TV UK, 21 February

Fat Boab offers camcorder footage of the London anti-war demo, while BBC2 gives us Holidays in the Axis of Evil.

Dolan Cummings

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Topics Politics

I suppose I should have spent last Saturday watching the London anti-war demonstration on TV, or better still, gone along and then compared the reality to the presentation on TV in the evening.

The thing is I’ve got this Saturday morning routine. Radio 3, shower, kippers, Financial Times, coffee, cake. If only I could tape the demo and watch it later.

Fortuitously then, my good friend Fat Boab was out with his camcorder doing voxpops. On Saturday evening I watched the rushes. The atmosphere was immediately familiar: people milling about in the park waving placards, an hysterical voice (Billy Bragg, Bob Crow, someone like that) haranguing the crowd. But despite the familiar trappings, the sheer numbers, the Daily Mirror placards, and the odd make-up of the crowd made the demo unmistakably novel.

Fat Boab interviewed a selection of demonstrators, most of whom seemed to be on their first demo, but were otherwise quite diverse. The common factors were woolly hats and a desperate desire to sound reasonable. The latter made it difficult for Fat Boab to determine the exact nature of their opposition. ‘Would you support war with a second UN resolution?’ The encouraging ‘Um, not really’s were invariably followed by ‘I think there are other ways of sorting this out’. Right.

The quality of debate in general has been poor – not TV’s fault, but TV hasn’t half shown it up. Last week’s Iraq: Britain Decides on BBC1 was a big production, but the content was little more than one form of moral posturing against another. This Saturday Channel 4 cheekily runs up to The West Wing with America on Trial (6.45pm).

The premise is anti-war, but it remains to be seen whether the programme will challenge the basic assumptions of the war camp. Nobody has explained, for example, just how bombing the hell out of Iraq, or even installing a shiny new democratic government, is supposed to prevent a bunch of Western-educated Saudi nihilists from hijacking a plane in the USA and flying it into a tall building.

A more intriguing pro-war argument is based on the dubious doctrine of accidental liberation. The advantage of this one is that you can be as cynical as you like about the motives of Bush and Blair. The important thing is that Saddam is deposed and the people of Iraq are ‘freed’. We’ve heard it before, and this argument will certainly be backed up by documentaries about the glorious new feminist republic of Afghanistan, but these programmes are obviously still in the pipeline.

Mindful of the need for ‘before’ pictures, though, BBC2 has offered Holidays in the Axis of Evil, in which journalist Ben Anderson visited Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Libya and Cuba. His basic lesson was that the people in these countries are very much like us, despite the repressiveness of their regimes. It’s not a sophisticated point, but then neither is the Western rhetoric of the ‘Axis of Evil’.

Anderson is a bit of a comedian, which gave the programmes a rather glib feel, but this actually worked well in bringing out the humanity of his various minders. He wasn’t afraid to test the Evil sense of humour. Anderson amazed a guide in a Libyan museum by claiming to be able to identify a manuscript as Iraqi by the style of Arabic writing – actually there was a label in English. And he had great fun when he discovered his North Korean guide had a more expensive watch than him.

None of this is an argument for or against war, but it at least takes us away from the uninformed moralising of the domestic debate. The most striking moment came when a young Libyan responded to Bush’s ‘with us or against us’ posture with ‘Fuck you, motherfucker’.

Even as they despise their rulers, and admire our films and our wonderfully expressive language, proud young men like this are unlikely to be able to stomach the indignity of having their future decided in British TV studio debates.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

All quiet on the protesting front, by Rob Lyons

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