Tag Archives: Neoliberalism

Aesthetic Labour, Beauty Politics and Neoliberalism: Rosalind Gill interview

Aesthetic Labour, Beauty Politics and Neoliberalism: Rosalind Gill interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
24 July 2017

Rosalind Gill, Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at City, University of London, is Co-Editor of the book Aesthetic Labour: Beauty Politics in Neoliberalism, published this year by Palgrave MacMillan.

I asked Professor Gill about the relationship between beauty politics, aesthetic labour and neoliberalism, the role of social media and the impact all this has on women.


Ian Sinclair: What has happened to beauty politics since the turn to neoliberalism in the Western world from the late 1970s onwards?

Rosalind Gill: Over the past two decades we have seen an extraordinary intensification of beauty pressures that are connected to a variety of changes – some of them social, cultural, economic and technological. In terms of technological change, for example, the ubiquity of camera phones with very high capacities for magnification has led to a new and unprecedented surveillance of women’s bodies. It is a truism to say that this is the age of the image, of the photograph – 24 billion selfies were taken in 2016 alone. No previous generation has ever been the subject or object of so much visual attention. This was bound to have an impact on beauty pressures. When you add to it the mainstreaming and normalisation of cosmetic procedures – both surgical interventions and nonsurgical beauty treatments such as Botox, liposuction, skin peels and fillers, promoted as  ‘everyday’ even ‘lunch hour’ interventions, you can see that even at the level of technological change there has been a growing impetus to focus on appearance. Yet on top of that there are key social and cultural changes, and the vast economic growth of the cosmetics industry too, blurring and hybridising into surgical and pharmaceutical industries. Now, more than ever before, it really makes sense to speak of a ‘beauty industrial complex’.

One of the ways that this is connected to neoliberalism is through the emphasis upon the body as a project – something to be worked on, and something which is thought about as our own individual capital. This idea has been around in social theory for some considerable time now, linked to theorisations of late modernity in which we are all held to be responsible for the design of our own bodies. Interestingly a lot of this writing has been quite general, even universalising, in tone – but I think what we are seeing much more now are attempts to ground this in specificities – for example in terms of gender or race or disability. While it is clear that there is a broad imperative around the symbolic value of the body, it +matters+ whether you are cis or trans, whether you have a normative body or are fat, and still – I think – whether you are male or female.

Allied to neoliberalism there have been a series of shifts that have come to be understood in terms of a ‘postfeminist’ sensibility circulating in contemporary culture. One of the key features of this sensibility is the emphasis on the body as the locus of womanhood and the core site of women’s value. This has displaced earlier – equally problematic – constructions of femininity – which placed emphasis on motherhood or on particular psychological capacities such as caring. Today, the requirement to work on and perfect the body has reached such an intensity for women that it has become – in Alison Winch’s words – ‘her asset, her product, her brand and her gateway to freedom and empowerment in a neoliberal market economy’ – even though it must also always be presented as freely chosen, not the result of any coercion or even influence. A beauty imperative has gained more and more traction, with the idea that sexual attractiveness is the measure of success for a woman – whatever else she is she must also strive for beauty and perfection. Depressingly you don’t have to look far to see instances of this in popular culture – even our female politicians are subject to this as we saw graphically in the notorious ‘LEGS-IT’ headline a few months ago, comparing and rating Theresa May’s and Nicola Sturgeon’s legs.

When I make this kind of argument the first responses is usually for someone to say ‘men are under pressure too’. And this is undeniably true. I’ve done a lot of work over my career on changing representations of male bodies – from the ‘sixpack’, to the trend for removing body hair, to the promotion of skincare products targeted at men. For me it is absolutely clear that the beauty industry is moving in on men, big time; they represent an enormous potential market – and it is especially clear this year as we see cosmetics companies begin aggressively to market make up to men. Cover Girl’s first male/gender fluid ‘ambassador’, James Charles, is simply the most visible example. It seems to me that there is a relentless market-driven pressure being brought to bear on men – especially young men. Having said that, the pressure and scrutiny that women are under is still far greater, has a different history, and greater significance and centrality in women’s lives.

IS: In the book you refer to ‘aesthetic labour’ and ‘aesthetic entrepreneurship’. Citing some examples, can you explain what you mean by these terms?

RG: The term ‘aesthetic labour’ had been around for some time, especially used by sociologists of work. It has been part of a toolkit of terms designed to unpick the different forms of labouring involved in various occupations – emotional labour, affective labour, venture labour, and so on. A body of work by scholars including Irene Grugulis and Chris Warhurst has been interested in how soft skills are increasingly called upon, including the need for workers to ‘look good and sound right’ in workplaces such as coffee shops. More recently Elizabeth Wissinger has also developed the notion of ‘glamour labour’ to talk about the work of models and fashion industry insiders. A particularly valuable feature of this is the way it shows that this labour isn’t just about the physical body but also involves attention to qualities like ‘cool quotient’ – which involves relationships, social media use and style or reputation.

With our intervention we wanted to build on these really interesting bodies of work to argue that these practices of what we see as aesthetic entrepreneurship are not bounded by the workplace, but rather are much more widespread in contemporary societies that are dominated by new forms of visibility, appearance and looking. The requirement to curate an appealing self is not only a work requirement; it is a growing social and cultural imperative. Secondly we also wanted to highlight the psychosocial dimensions of this, with an emphasis on the fact that in today’s makeover culture it is not just the body that is reinvented but the whole self, the making of a beautiful subjectivity.  And finally by using the term ‘aesthetic entrepreneurship’ we wanted to draw links to neoliberalism more broadly – that is to this idea of selves as enterprising, calculating, reflexive, and so on. One of the things this does – for us – is to break the impasse in feminist beauty studies – an impasse in which some talk of women as autonomous and creative agents, and others talk of passive and docile subjects. Our intervention – and shown through the chapters in the book – is to argue that women are both subjected +and+ creative. A chapter in the book by Simidele Dosekun illustrates this beautifully. The affluent, fashionable Nigerian women she interviews are shown to be operating in a beauty regime in which particular features are highly valued and others disparaged – in this sense their aesthetic labour is culturally compelled. Yet far from being ‘passive dopes’ Simi shows that these fashionistas are knowing and sophisticated consumers, investing in notions of vigilance and rest – e.g. giving their skin time to breathe, their nails ‘time out’ from gel add-ons, and so on – practising aesthetic entrepreneurship to mitigate risks.

IS: How have the changes you have set out been influenced by the increasing popularity of social media?

RG: Social media are so ubiquitous now that they are hard to disentangle from other influences. One of the things that interests me greatly, though, is the impact of social media on our ways of seeing. A lot of writers have tried to engage with this in some way – Terri Senft has talked about ‘the grab’ of social media, whilst Malcolm Gladwell famously talks of ‘the blink’ as our current modality of engagement. Personally I am really interested in current attempts to think about surveillance beyond the metaphor of the Panopticon. Of course there is loads to be said about big data and surveillance which is hugely important. But my focus has been on something slightly different: the idea that our ways of seeing are literally transforming. I notice with my students that they pore over and really scrutinise images on their phones – whether this is of celebrities, their friends or themselves. It involves the kind of forensic form of looking in which magnification is to the fore. This is producing all kinds of new visual literacies, particularly of the face, and they are literacies in which I am not competent. As someone who believes thoroughly in the idea that we are socially and culturally shaped, I can recognise that my own visual habits and competencies have been formed in another era: when I look at an image on social media I simply do not ‘see’ what my students (often 30 years younger) see. I am constantly astonished by the detailed and forensic quality of their ways of seeing, as well as the way they are often framed through a ‘pedagogy of defect’ (to use Susan Bordo’s famous phrase) in which minute flaws and imperfections are itemised. Compared with this I feel my own ways of seeing are almost akin to a blur or at best a casual glance – and mostly more benign.

These new visual literacies have been engendered and taught not simply through Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat but also through the vast proliferation of beauty apps that I have been writing about with Ana Elias.  Some of these are filters: ‘swipe to erase blemishes, whiten teeth, brighten dark circles and even reshape your facial structure’ (Face Tune) or ‘to look 5, 10 or 15 lbs. skinnier’ (SkinneePix). As we have argued, many of these filters encode deeply troubling ideas about race as well as gender – with skin ‘lightening’ a common feature, and recourse to problematic ideas from evolutionary psychology. Aesthetic ‘benchmarking’ apps are another huge category allowing users to get a score on ‘how hot am I?’ or ‘how old do I look?’ or get rated by the ‘ugly meter’. These apps call on users to upload a selfie – after which they will be given a ‘score’. Claiming to tell you things your friends wouldn’t, the apps trade on a certain algorithmic authority and may also highlight which features need to be changed, with ‘helpful’ hints about treatments or surgeries that would elicit a higher score. As such they shade into another type of app we discuss – namely the cosmetic surgery try-out apps that allow you to ‘visualize a new you’ with whiter teeth, or larger breasts or a remodelled nose. As Ana and I argue in an article that has just come out in European Journal of Cultural Studies, these kinds of apps (and others we discuss) not only generate new visual literacies but also bring the cosmetic surgeon’s gaze out of the clinic and into our most intimate moments, via the smartphone. We argue that they are part of the shifting of meaning-making about surgery and other interventions – made more seductive through the gamified features of these apps.

IS: How have women been impacted by the ‘intensity of beauty norms’ pushed by what you call the ‘beauty-industrial complex’ and wider culture?

RG: It’s quite hard to answer this question. It seems strange doesn’t it – yet there really is a paucity of research around these issues – at least outside of psychology. Psychology and the ‘effects tradition’ has the upper hand in this field with lots of studies correlating social media use or posting of selfies etc. with poor body image, mental health issues, greater propensity to undergo cosmetic surgery and so on. This is all valid of course, but tends to be focussed in a narrow effects tradition with all the problems that are well documented. The lack of sociological studies makes it feel as if we lack a sense of the way feelings and practices and everyday reasoning around appearance are actually part of the texture of everyday life. On the other hand when we do have more ethnographic studies they often seem invested in a particular perspective – for example the claim that young people are robust, resilient, critical users of media and there isn’t really a problem. I don’t find either perspective particularly illuminating.

I have to admit that the main insights I get come from my own students’ discussions of these issues in my courses on media. Some are scathing and critical and may claim their engagement with beauty culture is always mediated by ‘having a laugh’. Others tell of painful struggle with weight or skin conditions, or experiences of untagging themselves from multiple photos in which they don’t think they look good, or of trying to score higher on some attractiveness-rating app. I think it’s fair to say that none of us exist outside of the rapidly intensifying and extensifying beauty industrial complex. I say extensifying as well as intensifying because what is striking is how beauty pressures are also spreading out – across new domains (facial symmetry measurements, thigh gap) and new parts of life – childhood, old age, pregnancy etc.

IS: I was interested to see you discuss Dove’s ‘Love Your Body’-style Campaign for Real Beauty, which was launched in 2004. Though it has been widely celebrated, you have some criticisms of it?

RG: Love Your Body (LYB) advertising has really taken off over the last decade or so with brands like Dove, Always, Weightwatchers and Special K queueing up to spread the self-love and body confidence message to women. I feel deeply ambivalent about this. On the one hand these exhortations to self belief, body love and confidence are genuinely a welcome interruption to a stream of commercial communications that have focussed on body hate and pointing out what was wrong with us and how we could do better. Yet against this it is hard not to feel cynical when it is the exact same companies that sold us HYB (Hate Your Body) that are now preaching a quasi-feminist empowerment. Special K telling us to “shut down fat talk”?! Come on! Even the Daily Mail called it ironic. And clicking through on that very ‘positive’ campaign takes you straight to the company’s BMI calculator…

Some other relatively obvious criticisms of LYB are about its fakeness – it uses the exact techniques  it claims to repudiate: hiring ‘non-model models’, using photoshop, etc; it’s pseudo diversity – try comparing a Dove advert with an image from Fat Activism and see how ‘diverse’ it really looks; and its ‘re-citing’ of hate talk – when Special K told us to shut down fat talk it obviously had to spend most of the advert reminding us just what those hostile messages were (obvs!). But more than all this I’m very critical of LYB – and what Shani Orgad and I have called ‘confidence cult’ discourses more generally – for some more profound reasons. First because they blame women for their own lack of confidence, and exculpate patriarchal capitalism by implying that low self-esteem or body insecurity are things that women do to themselves (try watching Dove’s ‘Patches’ if you don’t believe me). And secondly because I believe that this new culture of confidence actually represents a new form of regulation: one that seeks to regulate not simply the physical body but also the self and one’s feelings and relation to oneself and others. Body love and self-confidence have become compulsory dispositions. It is not enough to work on and discipline one’s body, but one also has to have the correct, upgraded, body-positive subjectivity. Insecurity and vulnerability have become toxic states – something that links to the wider culture of what I call the ‘femspiration’ industry. Be afraid. Be very afraid. This is about the affective life of neoliberalism: how it not only shapes our economic and political formations, and our subjectivities, but also colonises our feelings.

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The BBC and the financial crisis: interview with Dr Mike Berry

The BBC and the financial crisis: interview with Dr Mike Berry
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
3 February 2017

Dr Mike Berry, a Lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, co-wrote Bad News From Israel (2004) and More Bad News From Israel (2011) with Professor Greg Philo.

In recent years Dr Berry has turned his attention to the BBC’s coverage of the 2008 financial crisis. I asked him about his findings and why they are important for British democracy.

Ian Sinclair: In the last few years you have published two journal articles studying the BBC’s coverage of the 2008 financial crisis – one analysing BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s output on the banking crisis in September and October 2008 and the other looking at the coverage by BBC News at Ten of the debate around the need to reduce the public deficit in the first seven months of 2009. What were the main findings of these two studies?

Mike Berry: Before answering that question directly I’d like to backtrack a little and provide some context to these events and explain why they are intimately linked. After 1979 the Conservatives introduced policies which fundamentally changed the nature and composition of the British economy. The withdrawal of the state from intervention in industry, the lifting of exchange controls and the deregulation of finance strengthened the power of capital at the expense of labour. The effects of what the Oxford historian Andrew Glyn described as, ‘Capitalism Unleashed’, was a shift towards an economy dominated by the service sector, a dramatic polarization in regional economic activity and sharp rise in income and wealth inequality. However this rise in inequality had a deflationary impact on the economy which was only compensated for by a steep rise in household debt. When New Labour came to power they largely accepted the Thatcherite settlement – the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) sector would continue to be the principal private motor of the economy whilst manufacturing was allowed to continue its long decline. However Labour did introduce record increases in social spending in areas such as health and education which in large part were paid for by tax receipts drawn from the City and the property boom. This meant that public spending increasingly took on the role of an ‘undisclosed regional policy’ by boosting state and para-state employment in areas outside the South-East where private sector job creation was ‘weak or failing’. However this unbalanced growth model, based on asset price inflation and ever expanding household debt financed by an outsized, reckless financial services sector was unsustainable and exploded spectacularly in 2008.

This is the point at which my research picked up the story and I was interested primarily in how the crisis was explained, how the bank rescue plans were discussed and the range of debate on how the finance sector could be reformed. Would the key role of the banks in creating such an unbalanced economic model be unpacked and would there be any voices featured who called for more democratic control of finance and restrictions on the free market? When I looked at the coverage on the Today programme it was clear that the people who had caused the crisis – the bankers and the politicians – were overwhelmingly the voices charged with defining the problem and putting forward solutions. This meant that that on the question of what to do with the banks there was strong support for the government bailouts and the idea that the banks should be re-privatised as soon as possible. It also meant that arguments in favour of long term public stake in banking which could be used to support long term productive investment – rather than real estate speculation – never appeared in coverage. In a similar vein, major reforms such as heavier regulation of the shadow banking sector, the introduction of a financial transaction tax, the regulation or even banning of certain derivative classes, a clampdown on tax havens or restrictions on the revolving door between politicians, regulators and major banks, were also invisible. It was remarkable that in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, which was precipitated by extraordinarily irresponsible behaviour by the banks, the Today programme featured a variety of City sources warning about the dangers of too much regulation.

The banking crisis led to a major recession which shrunk the tax base and sharply increased the public deficit (the gap between the tax take and public spending). It also precipitated a major debate about how to respond to the increase in public debt. At the heart of these debates were three interlinked questions: How serious a problems was the deficit? How quickly should it be eliminated?, and how should it be reduced? Some leading economists were sceptical that the deficit represented an economy emergency and believed that deficit reduction needed to wait until the recovery was well established. There were also many voices calling for the burden of deficit reduction to be primarily borne by those who had most benefitted from the sharp increases in asset wealth seen over the previous thirty years. However these voices didn’t appear in coverage. Instead the dominant perspectives in BBC News at Ten reporting were that the deficit was highly dangerous and needed to be dealt with quickly by sharp cuts to public spending and increases in regressive forms of taxation. These perspectives were mostly expressed by politicians, think tanks and City sources but on occasion they were directly endorsed by leading journalists. So for instance on 10 June 2009 a reporter commented that ‘What will be cut, by how much and when? As the Government’s coffers grow ever more empty, those are questions that can no longer be avoided.’

IS: Is this coverage a step change in the BBC’s coverage of finance and economics news, or is it a continuation of previous output?

MB: In many ways this is a continuation of previous output. There is a long history of research stretching back to the mid 1970s which has found that BBC economic news tends to reproduce free market perspectives on the economy whilst marginalising left wing views.

For instance research on BBC reporting of Britain’s industrial malaise in the 1970s tended to blame  industrial action by trade unions whilst sidelining the culpability of management and very low levels of investment in plant and capital, which meant that the average Japanese car production worker was using equipment worth ten times that of  their British counterpart. In the 1980s, research noted that BBC reporting of the Conservatives’ privatisation of state assets was heavily influenced by the governments’ PR campaigns with the consequence that most coverage focused on the potential profits to shareholders while excluding those who argued that 80% of the population would no longer have a stake in the newly private industries.

However, there are two key trends since the 1980s that have narrowed the range of opinion even further. The first was the decision by the Labour Party to abandon contestation of economic policy following a series of election defeats in the 1980s. By the time New Labour was elected in 1997 the party had wholeheartedly embraced neoliberalism and the primacy of finance sector in the economy. Since the BBC tends to reproduce the spectrum of opinion at Westminster it meant that the major voice which had traditionally argued for an interventionist state and controls on the free market disappeared from coverage. The second factor was changes in the sociology of journalism. The 1980s saw the disappearance of the industrial news beat which had provided a platform for the views of the trade unions and a space where left-wing collectivist opinion could be articulated. At the same time financial and City news became a much more prominent feature of BBC reporting which provided much greater space for City experts and their apparently neutral opinions on the latest financial and economic news stories.

IS: How does the BBC’s coverage of the financial crisis compare to that of other British news organisations?

MB: The BBC, due to its statutory duty to maintain impartiality, doesn’t employ the kind of aggressive editorialising that you see in parts of the national press. Nevertheless the range of opinion is similar.

So during the banking crisis both the Today programme and most national newspapers overwhelmingly viewed the part-nationalisation as the only option and featured commentators who argued against full nationalisation and public ownership of banks. In a similar vein both Today and the national press – with the notable exception of the Guardian – featured little information about serious structural reforms to the finance sector. If anything Today coverage, due to its exceptionally heavy reliance on City sources, tended to feature less criticism of the finance sector and more arguments against further regulation than any national newspaper.

In a similar vein, when I looked at the coverage of the debates around the public deficit what was remarkable was the degree of similarity in broadcast and press coverage with the key differences being in tone and tenor. So both the press and the BBC tended to treat the deficit as an economic crisis which threatened serious consequences such as currency depreciation, interest rate rises, bond strikes and even national bankruptcy whilst sidelining voices who questioned these claims. Similarly both the BBC and the right-wing press overwhelming presented sharp cuts to public spending and increases in regressive taxation as the only possible solutions to the ‘crisis’. The argument made by some on the left that some of the burden should be borne by the most wealthy just doesn’t appear in BBC coverage and even in the left of centre press it is largely absent except for the Guardian.

IS: The BBC prides itself on the principle of impartiality, and is even seen as left-wing by many commentators. Why, then, were the parameters of the coverage of the financial crisis on two of the BBC’s flagship programmes so narrow and City-friendly, and so dominated by elite, often City-based sources?

MB: If you ask journalists this question they will tell you that in comparison to academic economists City sources are invariably ‘available’ and ‘up to date’ on the latest events. Journalists also argue that you can rely on such sources to give clear concise arguments within the constraints of a brief news item and that they are the sources with the expertise needed to understand the intricacies and complexities of the financial crisis. All those are valid explanations but I think these sourcing patterns also reflect the fact that journalists internalise strong assumptions about who is qualified to speak on the economy or finance sector and this usually means a front bench politician, specific think tanks or a City source. These voices are then routinely over accessed and serve to sharply delineate the boundaries of what is said about how the economy can be managed. But of course there are always alternative sources who could be accessed to broaden the parameters of debate.

IS: Why are your findings about the BBC’s coverage of the financial crisis important?

MB: Broadcast news remains a key information source for most citizens and so what appears has significant implications for the construction of public belief and attitudes. In my research in addition to analysing the content of media broadcasts I also run focus groups with members of the public in order to examine how news accounts impact on what people think and believe. What was clear from the focus groups was that most people were quite confused about key aspects of the financial crisis – for instance what a derivative was or the difference between the public debt and deficit. However what they had picked up tended to be very heavily influenced by what they had seen in the press or broadcasting. So most people knew about the ‘fat cats’ and the bonuses but nobody I spoke to had heard of the financial transactions tax or knew about the ‘revolving door’. When I asked people about how the public deficit could be reduced they overwhelmingly pointed to solutions they had picked up from press and television accounts such as reductions in quangos, public sector pension provision, benefit payments or immigrants. Nobody mentioned clamping down on tax avoidance or introducing progressive wealth or income taxes. However when I brought these up as potential solutions in focus groups they were received very well, reflecting the findings of large scale surveys in this area.

The press and television thus plays a key role in framing how we understand the economy and the range of possibilities as to how it can be managed. If the great bulk of the press argue that the public deficit represents a national emergency which can only be solved by cuts to a ‘bloated’ and ‘inefficient’ public sector – and crucially if such views are reinforced (in rather more temperate language) in public broadcasting then it is hardly surprising that such views become widely accepted amongst the public.

IS: What changes do you think the BBC should make to provide a wider selection of voices and a broader debate when it comes to financial and economic news?

MB: I think that the first thing that needs to happen is for the BBC to recognise that its economic reporting should be more balanced. On the day that the bank bailouts were finalised (13 October 2008) the discussion during one news segment was conducted between Sir George Cox, described by a BBC journalist as ‘someone with a liberal, free-market economic background, Institute of Directors and from perhaps the more right end of British politics’, and Patrick Minford who was introduced as ‘one of Mrs Thatcher’s chief economist supporters’. Such a narrow range of reporting was not uncommon and appears to reflect a belief within BBC economic reporting that, as Mrs Thatcher famously put it, ‘there is no alternative’ to the free market.

However, when even economists at the IMF, the organisation mostly closely associated with the promotion of neoliberalism, are now publishing papers explicitly linking the decline in labour bargaining power with debt increases, financialisation and economic crises then surely it is time for BBC reporting to widen the spectrum of opinion it features in its new programmes.

There are many alternative sources that the BBC could turn to to provide an alternative to free market perspectives. Individual sources such as Ha Joon Chang, Geoff Tily, Simon Wren-Lewis, James Meadway, Ann Pettifor, Mariana Mazzucato, Mark Blyth or Graham Turner could offer fresh perspectives. Institutionally the BBC could source from thinktanks like the New Economics Foundation, the Tax Justice Network, PRIME or from academics connected to the Manchester Business School or SPERI. Occasionally such sources do appear, but to provide true balance they need to be featured routinely as a counterpoint to the views of City economists who tend to dominate reporting.

 

Book review: ‘The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service’

The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service by Tom Mills
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 October 2016

One of the most important political and cultural institutions in the UK, polls show the BBC is the most trusted news source in the country. For example, in 2011 Michelle Stanistreet, the General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists, argued in this paper that “BBC journalism is of the highest quality in the world”. This is because, she explained a few years later, the BBC “plays a major role in presenting balanced, impartial news coverage”.

Dr Tom Mills’s superb first book deftly demolishes this – and many other – popular and comforting myths surrounding the BBC. For Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University, “the BBC is neither independent nor impartial.” Instead, with “its structure profoundly shaped by the interests of powerful groups in British society”, Mills shows how the BBC’s journalism “has overwhelmingly reflected the ideas and interests of elite groups, and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives.”

What causes this establishment-friendly output? Mills highlights a number of factors, including the elite-populated, government-appointed BBC Board of Governors (since 2007, the BBC Trust), the class and educational background of senior management, the fact the government of the day sets the corporation’s budget and decades long vetting of employees conducted by the security services.

The BBC’s output during the 1926 General Strike was an early indication of the state of play. “The BBC was afforded a large degree of operational autonomy, remaining formally independent”, Mills notes. However, this was “on the tacit understanding that it would broadly serve the political purposes of the government.” As the first BBC Director-General John Reith famously noted about this gentleman’s agreement at the time: the government “know that they can trust us not to be really impartial.”

On war and peace issues, from the Second World War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, study after study has highlighted how the BBC has tended to toe the government’s line. Special mention should go to Mills’s analysis of the conflict between the government and BBC over Andrew Gilligan’s ‘sexed up’ dossier claims in 2004. Seen by the official BBC historian Jean Seaton as an example of the BBC’s independence, Mills counters that it was infact “something of an imbroglio among the British elite”, with the huge anti-war movement largely excluded from the airwaves.

Also impressive is the book’s exploration of the neoliberal shift at the BBC after the arrival of John Birt as Deputy Director-General in 1987. “There was a turn away from industrial reporting and a remarkable growth in business and economics journalism”, notes Mills. The perspective of workers was marginalised, with industrial reporters downgraded and let go.

In the last few pages, Mills sketches out what the much needed radical reform of the BBC would require: the end of political control over senior appointments and budgets, a more representative workforce and the public commissioning of investigative journalism.

An absolutely essential read for anyone interested in British politics, the book has profound implications for social movements and those, like Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, who challenge the neoliberal establishment.

The BBC: The Myth of a Public Service is published by Verso, priced £16.99.

Blaming the victim: Obesity and individualism

Blaming the victim: Obesity and individualism
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
November 2013

The UK has a growing obesity problem. According to the annual Health Survey for England in 1980 6 per cent of men were obese – that is they had a Body Mass Index of over 30. By 1993 this had more than doubled to 13.2 per cent and by 2011 23.6 per cent of men were obese. The medical problems associated with obesity are well known – Type 2 Diabetes, Coronary Heart Disease, hypertension, respiratory problems, stroke and certain cancers. The Government’s 2007 landmark Foresight report estimates that by 2050 obesity and being overweight could cost the NHS £9.7 billion, with the wider cost to society estimated at £49.9 billion.

So who or what is to blame for the rise in obesity? “Ultimately it comes down to will”, argued Eastern Daily Press columnist Steve Downes recently. “What can society do to change people’s habits? Nothing, really.” You might expect the author of the best-selling memoir My Mad Fat Teenage Diary to have a wider lens of analysis. If so you’d be wrong. Writing in The Guardian last month Rae Earl noted people are often obese because of “deep-rooted psychological factors.” As adults, Earl concluded, “our weight is our personal responsibility.”

We shouldn’t be too hard on Downes and Earl – they are simply repeating popular arguments that blame obesity on the individual. As a 2010 article in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs explains “studies demonstrate repeatedly that judgments about obesity are linked to values of individualism, self-determination, political conservativism, and secular morality.”

There are many problems with focussing on individual behaviour when discussing obesity. First, a culture that points the finger at individuals can stigmatise, leading to bullying, discrimination and mental health problems such as depression. Research shows overweight patients sometimes delay visiting the doctor because of fear of embarrassment or judgment. Second, blaming personal choices does not help to explain obesity levels when one considers obesity has substantially increased since the 1970s and its prevalence differs considerably across national borders and social classes.

As the Foresight report notes “People in the UK today don’t have less willpower and are not more glutoness than previous generations.” And, I would add, British people are not lazier than many of their less obese European neighbours, and middle-class people do not take more personal responsibility than generally heavier working-class people. Discussing the Foresight report, the former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government Sir David King notes “individuals have much less choice in the matter of their weight than they would assume”. This is especially true for the poorest members of society, who tend to have much less control and choice over how they live their lives. So rather than obesity being down to personal willpower the Foresight report explains society “has radically altered over the past five decades with major changes in work patterns, transport, food production and food sales.” These changes have resulted in what experts call an “obesogenic environment”, where the political and economic structures of society end up actually encouraging obesity among the population

Some of these societal shifts include: a huge increase in the availability and affordability of calorie-dense but nutrient-poor processed foods; an increase in private car use and a corresponding decrease in the level of cycling and walking; the selling off of school playing fields; a lax planning system that has led to out-of-town supermarkets and fast food outlets being placed close to schools; healthy food ‘deserts’ in poor areas. In addition there has been a massive increase in the level of food advertising. With the UK having the dubious distinction of being the advertising capital of Europe, Food Analyst Cindy van Rijswick notes “the impact of promotions, advertising and marketing from the processed food industry is higher than in other countries.”

Arguably, many of these causes can be traced back to the neoliberal turn the country took with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the pro-business and individualistic rhetoric and policies that followed. In a letter to The Guardian earlier this year, the Secretary of The Equality Trust explained that research “shows more people are obese in more unequal countries”. And sure enough the US, UK and Australia – arguably the three Western nations where the grip of neoliberal thinking is strongest – have some of the highest levels of obesity in the Western world.

If an individualistic analysis can’t explain the rise in obesity, it’s unlikely to be useful in solving the problem either. In fact personalising the problem makes solving the crisis harder, according to Dr Rebecca Puhl of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University: “As long as we have this belief that obese people are lazy and lacking in discipline, it will be hard to get support for policies that change the environment, which are likely to have a much larger impact than trying to change individuals”.

So if the rise in obesity is due to a wholesale transformation of society, then the solutions will also have to be on the same scale – led by strong government action. Radically changing the transport system so it discourages private car use and builds infrastructure to encourage cycling and walking would be a first step. The planning system needs to be altered so it encourages health living, rather than working to maximise profits for the food industry. Advertising of unhealthy foods, especially to children, needs to be highly regulated as it is in Sweden where TV advertising aimed at children under 12 has been banned since 1991. And taxes could be levelled on unhealthy foods, as Mexico is about to do.

All this, of course, would require the Government to take on corporate power. However, Professor Tim Lang and Dr Geof Rayner from the Centre for Food Policy at City University point out “there is a powerful temptation in Government to limit actions to a choice-based, personalization approach, in part because this style of intervention is aligned to the commercial sector’s own customer management and marketing methods.”

Indeed corporate influence on Government policy is so great that in 2010 The Guardian made the eye-popping revelation that “The Department of Health is putting the fast food companies McDonald’s and KFC and processed food and drink manufacturers such as PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars and Diageo at the heart of writing government policy on obesity.”

“Either you have democracy or you have private power – you can’t have both”, wrote Robert Newman in his 2003 novel The Fountain At The Centre Of The World. I’d like to amend Newman’s wise words in terms of obesity: Either you have a healthy population or you have private power – you can’t have both.