scenes from David Miller’s formative years

In 2001, Glasgow Media Group chief Greg Philo and his protégé David Miller (later SpinWatch editor) published a crazed essay ‘Cultural Compliance’ (in Market Killing, Longman, 2001) that was part manifesto, part suicide note. Shortly afterwards Miller moved to Strathclyde University and set up SpinWatch.

‘Cultural Compliance’ was trailed as a counterblast against the post-modern trivialisation of social science and the descent of cultural studies into so many word games and unsubstantiated theories (see Laurie Taylor’s advance review, ‘Time to Join the Real World’, Guardian 5 July 2000; Philo interview)

As such, it was a bit late in the day. More than a decade earlier the right-winger Allan Bloom had excoriated the relativism of the ‘Heideggerian left’ (in The Closing of the American Mind, 1987) and the radicals at Living Marxism attacked the ‘Post-modern, ante-Enlightenment’ thinkers Baudrillard and Lyotard (June 1990).

Still, Miller and Philo argued that ‘there has been an absence of will to address the real and often brutal power relationships which have transformed our cultural life’, ‘social relationships of power and interest which structure our society’, that ‘we have described above’ (Market Killing, 33). But the description ‘above’ where Miller and Philo try to set the foundations of all super-structural analysis is piss-poor.

Though set out in a kind of cod-Marxist language Miller and Philo’s analysis is really a conservative elegy to a lost world of security and community that has been broken up by selfish greed and commerce. Tony Blair, they said, carried on the ‘commitment to free market liberalism’ (Market Killing, 18). Most of all, they deplored the rise in crime.

Miller and Philo had been stung by Ill Effects’ editors Martin Barker and Julian Petley’s charges of stoking a moral panic about violence. In reply Miller and Philo wrote in 1999 ‘in the end the incidence of murder, child murder, assault or rape is an empirical question’ (Message Received, 28) – but gave no empirical statistics to back it up.

In 2001 they insisted that the rise in ‘recorded crimes of violence against the person’ between 1979 and 1997 ‘cannot be explained away by reference to the reporting rates or statistical procedures’ (Market Killing, 15).

Manchester Police Chief James Anderton cranked up the crime stats

Recall that between 1979 and 1997 the Conservative Party’s strategy was to politicise crime rates to justify greater police powers; that reactionary police chiefs like Manchester’s James Anderton were the people recording the statistics; and that many of those violent crimes recorded would have included the ‘picket line violence’ that the Glasgow Media Group had shown was a media exaggeration (see Simon Jenkins, Against the Grain, 1994, for a full breakdown of how the numbers were inflated). How could any social scientist think that recorded crime statistics were not massaged?

The evidence that the crime statistics were exaggerated is that recorded rates of violent crime rates started to fall from 1995 onwards. Miller and Philo’s vision of Broken Britain just is not supported by the empirical evidence that they insist upon.

Mogwai had a better idea about policing

Apart from stoking the crime panic, Miller and Philo rail against the ‘celebration of speed and sexual pulling power’ in Top Gear, and that ‘in the laddish cultural variant the key commodities for consumption are cars, women and alcohol’ (12, 13). And while the Glasgow police were preparing their child curfew, Miller and Philo were on hand to write the Daily Mail-style copy: ‘the involvement of boys aged ten to thirteen in violent crime rose by 50 per cent’ (16). Miller and Philo approve of teacher Michael McMahon’s complaint that ‘it is the schools, not the courts, that are once more called upon to contain the underclass’ (19).

Associated with the collapse in morality – but only in Miller and Philo’s minds – is a descent of cultural studies into irresponsibility: ‘academics have become culture industry groupies’ (32). Defending their mind-control ‘media effects’ position Miller and Philo insist that ‘cultural industries have much to do with the formation and transformation of beliefs’ (55).

One could approve of Miller and Philo’s complaints that ‘post-modernism abandons such concepts as “reality” and “truth”,’ (33) but that they are part of a generalised attack on any kind of theoretical examination. Elsewhere, Miller makes the sweeping attack ‘contemporary social and cultural theory has lost itself in arcane language games and theoreticist speculation’ (Rethinking Northern Ireland, 1998, p 35). But his alternative is a dumb idolisation of empirical evidence, failing to see that even empirical evidence needs a theoretical framework to select and understand it.

Keynes made the point that those who say they are not interested in theories are generally found to be in thrall to some out-moded theory that they have forgotten informs their thinking. Here it is A. J. Ayer’s English school of analytic philosophy that is the unacknowledged mind-set. Miller and Philo’s anti-intellectualism, though, just leaves the door open for every single backward-looking prejudice to come rushing in – from the demand for greater police powers, to ‘bring back the good old days’.

The 2001 essay ‘Cultural Compliance’ was a strange coda on 25 years work of the Glasgow Media Group. Having pioneered the analysis of the media – but then having been called out by younger researchers for stoking a moral panic – Philo and Miller effectively call for an abandonment of media research. How much of that was Philo’s exhaustion with the Glasgow Group, and how much was Miller’s frustration at the cul-de-sac he was in, as Philo’s second in command?

Blair's education secretary Charles Clarke demanded research prove its usefulness

Instead of cultural studies, ‘Cultural Compliance’ calls for hard social science ‘informed by a rational discussion of the outcomes of social policy’ (Market Killing, 32) – in other words an end to disinterested research, and academics put to work promoting government programmes. Reviewing ‘Cultural Compliance’, Jim McGuigan wrote

this is the position of the British Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) in its turn to hard-nosed, numbers-crunching “usefulness”, in effect a social arithmetic … it marginalises critical social science and interpretative methods’ (Journalism Studies, 2001, 2: 4, 630).

The same year Miller was awarded an ESRC grant, for a project which took him out of media studies and into the analysis of public relations and corporate networks. What he took from his years with the Glasgow Media Group was a conspiratorial view of the power of the media, an aversion to theory and a backward-looking conservatism.

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  1. Pingback: SpinWatch’s David Miller: wrong about everything – except the funding applications | SpinWatch-Watch

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