Raymond Williams, Pelican, 1962. Cover design by Carole Ingham, 1982.
Williams, a Welshman and a Marxist, was a respected and influential writer on politics, culture, media and literature. Despite his reputation, Communications was not well received by the critics when it was first published in 1962, nor when it was updated in 1976.
However, I’m interested by some of the thinking in Communications. I like Williams’ comparison of the way that the mass media were organized in the UK and the US. In the UK the media were initially highly centralized; both radio and television began as part of an independent, but government-sponsored organization, the BBC. Commercial stations were only introduced later under pressure from businesses wanting to exploit the broadcast media. In the US all forms of the media were predominantly regional and a commercial model for radio and television dominated from the start. Public broadcasting never had the presence or the influence in the US that the BBC has had in the UK. These differences are still there more than 50 years after the publication of Communications.
Williams’ central argument in Communications is that mass media, and the way that their content is delivered, lies at the heart of democracy. He distinguishes between four types of mass media system: Authoritarian (the North Korean Central News Agency); Paternalistic (the BBC); Commercial (most TV and radio stations in the US); and, finally, Democratic. There are many other examples of the first three categories but, in 1962, Williams could find no examples of a genuinely democratic mass media system; a system that would be open to many different perspectives but not necessarily dependent on public funding or advertising. Williams imagined a system based on independent producers each judged solely by their peers.
Reviewers, including the novelist Kingsley Amis, met the idea of a democratic media system with hostility. The curmudgeonly Amis dismissed it as, “Martians bearing bursaries.” The two writers were born within a year of each other but Williams died relatively young in 1988. Amis lived until 1995, the year when the last restrictions on the use of the Internet were removed. Since then the Internet has had a revolutionary impact on mass media including the delivery of radio, TV and newspaper content and communication by e-mail, messaging, video calls and via forums, blogs and social networking sites. I would like to hear Williams and Amis debating the idea of a democratic mass media today. Williams… one-nil!
Sadly, in spite of the power of the Internet, I can find only one reference to Carole Ingham’s magnificently minimalist design for the cover of the 1982 Pelican edition of Communications. It comes from an advertisement for a second-hand copy of the paperback:
“Cover design by Carole Ingham. I expect it took a lot of work!”
I wonder if whoever wrote that had read the book?