Woman’s Hour: talking about early fatherhood

NHMy media experience has not quite added up to 15 minutes of fame so far – I was once on the front cover of the University of Reading student paper, and that rolled into the Reading Evening Post the next day (a scandal about geographers teaching sociology); and I was once quoted in a South African daily, and refuted by a government minister in the same story.

So given the chance, I jumped at the opportunity to be on Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 this morning – in my capacity as ‘ordinary bloke with kids’, obviously, the accidental by-product of being a research subject in Tina Miller’s study of men becoming fathers.

If this was even half decent radio, it wasn’t because of me, but because Dean Beaumont from DaddyNatal and Tina were arguing; I have lots of other things to say on the topic, but generally, I think that there is a fine line between supporting fathers to be involved around childbirth, on the one hand, and assuming this must be an active role in order for it to have any value – the reason many men might find it so weird, including me, is because they might be unfamiliar with how to just ‘be there’ for another person, doing what they are told, all the while trying to remember it’s not primarily about them.

I’m wondering what to make of the fact that there is an inverse relationship between the size of the audience for this programme and the degree of professional expertise I can claim to have to talk authoritatively about this topic. I only did it for Cultural Studies’ purposes.

Media archaeology II

A while back now, I wrote a few posts about the family ‘stuff’ I was finding myself having to go through. Some of this stuff opens windows on quite personal and intimate histories, some of it more public ones. One of my favourite excavations has been the discovery of some more or less random pages from TV and radio guides from 1966. In a cupboard in my mother’s house was a bunch of framed pictures, including one of my two older sisters when they were toddlers. The frame of this picture was broken, and when I took it apart, behind the photograph, the paper used to pack the photo into the frame was old editions of the Radio Times and TV World (a predecessor of TV Times I guess). They are from Spring 1966, shortly after my parents and sisters returned to the UK after their African adventures – the TV World is actually for the old ATV region, and the Radio Times is the Midlands and East Anglia edition. 

These yellowing pages reveal a lost world of British public culture, when The Fugitive was the exciting new US import on ITV, Sheila Hancock starred in a show as “one of life’s most entertaining victims”, Captain Pugwash was a cartoon strip in The Radio Times, and you could order an Asbestos Garage from £43. 7s. from the back of the same publication.  Easter Monday’s schedule on ITV that year was all sport: international swimming, from Llanelly; motor racing, from Goodwood, obviously; racing from Newcastle; and show jumping from Hickstead (with commentary by Raymond Brooks-Ward, who I had never associated with ITV, in so far as I think about his career much at all). The BBC was about to broadcast the first of eight, yes eight, nightly programmes reconstructing the ‘Irish Rebellion’ of 1916.

The Letters pages of both publications are testaments to the critical capacities of engaged, active audiences – a brilliant debate about whether or not the plotlines of Softly, Softly were too vague and lacking in satisfactory clarity by the end of each episode, or for that very reason best compared to Kafka’s novels. Or a complaint about the contrast between the national news on BBC radio, presented apparently in “a serious, sensible, and factual manner”, and regional news stories which “are treated in a simpering, pseudo-cosy style”. Pseudo-cosy, what a great concept.

The Radio Times for the 16th-22nd April also contained a half page advert for BBC books and records to accompany its Further Education programmes (Adventurous Cooking, Laws of Disorder) – a peak into the pre-history of The Open University, when the BBC was already pioneering the use of multi-media platforms for adult education. 

Over at TV World in the same week, the letters were all about how best to make custard pies that flop – part of a discussion with the TV World cookery expert. This is from an age before Tiswas.

What do ‘media’ do?

Following my post on the reporting of events in Egypt, Alex Marsh sent me a link to this think-piece by BBC correspondent Paul Mason, Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere, which seeks to draw some general lessons from recent protest events in places as diverse as Greece, Ireland, North Africa and the UK. The piece has since been published in The Guardian, and has attracted some attention, not least as indicative of a BBC policy of encouraging journalists to engage in more detailed discussions via blogging.

Mason’s piece treads between a focus on ‘technology’ and a more interesting discussion of some of the sociological aspects of this range of events – the emphasis on the role of young, relatively highly educated people is surely correct. There is an inevitable journalistic emphasis on the newness of all of this, and the default assumption remains that this is really a story about how ‘technology’ transforms the conditions of political action. The geographer Tim Unwin has a list of various reports that address what he himself calls “the agency of mobile ‘phones and the use of social networking environments over the Internet” in shaping political upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt,  and beyond. His last comment is important: “Much research needs to be undertaken on the real role of ICTs in these ongoing political processes.  What seems apparent, though, is that many participants do indeed believe that these technologies are helping them achieve their objectives.” A certain view of the potential of digital communications is no doubt an important part of the ‘spontaneous philosophy’ of contemporary activism. Likewise, Mason’s think-piece refers in passing to how “activists have read their Chomsky and their Hardt-Negri”. I’m not so sure this necessarily means “they have a better understanding of power”, but in so far as it is true, it does certainly mean they are likely to have a particular, well-formed view of how power operates, for better or ill. But it seems to me that both of these aspects of activist self-understanding – of ‘communications’ and of ‘power’ – are more interesting if they are understood as internal dimensions to this form of organisation, without requiring anyone to affirm the ‘objective’ validity of either of these views of how political action unfolds. The focus on the importance of new media in much of this reporting and commentary allows a narrative framing in which politics is rooted in a generalised but unformed sense of ‘grievance’ rooted in ‘poverty’ and ‘oppression’ which is then given expression by new communications opportunities – Manuel Castells neatly summarises this narrative in his comments on all this.

In short, there is a particular concept of the mediating work that ‘media’, old and new, perform in much of the commentary on the role of social media and digital technology in contemporary politics – they can be ascribed so much importance by virtue of being attributed a merely mediating function. Amongst other things, what disappears from view from this perspective is the different practices that different communications technologies help to configure – twitter and facebook are playing different roles in contemporary events in the Arab world to that played by Al-Jazeera. While much of the commentary out there is about how new media changes how politics is done, my sense is that the real imperative behind much of this kind of commentary is the attempt to understand the changed conditions under which news is made, and indeed, the changed conditions under which academic expertise about complex situations can be articulated in real-time (and there might be interesting elective affinities between certain self-understandings of activism and the focus of media reporting on individualising effects of new media).

For an antidote to some of the more detached commentary on events in Egypt and Tunisia, there are some interesting debates going on amongst anthropologists, which provide much more depth of understanding than is found in much of the technology-focussed discussion. There are a couple of more circumspect reflections on the role of media in these political eventsOne of these pieces makes the point that the focus on the new mediums of political change is a recurrent feature of reporting and commentary on these types of dramatic political events: “This is an evergreen story…The interest that’s focused on social media now, ten years ago was focused on web portals, before that it was focused on email and list-serves, before that it was television.” And in this respect, there is an interesting archive of reportage and commentary on the protests around the contested Iranian election in 2009, described by some as a ‘twitter revolution’, which two years on is an interesting case-study of how the global news narrative of politics as technological expression unfolds and then unravels over time.