peacefully contend, maybe more, certainly more, as they did in the State of Zheng, (Zhengzhou in today’s Chinese province of Henan) during the glorious, and still remembered, epoch of openness (600 years B.C.). Culture itself derives from the way in which we try to understand reality, not how we escape from it. The arts—and particularly the theatre—are central to this process. Through them, we model our responses in advance, a training in mental flexibility that has helped our species to survive.

The pandemic will not destroy this determination. It will not even damage it. Halls may shut. Artists may survive on short rations and audiences, self-isolate. We are still in the night before Christmas, but somewhere, humble and unnoticed, a brave new world is born.


A ministry of culture should protect the processes whereby views are exchanged: it should never be expected to offer a single, authoritative mantra of its own. 

*John Elsom is an author, playwright, theatre critic and IATC/AICT president from 1985–92. He was a theatre correspondent for the BBC and Paramount Pictures and an arts editor for the U.S. magazine, The World & I. His books include Cold War Theatre (Routledge, 1991) and State of Paralysisa Cultural History of Brexit (Lutterworth, 2019), and his plays include The Well-Intentioned Builder (London 1966, Craiova 2002/3). His edited proceedings of an IATC/AICT conference in London, Is Shakespeare Still our Contemporary? (Routledge, 1989) is a unique record of the coming together of minds from both sides of the “Iron Curtain” at a turning point in the Cold War.

Copyright © 2021 John Elsom
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