A Personal View of the 2009 IAMHIST Conference

Aberystwyth, Wales

Aberystwyth, Wales


Any conference, to be a success, must take on some of the qualities of its location. Conferences are not abstract entities; they are defined as much by place and personality as they are by subject. So it was that the 2009 IAMHIST conference, which offered the enticing theme of social fears and moral panics, was coloured by being held in Aberystwyth on the Wales coast. That colouring came through in the far-flung town and university, in the number of papers which addressed Welsh themes, in the proximity of the National Library of Wales, and in apposite Welsh screenings, from the rediscovered epic The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918) to Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). This pre-eminent example of a film generating a moral panic was banned in Aberystwyth on its release, a ban not formally rescinded until 2009, by which time – and with delicious irony – the mayor of the town was Sue Jones Davies, who plays Miriam in the film.

The conference took place at Aberystwyth University, high on a hill above the town (we were all that much fitter by the end of the conference after walking up and down from student accommodation to the conference rooms several times each day), and incorporated the third Gregynog Media History Conference, a biennial event organised by the University’s Centre for Media History. The stated aim of the conference was “to explore both the role of the media in addressing, highlighting or perpetuating social fears, and the mass media itself as a perceived moral agent and/or threat”. It was one those pre-eminently useful themes that tend to characterise IAMHIST conferences, a theme international in scope and applicable across all the media that come within IAMHIST’s scope. Ever since Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972) established the concept of the moral panics caused by the perceived threat of ‘deviant’ subcultures, it has been taken up across an extensive range of research fields, embracing the study of the media themselves, of language, culture, race, government and society. How we behave, how we believe others should behave, how we define the ‘other’, how we depend on the media that spread such fears and how we may seek to control their power, all come within the sphere of ‘moral panics’. The conference therefore embraced such diverse and pertinent topics as McCarthyism in Britain, regulation and repression of broadcasting over social fears in Nigeria, Sunday newspapers in Canada 1906-1922, Bobbysoxers, fear as a motive force in East German television programming, comic books of the 1950s, A Clockwork Orange, tramps in American films, and the credit panic of 2008. Disease, terror, profanity, violence, social deviance and financial collapse – we were entertainingly and instructively informed on how the media creates, reflects, perpetuates or addresses social fears – as well as being the subject of such fears itself.

Having just the one pair of eyes, and inevitably constrained by the need for parallel sessions, I saw only a portion of the conference, so this is a selective report, and to a degree a personal one. I was not there for the first day, and so missed the opening roundtable, ‘Moral Panics in Historical Perspective’, with Jason McElligott (Trinity College Dublin), Martyn Powell (Aberystwyth University) and Kevin Williams (Swansea University). Sessions then follows on censorship, ‘enemies within’, and Women and moral panic, followed by ‘Crisis Management at the BBC’. The BBC was inevitably central to much of the debate throughout the conference, and this prestige event featured Edward Mirzoeff (producer of 40 Minutes and Elizabeth R and former chairman of BAFTA and the Grierson Trust) and Will Wyatt, former Managing Director of BBC Television and Chief Executive of BBC Broadcast. One of the great strengths of IAMHIST conferences has been the imperative to bring media practitioners and scholars of media production together in the same place, and the conference was governed throughout by an informed understanding of the pressures under which media organisations operate, as well as their social responsibilities.

I arrived on Thursday 9 July by way of Dublin and Birmingham, undertaking an epic four-hour train journey, sustained by following ball-by-ball news of the first Ashes Test (incidentally the first Test cricket match to be held in Wales). Aberystwyth is the perfect place for those who relish the plain virtues of British seaside towns with hard stone beaches and a sharp wind to keep the mind fresh. I first visited the town on the evening of 11 September 2001 and associate the great panic of the past decade with the rush of waves on the pebbles of Aberystwyth beach at midnight and the ceaselessly repeated shots of the plane flying into one of the twin towers on the television in the hotel lobby. 9/11 and its aftermath hung over much of the conference and were the specific subject of several papers. Katharina Niemeyer (University of Geneva) spoke on the ‘construction of fear’ in American, French and German television news coverage of 9/11, while Alejandro Velez Salas (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) looked more broadly at its effects and consequences. Peter Hutchings (University of Northumbria) discovered foreshadowings of 9/11 in American political thrillers of the post-Cold War period up to 2001, Peter Black (Swansea University) spoke on the ‘shock waves’ evident in newspaper coverage in newspapers in the immediate aftermath of the attack and their role in the formation of the War on Terror, while Karsten Fledelius (University of Copenhagen) took on  the powerful topic of the anti-Muslim panic in the Danish media following the Mohammed cartoons that appeared in the Danish press. History and contemporary crisis felt very close, though there was a clear divide throughout the conference between live issues (terror, credit crisis and disease) and panics from the past where we could look back in tranquillity on what caused fear in our forebears and had to work hard to avoid condescension. Present panics were therefore valuable for how they informed our understanding of fears now consigned to history.

I was fortunate in encountering no dud papers, and a handful of very strong ones. Richard Rudin (Liverpool John Moores University) was illuminating in documenting how the British so-called quality press anticipated and then reported on the impact of commercial radio on UK culture. The debate that raged revolved around who it was should control the mass media, and the power of press opinion was shown when the Heath government backed down from creating a national commercial radio station because it feared a backlash from the quality press. However, this seemed to be the only practical effect of reams and reams of opinion spouted by those papers about something which went ahead anyway because people wanted it, a case of fears failing to be sufficiently inflamed without popular will behind them. Kate Woodward (University of Aberystwyth) gave a fine paper on the history of Welsh-language films, encouraged as a means to support the continuance of the Welsh language after predictions that it would cease to be a living language by the twenty-first century, but which resulted in embarrassments such as the stilted (and quite un-horrific) Welsh-language horror film O’r Ddaear Hen (From the Old Earth) (1981). A more measured and flexible approach, one which did not take all Welsh speakers to be an undifferentiated mass, arose with the S4C television channel in the 1980s and the promotion of independent, bi-lingual and above all watchable Welsh films.

Speaker at the 2009 IAMHIST Conference in AberystwythOther papers that I witnessed were diverse in range but most adhered usefully to the main conference theme. Michelle Mangan (University of Limerick) delved fascinatingly  into how Limerick newspapers helped and hindered the fight against the 1832 cholera epidemic, while Penelope Ironstone-Catterall (Wilfred Laurier University, Canada) was highly topical in tracing the print history of influenza (2009 was the year of the Swine flu panic). Gul Karagoz-Kizilca (SUNY Binghamton and Ankara Universities) took us into a detailed case study of local press coverage of the Ottoman bankruptcy crisis of 1875. An authoritative paper from Gabriele Balbi (Universita della Svizzera Italiana) described the social fears aroused by the arrival of the telephone, while David Hendy (University of Westminster) took on the fears of the next generation at the arrival of the wireless, though his specific subject, the image of Marconi operators given in the pages of Wireless World, seemed somewhat at a remove from social fears. My own paper came in this session, an analysis of How Working Men Spend their Spare Time, a social survey conducted by George Esdras Bevans in New York in 1912. Here sociologists sought to master social fears through statistics – in this case documenting the rise of cinemas and other leisure attractions for a working class which, it was feared, was being led into idleness by being given too much time of its own (though Esdras’ findings pointed to quite the opposite conclusion).

Nick Thomas (University of Nottingham) revealed the surprising fact that little study has been undertaken into the ‘Lady Chatterley’ trial and its press coverage, and demonstrated unsurprisingly rich material in a very informative paper. Linda Kaye (British Universities Film & Video Council) was one of the few brave enough to display film clips, which in general were disappointingly absent from the conference. Her unusual topic was the use of fear in British government public information films. Nicholas Hiley (University of Kent and head of its Cartoon Archive) had a rich subject in the 1950s obscenity campaign against British seaside postcards such as those of Donald MacGill. A heavy debate followed concerning the actions of the Director of Public Prosecutions. James Burns (Clemson University) spoke on early cinema and moral panic in various parts of the British Empire, amusingly pointing out how different countries ended up worried about different things (in South Africa they feared racial mixing, in Southern Rhodesia it was sexuality, in the West Indies it was images that diminished British prestige that concerned them, in India they worried about the threat of motorised crime).

I witnessed two of the special panel sessions. The first was on ‘Government, Panics and Media Crisis’. Virginia Berridge (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine) was eloquent on AIDS, deftly negotiating the differences between moral and real panics, and usefully extending content and debate beyond IAMHIST’s usual range. Merfyn Jones, former BBC governor for Wales, chose his words with care but equally with feeling in recounting the fresh history of the Hutton enquiry into the Iraq war. He admitted BBC had been arrogant, reporter Andrew Gilligan had been a loose cannon, Alistair Campbell (Tony Blair’s Director of Communications) had been ferocious because he knew he would win, while the government believed in BBC bias but the public did not. We were given a privileged insight into a recent history that was still raw. The second was a thought-provoking session on ‘Regulation and the Media’, with Martin Barker speaking with impassioned authority on ‘disguised politics’; Julian Petley describing how things might have been in his analysis of the 1977 Williams committee which sought (unsuccessfully) to change British obscenity laws; and an urbane turn from Sir Quentin Thomas of the British Board of Film Classification, who managed to say not very much but said it with effortless authority.

Given that we were in the heart of Wales, with the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales just down the road, so it was more than appropriate that we were treated to Maurice Elvey’s bio-pic of the Welshman who was Britain’s prime minister during the First World War, The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918). The film was suppressed before it was ever seen by the paying public (British government lawyers paid off the film company and made off with the negative), for reasons and fears that are unclear. Happily rediscovered in 1994, and still more happily revealed to be a masterpiece, the film was shown in NSSAW’s distinctively cylindrical Drwm cinema, with Neil Brand playing the piano in bravura style. Dave Berry, historian of Welsh cinema and long-time servant of the Wales Film Archive, introduced the film with passionate enthusiasm.

I left on the Saturday morning, and so missed the closing sessions, including the special sessions on innovations in media history research and history on television, and the closing plenary, ‘Moral regulation: a new direction for moral panics and the media?’ The twenty-third IAMHIST conference was a well-organised, well-structured and stimulating event. Congratulations go to Aberystwyth University’s Sian Nicholas and Tom O’Malley for their organisation, supported by James Chapman, Jo Fox and Christine Whittaker on the IAMHIST conference committee, and to Lauren Anderson for exemplary work as conference administrator. As said, papers were generally of a good standard and relevant to the theme of the conference. It was noticeable, however, just how many were concerned with British media history and one hopes that IAMHIST will work harder to extend its range internationally. It is not just a case of inclusiveness; by comparing the media histories of different societies, our understanding of our own histories will be all the richer.

As I began writing this conference report, news came through of the sudden death by heart attack of Dave Berry. Dave was the great chronicler of Welsh film history through his book Wales and Cinema: The First Hundred Years. It is a model national film history and the perfect reflection of a man who enthusiastically but judiciously championed every aspect of Welsh film culture. He will be much missed.

Luke McKernan is Curator, Moving Image at the British Library and a member of the IAMHIST Council.

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