Sunday, 9 June 2013

JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner

JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner by Richard Marson

I've just finished reading this book. I read the last few chapters first (I rarely read non-fiction in order), and they are more complimentary to the strengths of Nathan-Turner than earlier ones where he and his partner clearly abused their power in the production office of Dr Who.  One chapter in particular makes very unpleasant reading, all about the culture of gay promiscuous sexuality at the BBC and ITV in the 1970s and 1980s, which is, of course, with the theme of young people (albeit over 16) being groomed, very much in the news today. It's a very detailed story of strengths and weaknesses, a warts and all narrative, which has not been edited for language from interviewees, which makes for uncomfortable reading at times for someone old-fashioned like myself. But it is worth reading, if not for the insights into the BBC politics, and the fact that JNT, while in some respects a monster, was at other times extraordinarily kind.

But John Nathan Turner and his partner Gary were targeting 17 and 18 year old fans of Dr Who. Below the age of consent now, but even if it had been, it was still an abuse of power. Most of this seems to have been consensual, but it was trading sex for favours - access to the corridors of BBC TV Centre and behind the scenes of Doctor Who.

I find that as offensive as male pop stars abusing their celebrity to take advantage of female fans.

Matthew Sweet, writing in the Guardian, highlights how this could be very predatory:

Halfway through his story, Marson drops his bombshell. At the age of 17, he was dispatched to Television Centre to write a set report on a story called "Resurrection of the Daleks". After the recording, he was propositioned by Nathan-Turner in the bar. The following year, on the promise of some stills from an imminent story, Marson made an after-hours visit to the Doctor Who office, where he endured a sexual assault at the hands of Nathan-Turner's partner, Gary Downie, who worked as the show's production manager (he died in 2006). Given the age of gay consent in 1985, this constituted a double offence....The evidence of his interviewees would suggest that this was not an isolated incident - that for Nathan-Turner and Downie, making passes at Doctor Who fans became something close to a social reflex. ("Doable barkers" was their gruesome term for those who aroused their interest.) The most bizarre narrative involves a wealthy fan who, in exchange for visits to the studio and the occasional souvenir from the set, kept Nathan-Turner supplied with escorts. It's both an unedifying scenario and a telling measure of the occult power of the programme. (1)

It is important to note that there is no evidence, as Marson makes clear, that Nathan-Turner ever targeted minors below the age of 16.

Ian Berriman, in his review, notes that this culture was widespread at the BBC at the time:

It's equally true that JN-T was not alone when it came to inappropriate behaviour - plenty of straight male BBC employees used their aura of celebrity to wow youthful conquests too. He doesn't deserve to have additional opprobrium heaped on him simply because he was gay. (2)

And Samuel Payn notes that:

The Life & Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner, either by fault or design, is a raucous exposé of BBC Television in the 1980s, revealing its wild drinking culture, abuse of power and downright mismanagement from the top down (3)

What is notable, however, that in reflecting on the book, and putting part of this review into a discussion, I have been accused of homophobia. Words simply have not been read properly. It seems that it is perfectly fine to note that power was being traded for sexual favours by heterosexual men in the BBC, but not by homosexual men. The abuse of power, however, knows no boundaries.

This is a matter which also comes up with religion and race. It is politically correct to be critical of Christian fundamentalists, and even note that there are passages in the Bible which lend themselves to support of the Christians who want an apocalyptic end to the world through war in the Middle East - and there are a lot of those in America. But to say that there are passages in the Koran which lend themselves to Islamic extremists, and accusations of "Islamophobia" come into play.

The same is true with the thorny issue of immigration. Since the time of Enoch Powell, this has been aligned with issues of race, but that does not mean that it is not possible to have a coherent argument about immigration which brackets off any discussion of race.

One of the most well-known historical cases of name-calling being used to block debate was the Joseph McCarthy witch-hunt against communism, where accusation was again used to silence criticism. Anyone who spoke out against McCarthy's methods was obviously a communist sympathiser, and demonised as such. In that time, again using name calling to stifle debate.

Edward R. Murrow, one of the critics who finally ended McCarthy's reign of terror, commented:

"His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men ... We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it-and rather successfully."

Today, playing cards of "homophobia", "Islamophobia" and "racism" can be very dangerous, because it can replace argument and discussion with name-calling, a well known variety of the logical fallacy termed "ad hominem". It is dangerous, because it allows the abuse of power to take place unchecked, because no one can speak out. It allows unscrupulous people to silence criticism, and stifle honest debate.


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