Faked TV and phoney scandals
Let’s try to separate the ephemera of reality television and dodgy phone-ins from serious televised reports of reality.
Somebody said to me recently ‘I bet you wish your libel trial was happening now – you’d win it for sure!’ His point was that, in the midst of the current furore about ‘fake TV’, I might find it much easier to convince a jury to believe LM magazine (of which I was editor) rather than ITN, the television news corporation which sued us for libel in a famous trial seven years ago over an article questioning their images of a camp in the war-zone of Bosnia. (Since I have neither the time nor the inclination to revisit all the arguments of that long-ago case here, I refer interested readers to my article from the time: Some last words on that libel trial.)
I think my friend was probably right – in the current climate many people would begin from the assumption that ‘you can’t believe anything you see on TV’. The trial that led to the closure of LM magazine, and left myself and my publisher with personal debts of up to £1million, might well have ended differently. But if so, we would have won for all the wrong reasons.
There is nothing very positive about the current spate of self-flagellation within the television industry or the wider fashion for TV-bashing. It reveals more about the rise of cynicism in public life, and a loss of nerve within public institutions, than any fresh, critical approach to the media. And putting your boot through the screen of reality TV and phone-in quizzes, obsessing about such cultural ephemera, is not going to address the big questions about the role that the powerful media plays in politics and society today.
The latest bizarre sign of how far the meltdown within television has gone is the attempt to ban ‘noddies’. This is not, as some might assume, another intrusion of political correctness into children’s TV following the banning of golliwogs etc. It is about the familiar shots of journalists nodding/looking quizzical/whatever during interviews which (shock horror!) turn out not to have been filmed during the actual interviews. As the earnest crusade to root out ‘fakery’ gathers pace, there is suddenly a lot of hair-tearing about this apparently harmless, if irritating, journalistic device.
The editor of Five News started the row by moving to ban ‘noddies’, along with other ‘showbiz shortcuts’ such as ‘contrived’ walking shots. He declared that he ‘genuinely believes’ this would ‘help restore trust in our medium’. Newsnight, the BBC’s flagship news analysis programme, then devoted a programme to ‘revealing’ how news reports were put together and asking viewers if it should use such staged shots. The navel-gazing self-absorption of the big media can rarely have been more fully exposed.
The nonsense about noddies follows on from the ‘fake TV’ scandals that have recently blown up around everything from premium phone-line quizzes to reality TV shows and documentaries. As one little scandal after another leads to major outbreaks of breast-beating, the image we are left with is of a television industry thrashing about in a changing media world, no longer sure of who or what it is for, filled with self-doubt and apparently desperate to apologise for its existence. Last month’s Edinburgh Television Festival was, as one insider report put it, ‘the scene of self-examination worthy of the finest analyst’s couch’. Newsnight’s star anchor Jeremy Paxman delivered a dramatic keynote speech entitled ‘Never mind the scandals – what’s it all FOR?’, in which he argued that ‘it’s not that the television industry doesn’t have a compass. It’s that too often it doesn’t even seem sure any longer that North exists. There has been a catastrophic, collective loss of nerve’. The panicky reaction to Paxman’s speech and to just about every other development from the upper echelons of the TV world illustrated his point rather well.
Look at the big picture first, and it becomes clear that this is not simply a collapse of trust in the BBC or television. All of the established institutions in our society, from parliament and the political parties to the police and the mainstream churches, have experienced their own version of this crisis of authority in recent years. The loss of a clear sense of purpose and mission has left each of them desperately searching for a new role and some way to make a connection with a constituency. For example, there was a huge furore when the publicity for a documentary about the royals apparently edited the order of shots to make it appear that the Queen had stormed out of a photo session in a huff. Far fewer questions were asked about why the sovereign had felt obliged to take part in an ‘intimate’ film produced by the makers of such voyeuristic/exhibitionist reality TV shows as Wife Swap.
If the root of the problem is not confined to television, however, the response from within the media is making matters worse. It is important that we try to sort the wheat from the chaff here, or perhaps the serious TV issues from the trash.
Let’s try to remember to separate reality television from reality. These programmes are supposed to be entertainment. And from Hollywood to the Big Brother house, the first rule of watching entertainment shows is ‘suspend your disbelief’ – that is, don’t try to judge them by the standards of real life.
We need to retain some semblance of proportion. Nobody really cares about ‘noddies’. As for the premium phone-line quiz scandals, there may be – as Paxman suggested – some scope for a fraud prosecution, if anybody could be bothered to pursue the loss of a few pence in a ‘fixed’ quiz they stood next-to-no-chance of winning anyway. But these embarrassing episodes have little wider significance, unless somebody out there really believes that Richard and Judy are the arbiters of standards in public life. (The involvement of the BBC’s most famous children’s programme in a dodgy phone-in does seem particularly devastating to adults who presumably believe that, as Americans said of the infamous 1919 baseball World Series, ‘if they can fix Blue Peter, they can fix anything’.)
Let’s not be too naïve or hysterical or historically ignorant about these things. Documentary-makers have always cut film and presented stories in such a way as to enhance the dramatic effect and drive home their point. That is not necessarily the same thing as lying. Paul Watson, the veteran TV filmmaker who pioneered the fly-on-the-wall documentary, caused a furore recently with his study of the slow death of a man with Alzheimer’s disease. Interviewed by The Sunday Times, he said: ‘Am I a manipulative sod? I am. Because that’s what editing is about. That’s where you play God, and if you don’t play God truthfully, there’s no point.’ Days later these words were thrown back in Watson’s face, after it was revealed that publicity for his programme had falsely claimed that it filmed the man’s death, when in fact it ended a couple of days before he died. A fair cop, but really, so what? Did it invalidate Watson’s years of filming the story that a press release sexed up the last shot? We should certainly keep a critical eye on fly-on-the-wall documentaries, but not react like innocent Blue Peter viewers when it turns out the ‘manipulative sod’ of a programme-maker has lived up to his name.
The big problem is not with trash TV, or answers-for-cash TV, or ‘human interest’ reality TV. It is with the way that the standards of these info-tainment programmes now infect serious television news and analysis – something rarely mentioned in the all the fuss about little ‘fake TV’ scandals. It sometimes seems that, to update Shakespeare, ‘All the world’s a reality TV studio, and all the men and women merely housemates’. Everybody, from reporters to police chiefs and politicians, seems to want a walk-on part in the story. The self-appointed job of the news media becomes not just to report the news, but to make it – a trend nowhere more evident than in the mountain of emotion-driven coverage of the Madeleine McCann case.
The impetus driving this dangerous trend in news coverage through recent years goes back to the crisis of institutional authority. The loss of a clear sense of purpose, of what television news is for, has coincided with the decline of traditional news media. In response, programme makers are desperate to make some sort of emotional connection with the audience, by reducing stories to a basic, moving message.
As Paxman put it in his Edinburgh speech: ‘In the very crowded world in which television lives it won’t do to whisper, natter, cogitate or muse. You have to shout. The need is for constant sensation. The consequence is that reporting now prizes emotion above much else.’ He has identified a worrying trend that some of us have been banging on about for a decade. Back at the time of Princess Diana’s death in 1997, one top BBC news executive said that the massive response to her death and funeral had taught the corporation ‘a tough lesson’:
‘We learnt that emotion has its political dimension, that by giving voice on our airwaves to “ordinary” individuals’ thoughts and feelings, we could get at some kind of truth, which would otherwise elude us, no matter how many facts we assembled.’
As I wrote in an essay about these matters at the time, ‘when such a senior BBC newsman starts talking about the need to report an emotion-based “truth” which is somehow distinct from “the facts”, the alarm bells should surely start ringing. If the truth need no longer be dependent on hard information, where do we draw the line between fact and fantasy? The implication would seem to be that, in judging how to cover a story, being emotionally correct can be more important than getting it right.’ Ten years on, the news agenda often seems dictated by the need to toe the emotionally correct line on everything from global warming to the disappearance of a little girl. This is the sort of manipulation we should be worrying about.
Behind the ‘fake TV’ furore is revealed another basic assumption of television today – that viewers are basically infantile simps to be emotionally manipulated and, if they get upset about that, to be patronised like Blue Peter viewers. It is time to start a more serious debate about the coverage of serious issues, and stop trivialising the issue by focusing on the misdemeanours of reality TV. The question I posed in that essay a decade ago seems more pressing now: ‘What is the role of the news media today? To report and analyse, or to emote and moralise? To act as a source of information and a forum for debate, or as a pulpit for sermons and a public confessional?’
There is nothing new about dodgy editing of TV news, of course; indeed, in the past it has distorted rather bigger stories. One infamous episode came during the miners’ strike of 1985, when footage of ‘the Battle of Orgreave’ was cut to make it appear that the pickets had charged the riot police first, when in fact it was the other way around. At that time, however, the response was a political one, shaped by whose side you were on in that titanic struggle. By contrast, the response to the ‘fake TV’ scandals today can only reinforce anti-political cynicism. Ironically, interviewers like Paxman, whose technique can be summed up as ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me?’, have been instrumental in creating this atmosphere of cynicism.
We have long since left behind the innocent age when people believed that something must be true if it appeared on television. But it is really no more intelligent to assume that you cannot believe anything you see on the TV – or that all the tricks of television are equally scandalous.
Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.
Nathalie Rothschild argued that while everyone fretted about faked TV phone-ins, they ignored the decline of objective news reporting. Brendan O’Neill showed how the ‘nigger’ incident on Big Brother was turned into a parable about the viewing public. Tessa Mayes reported on the spoof internal video that caused an outcry at the BBC. Or read more at spiked issue TV.
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