The Other Battle for Britain

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One of the crucial decisions in American culture was to keep broadcasting mostly out of the hands of the government. That was not the decision in the United Kingdom.

Death of a Pirate is about the long struggle to modify that decision. The word “pirate” refers not to brigands but to unlicensed broadcasters; the death is about the killing, on June 21, 1966, of one of them by another. It was not a typical event but a shocking one, and it provided the Labour government in Britain with a convenient excuse to shut down the “pirate” stations. But the stations had made their point about the monopoly of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Johns, a Briton employed at the University of Chicago as a professor of history, does two big things with this book. The first is to tell the story of the BBC and the long fight against its monopoly by free-market economists, business people, music promoters, and ordinary Britons. The second is to use documents unsealed in 2001 to tell the story of the killing of Reginald Calvert by Oliver Smedley.

A British reader of my generation may appreciate this part, because he will remember the story. An American is less likely to care about all the details. The reader of Liberty will be attracted to the story of classical liberal ideas and bold entrepreneurial moves in the struggle for private commercial radio in Britain.

The BBC was created in 1927. It was a new thing, a state-owned corporation. As the national broadcaster, writes Johns, the BBC was imagined by its political creators as “autonomous from both the state and private industry.” It was to serve “the common good in a domain that it dominated, free of the inefficiencies of competition.”

The market-based relay company quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture.

Critics objected. Britain never had a British Newspaper Corporation to publish all newspapers or a British Books Corporation to publish all books. It didn’t have it, and it didn’t want it. So why have a single corporation own all broadcasting?

The answer is: because people were led to believe in it.

The BBC had a more elevated mission than any mere private broadcaster’s. Its mission was “to improve British culture through broadcasting.” It would not simply aim at the mass market but would offer “balanced programming,” a mix of such things as “string quartets, educational talks, sports commentaries and dance music.”

This was not meant as background music while the subscriber was washing dishes, weeding the garden, or fixing the plumbing. Radios were of large size then — the precursors of TV sets — and you had only one. The BCC supposed that you sat in your living room and paid attention. You were also supposed to pay cash for the privilege — a license fee equivalent today to $60 to $100 a year.

Politically, this conception of the BBC won the day. In the marketplace, it did not. Commercial stations, denied a place on British soil, set up shop in France and elsewhere and broadcast British content and British ads back to the people of Britain.

The market also offered “relay.” We would call it cable radio. This was popular in working-class districts. The customer paid a monthly fee, and the relay company provided a line and a set. It was cheaper than buying a radio set on installments, and usually the reception was better. The relay company received broadcast signals and chose which ones to pipe to people’s homes. The company could tell when its customers were switched on, and it quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture. By the mid-1930s, relay had more than 200,000 subscribers.

The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

In 1935 a parliamentary committee recommended that the relay companies be nationalized. It wasn’t done; the Conservatives were in power. After World War II, however, Labour took over and vowed to create a socialist Britain. The BBC looked to be in an invincible position.

It wasn’t.

A thing had happened at the London School of Economics. The school had been set up by socialists and dominated by critics of laissez-faire. But it had hired a few critics, and in 1930s three of them became a kind of “anti-Keynesian party.” They were Lionel Robbins, Friedrich Hayek, and Arnold Plant.

Johns devotes some attention to Hayek, his battle in the 1930s with Keynes, and his famous book, The Road to Serfdom (1944). Of the three professors, however, the key person for the radio story was Plant. His specialty was the economics of monopoly and information. He was opposed not only to having radio in the hands of a state corporation, but also to the patent and copyright laws that created monopoly power. As Johns says, “Plant quietly became Britain’s most important critic of such monopolies before the rise of the open-source software movement.”

In 1938 Plant set out to find out about Britain’s radio listeners. Researchers knocked on thousands of doors and asked people what they had switched on. He found that many were listening to Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandy, and the other Continental stations. The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. Smedley was acquitted of murder, but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

Plant’s other contribution was the training of Ronald Coase, who half a century later would win a Nobel Prize in economics. Plant set Coase to work on issues of broadcasting. The eventual result was a book, British Broadcasting: A Study in Monopoly (1950), which Johns characterizes as “the ‘Road to Serfdom’ of the modern media.”

Coase argued that there was no economic reason, and no technical reason, for the BBC to be a monopoly. Those were smokescreens. The BBC had been granted monopoly status for a cultural reason: to support the claim by political elites “to determine on behalf of the listener which broadcast material he should hear.” To Plant and Coase, the issue was control of information. Freeing that from the state, Johns says, “reflected imperatives buried deep in the heart of neoclassical economics.”

Coase’s book influenced the debate. In 1951 the Conservatives returned to power and began using his arguments to push for commercial television. By 1954, they had it, at least in a small, one-channel way. But Britain still did not allow commercial radio. In the 1960s, entrepreneurs responded with “pirate radio” — commercial radio stations operating not from foreign jurisdictions but from stateless space: the seas. They used ships and abandoned World War II antiaircraft platforms outside the British state’s three-mile limit.

It took unusual people to do this. The ideologue of the group was Oliver Smedley. He was a classical liberal who in 1955 had been one of the founders of the Institute for Economic Affairs, the UK’s preeminent free-market think tank. He thought of pirate radio as a political attack on the British state — which it was. Another was Kitty Black, a theatrical agent who, Johns writes, was “contemptuous of government intervention in the arts.” Another was Reginald Calvert, a promoter of pop musical acts. There were others.

Death of a Pirate goes into much detail about who did what. Several of the ventures were half-baked, but at their peak the “pirate” stations had a large audience. Some offered 12 hours a day of pop music at a time when the BBC was limited by law to just 28 hours of music a week — a law designed to protect the musicians’ union.

The British government didn’t act, Johns says, partly because the stations were popular and partly because “nobody wanted to take charge.” Labour, which won the election of 1964, was not sympathetic to commercial broadcasting. Labour’s idea was to use state radio to create a “university of the air” to uplift British workers. Prime Minister Harold Wilson even appointed a bureaucrat — Jennie Lee, the wife of Aneurin Bevan, creator of the National Health Service — to accomplish this. Meanwhile, the British public was listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, often on transistor sets and car radios tuned to unlicensed stations.

Then came the killing. Calvert’s company had appropriated an abandoned antiaircraft fort — “sinister-looking boxes perched on steel legs” — eight miles offshore. Calvert had a used radio transmitter of Smedley’s that he had not paid for. Smedley wanted it back. He couldn’t get help from the police — the tower was outside the British state — so he hired a crew to take it. They stormed the platform and knocked Calvert’s radio station off the air. This led to Calvert bursting into Smedley’s house and Smedley's killing him with a shotgun.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. This had a political effect similar to the one in America when Timothy McVeigh killed government workers in Oklahoma City: it generated a revulsion against people with an anti-state point of view. Smedley was acquitted of murder (self-defence), but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

The broadcasters had, however, made their point. Labour responded by creating the BBC’s first pop station. In the next Conservative government, under Edward Heath, the British state licensed commercial radio.

It’s a fascinating case in how to break the hold of a state monopoly.


Editor's Note: Review of "Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age," by Adrian Johns. Norton, 2010, 305 pages.



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The Other Half

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I’ve heard from a lot of people about last month’s Word Watch. That column was supposed to be the final and definitive commentary on word use in the 2010 political campaign. It was supposed to be the end of the story. But ungrateful readers now insist that it didn’t do half the job it was intended to do. It omitted at least half the tale.

So fine, here’s the other half. Positioned here before the readers’ firing squad, I will proceed to condemn even more of the linguistic sins they’ve complained about. I hope this penance will gain Word Watch a reprieve.

First, the president. Readers wanted much more about him. For example, they wanted more about something he said in the closing days of the campaign, when he was interrupted by hecklers in Connecticut. The hecklers were yelling, “Fund global AIDS!” — which shows how much time these people devote to thinking about the words they use. What their words literally meant was that Obama should subsidize (“fund”) a dreadful disease (“AIDS”), and spread it everywhere (around the “globe”).

Obama’s response showed how carefully he himself considers the words he chooses. He reacted by repeating the protestors’ stupid slogan. “We’re funding global AIDS!” he said. “And the other side is not!” Then he did it again. Addressing the protestors, he intoned: “I think it would make a lot more sense for you guys to go to the folks who aren’t interested in funding global AIDS and chant at that rally, because we’re trying to focus on figuring out how to finance the things that you want financed, all right?”

Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Diagram that sentence, please. That’s what you get from Obama when he isn’t relying on his teleprompters — all right?

I’m not sure why I want to drag facts into a thing like this, but the biggest funder of the campaign against “global AIDS” (AIDS in foreign countries) was the last President Bush. Obama’s abuse of the Republicans was therefore just as vulgar as his abuse of the language. Yet he continued: “We’re not going to be able to do anything unless we get the economy fixed, unless we can put people back to work, unless folks feel more confident about the future. It’s going to be hard to move forward on all these initiatives.”

What their words literally meant was that Obama should subsidize a dreadful disease, and spread it everywhere.

You might ask, “Why must the ‘folks’ feel more confident about the future before Obama goes after AIDS?”, but if you did, you would have a long time to wait for an answer. Everything the president said, like everything the protestors said, was completely nonsensical.

There was something in the president’s remarks that irritated Liberty’s readers even more than the general senselessness. It was Obama’s increasing reliance on that chummy old monosyllable “folks.” During the latter stages of the election campaign our readers heard "folks" constantly from him, and it didn’t take them long to become heartily sick of it. I’m sick of it too. I got sick of it when Bill O’Reilly started claiming that he was “looking out for the folks.” I’m much more sick of it now that Obama has adopted it as his trademarked way of talking down to voters — the invariable accompaniment of his dropped final “g’s” and pseudo-demotic images of common folks tryin’ tuh buy clothes for the kids an’ havin’ trouble payin’ the mortgage.

The most grating of Obama’s folksy images was his constantly reiterated picture of the Republicans drivin’ the car intuh the ditch an’ then expectin’ folks tuh let ‘em back in the car an’ even give ‘em back the keys. I’ve mentioned this silly image before, but readers wanted me to emphasize the way Obama grinned with pride every time he used it, as if it were the climax of his career as an intellectual. Well, maybe it is. And maybe it will be the only locution for which this man of “soaring rhetoric” is ultimately remembered. When the next generation of politically interested kids picks up a handbook of Famous Presidential Sayings, this president may get credit for nothing except that stupid business about the car.

What people insist on saying over and over again defines both them and their view of their audience. Obama’s thing about the car demonstrates how shallow he is, and how shallow he thinks we are.

As several readers suggested, however, if you want evidence of Obama's power as a political analyst, nothing tops a statement he made in his post-election press conference. On that occasion, he alluded to his vast expansion of federal power: “We thought it was necessary, but I’m sympathetic to folks who looked at it and said this is looking like potential overreach.”Hmm . . . People looked at what he (we) had done and said that this was looking like potential overreach. It wasn’t overreach, exactly, or even loosely; it was just something that some folks believed or felt might possibly turn into or look like overreach. And looking at those folks and sensing their vague emotional reactions, Obama contributed his own vague emotional reaction: he was sympathetic. How many boxes within boxes do you count in that weird non mea culpa?

Can’t people think without stupid sports metaphors? Well, yes, they can, but perhaps not in America.

But everyone (even Liberty’s readers) would like to take a break from Obama at some point, so let’s take one now. Readers remain disgusted by a lot of things besides Obamaisms. Some of these folks believe that there may have been some potential overreach in the media’s constant use of the phrase “up for grabs.” “The election may have been a political football,” one reader pointed out, “but it was not a basketball. Still, every time it was mentioned in the papers or on the air, we were told that such and such a Senate seat was ‘up for grabs,’ or there were 435 desks in the House of Representatives that were ‘up for grabs,’ or some state election was so close that it was ‘up for grabs.’ Can’t people think without stupid sports metaphors?”

Well, yes, they can, but perhaps not in America. It would, however, be nice to see whether the media could struggle on for just a few moments without these crutches.

Readers also indicated that there are many other political expressions of which they have had enough. A brief list: “grow the economy,” “put America back to work,” “energize the base,” “hope and change,” “double down,” "out-source," "foreign money," “a way forward,” “a roadmap to,” “man up,” and the current favorite, “triangulate.”

I share our readers’ shuddering aversion to these junk expressions. Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about my own nominee for worst set of words from the 2010 election season. There’s too much to choose from, but what sticks in my mind is a remark made by Florida Governor Charlie Crist, one of the most repulsive personalities of a political year in which repulsive things abounded.

This Crist, of whom we shall probably hear no more, was a Republican, but when he tried to get his party’s nomination for US Senator, he found himself far behind. He then decided to run as an independent, but he had minimal success in enticing Republican support. To win, therefore, he needed to gain huge numbers of Democratic votes. He worked hard on that. A self-styled “Reagan Republican,” he veered crazily to the left, accusing the conservative Republican nominee, Marco Rubio, of every kind of extremism. But Crist was still behind, so he tried to get the Democratic nominee to leave the race. To do that, he suggested (which was undoubtedly true) that Bill Clinton and, by extension, the White House, had so little confidence in the Democrat that they wanted him to withdraw from the race and endorse Crist.

This was a nutty move for Crist to make. It succeeded only in alienating core Democratic voters. Still, he avidly sought television interviews in which he could discuss backroom maneuvers designed to eject the duly nominated Democrat and throw the election to himself. Grinning with delight at astonished interviewers, he displayed his conviction that everything he did, and everything that might possibly be done for him, was not only right but noble, merely because it aided him. If this doesn’t sound surreal enough, add the fact that Crist possessed an angelic little face and snowy white angelic hair, and that he constantly discussed himself in the third person: “This is a Florida decision for Floridians to decide what they want — if they want an extremist like Marco Rubio or if they want a common-sense candidate like Charlie Crist.”

I hate it when people talk like that. But there was worse to come. Asked whether he had leaked the story of the backroom negotiations in order to score a political advantage, Crist adopted the plural of majesty and intoned, “We’re not causing trouble. We’re causing freedom.”

Causing freedom. The man was causing freedom.

Plato believed that there existed in the eternal Mind the “forms” or blueprints of everything that exists on earth. If I were to pick the Platonic form of the contemporary American politician, it would be Charlie Crist. That sounds bad, but there’s a good thing, too: Crist lost the election. Maybe, sometimes, the folks are smarter than the Platonic Mind.




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Sorry, I'll Take the Plane

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If a freight train leaves Brewster at 9:25 traveling east at 70 miles an hour, and another train leaves Stanton at 9:45 traveling west at 50 miles an hour on the same track, how long will it take before a 98-minute movie becomes suspenseful?

Unfortunately for the viewers, about an hour.

Unstoppable, a movie about a driverless runaway train barreling toward another train full of schoolchildren, ought to be fraught with tension. Add to the out-of-control train several freight cars full of toxic, combustible chemicals that could contaminate whole towns along the way, and the adrenaline should start gushing.

Oddly, however, the tension never mounts. This film has its moments, but that's part of the problem: they are only moments. If a train traveling 70 miles an hour in one direction passes a train slipping onto a side rail going the other way, just in the nick of time, how long does the moment last? A few seconds. In this movie, trains always manage to pull onto the side rails just in time, leaving the audience with all the excitement of playing a game of Snakes on a cell phone. And since the filmmakers give us almost no backstory about the people whose lives are in danger, we feel no cathartic worry or relief until the last half hour of the film, when we finally learn a few things about Frank (Denzel Washington), the 28-year veteran driving a rescue train, and Will (Chris Pine), the rookie on his first assignment as a conductor. Ultimately this is a film about a rookie becoming a man, and that's a pretty good theme. But it takes too long to get there.

The filmmakers want us to regard their work as a metaphor for the BP disaster, blaming the crisis on corporate greed, but it doesn't quite work. The film's initial crisis is caused by driver error, not cost-cutting: when a bloated, bumbling engineer (Ethan Suplee) jumps off a slowly moving train to switch the rails, it gathers speed and gets away from him.

The crisis seems to become more corporate-driven when the VP of Operations (Kevin Dunn) rejects the local yardmaster's suggestion to deliberately derail the train before it reaches more populated areas. "We aren't going to destroy an entire trainload of cars," he barks, obviously worried more about the bottom line than about avoiding human injuries.

Adding to the sense of corporate greed and insensitivity, the company's owner (Andy Umberger) is reached on the golf course, where he gives instructions and goes back to his game. Oh, these dirty, greedy capitalists! Selfish to the core! It's clearly a reference to BP President Tony Hayward's decision last summer to attend the annual sailing regatta around the Isle of Wight while millions of gallons of crude were gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

But isn't it wise and prudent for a company to examine all its options before derailing an expensive asset and possibly releasing toxic elements into the environment, even if that environment is outside the city limits? Doesn't every company have to balance the costs of safety and employee benefits against consumer prices and profits? If costs outweigh profits, the company will simply cease to function. Moreover, one has to wonder why the seasoned VP of Operations would trust the judgment of a young, nubile, strangely glamorous yardmaster Connie (30-year-old Rosario Dawson), whose employee caused the problem in the first place.

The most interesting part of this film deals with the inner workings of train safety systems — the switching of the rails to change a train's course, the dead man's automatic braking system (unavailable in this case because the same bumbling engineer hasn't taken time to connect the air brakes), the use of external locomotives to slow a runaway train, and even frontage roads that allow access to moving trains. All of this makes the film interesting, if not fascinating.

Denzel Washington worked with director Tony Scott last year on a taut, suspenseful runaway train movie, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), so they should know how to build suspense: Make us care about the characters. That 2009 film is more about the cat-and-mouse interplay between Washington's character and John Travolta's crazed antagonist than it is about the train, and it works. By contrast, this film feels almost like a made-for-TV documentary reenactment, and it doesn't work.

Watch for Unstoppable in your local television listings. It will be there soon. But it isn't worth the price of a theater ticket when so many better fil


Editor's Note: Review of "Unstoppable," directed by Tony Scott. Twentieth Century Fox, 2010, 98 minutes.



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Go, and Sin No More

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Frantically focused special interest groups have a habit of defeating their own goals, hurting their own self-interest by an excessive pursuit of it. Labor unions are a classic instance: they have often been so greedily intent on exacting every concession from the companies they are bargaining with that they put the companies out of business, and their own members out of work.

Environmentalist groups are another classic case. They have routinely pushed programs that allegedly benefit the environment, but in reality do not. For example, they helped stop nuclear power 30 years ago, an act that exacerbated the very problem — global warming — that so concerns them now. A number of prominent Greens now realize their error.

A recent instance of this phenomenon is none other than the Green giant himself, Al Gore. He just came out against the federal government’s subsidy of ethanol. As he remarked to a green energy conference in Athens, “It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first generation ethanol. First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small.”

More surprising still was his admission that his original support had been based on his presidential ambitions, specifically, his desire for the support of corn farmers in Iowa and Tennessee. But one wonders what took Gore so long to wake up. Subsidized corn-derived ethanol has been a dubious program from the day it was first conceived.

The American ethanol program began in 2004 when Congress established a subsidy of 51 cents per gallon for gasoline containing 10% ethanol. (In 2008, the subsidy was lowered to 45 cents per gallon.) It did this in spite of the obvious drawbacks of making ethanol from corn. Ethanol is the alcohol derived from fermenting sugar, and corn is only 40% sugar to begin with.

Very rapidly, corn that was being used to feed animals and people was diverted to the ethanol boondoggle, until the U.S. ethanol industry used, as it does today, over 40% of all the corn grown in the United States, and fully 15% of the corn produced worldwide. One unintended consequence was rapidly discovered —  shortages in cattle feed and human food. This was folly incarnate: taking perfectly good food and trying to use it to derive fuel. As a consequence, food prices increased, especially in countries (such as Mexico) where corn, or meat derived from animals fed on corn, is a staple of the average person’s diet. By 2008 food prices stood at record levels.

The ethanol subsidy program was questioned from the start. In 2005, a major study by Pimental and Patzek (the first a professor of ecology at Cornell, the second a professor of environmental engineering at Berkeley) argued that ethanol actually requires 29% more fossil fuel energy to produce than the energy it delivers.

The reason ethanol advocates didn’t realize this is that they didn’t count the unseen cost of the energy needed to produce the fuel, such as the energy used to make the fertilizer required to grow the crops, the energy used to power the farm equipment required to plant, irrigate, and harvest the crops, and the energy used to transport and grind the crops and distill the alcohol from the mash.

While many pro-ethanol spokespeople have attacked the work of Pimental and Patzek, it still seems clear — now even to Gore — that the input-yield ratio from ethanol is disappointing at best.

Besides the inefficiency factor, there are other drawbacks to ethanol. It is hard to keep water from mixing with it, which makes shipment hard. And it can be destructive to the rubber components of automobile engines.

Worse yet, a major study published this year by the Congressional Budget Office — hardly a right-wing source — revealed that the use of ethanol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions runs about $754 per metric ton of CO2. That’s about 38 times the average price, on the European Climate Exchange, that a European company would pay to be allowed to emit a ton of emissions over its allotment.

The ethanol subsidy program expires at the end of the year. Perhaps the Republicans, bolstered by their support in the recent election, will work to end this pointless program for good. Ending it would save $5 billion a year, and show some common sense about environmental and energy policy.

And maybe they could call Al Gore to testify.




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