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The National Body

The Rights and Obligations of Citizenship

Documentary and the Public Sphere

The Nation Speaks



Documentary and the Public Sphere

We need finally to consider the place of the documentary within the public sphere.  Whereas, Giddens argues, the public sphere of traditional states was severely limited in terms both of how open it was and who it was open too, this public sphere becomes broadened with the development of printing and the extension of literacy, and becomes fully realised with the emergence of the nation-state.  Indeed, given the centrality of the notion of citizenship to this new political community, Giddens argues that 'In the context of the modern state, the capability of different groupings to discursively formulate policies or programmes that express their interests and to make space in the public domain for promoting them are vital' (p. 211). 

Wealth of a Nation extract
Wealth of a Nation (1938) documents the state's response to economic depression in the 30s

The role of the mass media in the operation of the public sphere, particularly in the context of public service broadcasting, has been discussed elsewhere (cf. Scannell, 1989).  In brief, the mass media are important because, as Steve Kendrick (1989) argues, 'in terms of the overall image of state action at the national level the individual is reliant overwhelmingly on the national media for information on state activity' (p. 79).  This informational role is quite clearly articulated by Grierson (1938) himself, who regarded the function of the documentaries produced by the first Committee as similar to that of the documentaries he had produced for the Empire Marketing Board and the General Post Office: 'Most of these films, you see, are in the nature of enquiries - enquiries into what is going on.  It is a sorry truth that in our complicated modern life it is very difficult to know what really is going on - difficult to see below the surface of events and realise the growing points.  The cinema, some of us think, is a peculiarly able instrument when it comes to growing points and that is why we serve it' (p. 4).

The Films of Scotland documentaries should be seen as part of this mediated public sphere, occupying a particular position in relation to the state.  In the documentaries, this public sphere is quite specifically a national public sphere, concerned with national problems, such as the management of the Scottish economy.  We can explore this argument with reference to another of the Committee's films, Wealth of a Nation (1938):

Wealth of a Nation
Metal in Harmony, another document of Scotland's heavy industries

Wealth of a Nation

(Suited men sit around town council office)

Voice Over: Scotsmen faced the problem of re-shaping their national policy, they began to think of a new, modern Scotland planned on lines very different from the old.  But now, let Scotsmen tell their own story:

Sir Henry: We are feeling the draught of the depression tremendously.  In various parts of Scotland, particular industries have identified themselves with that district, but these industries are all gradually drifting away.  You know the position in Dundee Professor?

Professor: Well, Sir Henry, Dundee was built on the jute industry.  At present our industry is being undercut by the Indian factories.

Civil Servant: The herring industry too, is gradually loosing its foreign markets, chiefly in Russia and Germany.  This is particularly affecting the North-East coast.

This is the first form of public communication the documentary enables: access for a public audience to the private speech of the 'experts' who make up various local government bodies.  The documentary provides a public domain, a domain open to public view for those who formulate and manage national economic policy to speak to, or at least be overheard by, those who are subject to the state's administration of that policy.  This expansion of the public sphere is matched and driven by the extension of state sovereignty discussed earlier.  The consequence of this, for Giddens, is that one of the things that makes the modern state distinct is that those subject to this sovereignty are far more 'aware of their membership in a political community and of the rights and obligations such membership offers' (p. 210) than earlier subjects.  The national public sphere has a second communicative function then: it must demonstrate that the rights of citizenship are being met by the state.

(Group of cyclists ride through countryside)

Voice Over: Now, after a century of town-living, the Scottish people themselves are turning back to the mountains.  Tribute to this new sense of citizenship is the Forestry Commission's gift to Scotland of Britain's first national park: a thousand square miles of Argyll within cycling distance of Glasgow.

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Author: Richard Butt Images are drawn from the SCRAN database.