"There's no such thing as society?"

Image of Margaret Thatcher giving a speechA 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 the Centre for Broadcasting History Research at Bournemouth University. 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 Patricia Holland, Hugh Chignell and Georgia Eglezou of Bournemouth University and Sherryl Wilson of the University of the West of England. They are part of the Southern Universities Broadcasting History Group (Click here to find out more about the No Such Team).

AHRC award No: AH/E008682/1

The “No Such” Research website is a record of this work. It is also a record of the “No Such” Symposium held at Bournemouth University on 28 January 2010 and includes papers from the Symposium link to Symposium papers list.

Why ‘No such thing as society’?

‘I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand “I have a problem, it is the government’s job to cope with it!” or “I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!” “I am homeless, the government must house me!” and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing!’
Margaret Thatcher Interview for Woman’s Own 23 September 1987

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 broadcasting itself, specifically in relation to the concept of public service broadcasting.

Why the NHS?

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify with the citizens of that other place.’
Susan Sontag Illness as a Metaphor Allen Lane 1979 p.1

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.

The inventory of 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.

Our study

Our 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.

In sum, we are monitoring 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.

January 2010