“No Such” research

“There’s no such thing as society?” A study of broadcasting and the public services under the three Thatcher governments, 1979-1992

This two year research project (January 2008-January 2010) funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council was based within BU’s Centre for Media History. It investigated the ways in which UK television and radio reflected and mediated the changing political, economic and ideological climate during the period of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, particularly in relation to broadcasting and the National Health Service.

The researchers are BU’s Patricia Holland, Hugh Chignell and Georgia Eglezou and Sherryl Wilson of the University of the West of England.

The research resulted in the book Broadcasting and the NHS in the Thatcherite 1980s:  The Challenge to  Public Service.

Why ‘No such thing as society’?

Margaret Thatcher’s governments initiated a radical restructuring of the politics and economics of the UK, moving from the post-war, social democratic, welfare state towards de-regulation, market-based policies and individual responsibility.They promoted the ‘private’ over the ‘public’ sphere.

Against the background of Prime Minister Thatcher’s notorious claim that ‘there’s no such thing as society’, the research considers how the political and economic changes were represented by the broadcast output of the time, particularly in relation to public service broadcasting and National Health Service.

We consider broadcasting across the genres on both radio and on television. We look at programmes that range from documentaries and current affairs, to drama, docusoap and comedy.

We recognise that the programme output should be seen against the background of a broadcasting system which was under pressure. We draw parallels between 1980s policies which re-structured the NHS and, and those which changed the nature of public service in the broadcasting ecology.

Focusing on the concept of ‘the public’ and of ‘public service’, the research has three aspects:

1. How the concept of ‘the public’ was itself worked on, modified and mediated in the 1980s, both by the Government policies and legislation and in the wider discourse.

2. How broadcasting represented the public services, particularly the NHS, across the genres on both radio and television in the years of the Thatcher governments.

3. How the Thatcherite project affected both the underpinning ideologies and the structures of broadcastingitself, specifically in relation to the concept of public service broadcasting.

Why the NHS?

In the UK, the NHS is a particularly iconic and sensitive area, affecting the whole population. Issues of health and sickness powerfully demonstrate the ways in which public life is lived out at the very point when the vulnerability and interdependence of individuals becomes an unavoidable issue. This is when the question of whether ‘society’ exists, and what form it takes, matters most. The programmes we consider deal with the ways in which individuals inhabit the public sphere, as they take on what Susan Sontag described as ‘a more onerous citizenship’.

Together with broadcasting, the NHS has been seen as a touchstone of ‘public service’ in the UK. This means that the challenges which were mounted in the 1980s had a particular historical resonance.

Indicative inventory of health and broadcast programmes

The structure of radio and television has allowed viewers and listeners to move between channels and to dip in and out of the schedules, following their different interests, politics and expectations. Finding a path through the mass of programmes on offer, viewers and listeners can build up their own sets of references and understandings which may confirm, challenge or unsettle attitudes and opinions from other sources, as the broadcast output interweaves with the experiences of daily life.

To present some idea of the scope of that output, the project began by creating an inventory of relevant programmes. On behalf of the project, the team created lists programmes in a number of genres on radio and television, giving an overall view of the changing output in the decade in which Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

The inventory can be accessed here.

The Study

The study aims to contribute to a historical understanding of the circulation of ideas and attitudes, as well as the mediation of factual information. By scrutinising the broadcast media, it seeks to throw light on the ways in which the public debate was conducted. It monitors the transformation of politics into culture across the decade. The changes were contested, uneven, and often contradictory, but by the 1990s the assumptions of Thatcherism had entered the common sense of the age.