Who’s really to blame for Big Brother?

The reality TV show was a product, rather than the cause, of the collapse of standards and the death of privacy.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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So, that’s it then. With the announcement that Channel 4 will not be renewing its contract, that two-word byword for anything from dumbing down to the loss of privacy to instant, vacuous celebrity will, from next year, be no more. The TV tyranny of Big Brother is over. Long live seriousness. Long live substance. Long live, er, something.

It’s fair to say that Channel 4’s decision to make next summer’s Big Brother the last has not exactly been met with wailing protests. Unmourned, and increasingly unloved, this year’s series has also shown that Big Brother is now largely unnoticed. Once a staple of tabloid front pages, the annual series of Big Brother now barely merits a mention in the TV round-up. This is hardly surprising considering the decline in viewing figures. Between the first series in 2000 and series seven in 2006, average viewing figures fluctuated between 4.5million and 5.8million. Now they have sunk to around two million.

Where pundits have felt moved to comment, they have been largely negative. BB’s demise, wrote Roxanne Sorooshian in the Sunday Herald, will leave ‘our screens bereft of nobodies doing nothing much for the benefit of the masses, who obviously have nothing much to do themselves’. The Mirror’s Fiona McIntosh was equally scathing: ‘What started out as the most innovative, brave show on TV has become a sad circus of freaks, no-hopers and has-beens.’

BB obiturarists frequently sound a note of nostalgia. It was all so different back in the summer of 2000, they complain, when 10 unknowns gave up their freedom, and privacy, for potentially nine weeks. It was innocent and innovative. It was new and achingly now.

And it’s true that, for the first few years, BB had a buzz about it; the tabloids salivated and broadsheets fawned. BB felt important. Here you had a show in which the audience voted to keep the people they liked in the house. And vote they did, in their millions. BB seemed to say something about Britain, about what it valued.

For the final show of the first series, 10million tuned in to watch Liverpudlian builder Craig Phillips, the nemesis of ‘Nasty’ Nick Bateman, walk off with the £70,000 prize. This, many remarked, seemed a triumph for working-class honesty over posh disingenuity. The next year, Brian Dowling, funny, perceptive and gay, emerged victorious. This wasn’t just a victory for Dowling, it was a victory for British tolerance. And so it continued. BB3 saw a woman win, in the shape of Kate Lawler. But for many it was the wrong woman. The real winner was an overweight girl from Bermondsey called Jade Goody. Seen rowing, bitching and giving PJ a BJ (allegedly), she was initially vilified. ‘Kill the pig’, announced the Sun’s front page. But then things shifted. Jade became popular. People warmed to her. And the commentators, the most vitriolic in the broadsheets, were forced into embarrassing volte-face reversals.

But as relatively popular as Big Brother was, as over-analysed and commented upon, it was always accompanied by the gnashing teeth of those convinced that a TV show watched by about six per cent of Britain’s adult population was bringing about the collapse of civilisation. In 2000, the Bishop of Liverpool could not take it any more: ‘What [the makers of BB] are doing in the end is colluding with the creation of a human zoo. Who knows what the long-term consequences are going to be? It is a pretty high price to pay for entertainment.’ John C Beyer of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association felt moved enough to come out in defence of privacy: ‘The danger of programmes like this is they assume that individual privacy can be cynically surrendered in the interests of novelty television aimed at maximising audience ratings.’

Elsewhere, Jenny McCartney in the Daily Telegraph gave vent to the familiar complaint about the vacuity of celebrity culture: ‘Talent? It is no longer relevant. Fame has been democratised: as a result, it is increasingly meaningless. One can be famous for doing something, or for interviewing people who do something, or just for “being on TV”.’

In the rush to condemn and praise, and now simply to forget, the meaning of Big Brother has always been missed. It just wasn’t a herald or an avant garde of any kind. Fame for fame’s sake didn’t emerge with BB, nor was high culture trampled underfoot by it. And privacy wasn’t given up in the instant those 10 unknowns entered that two-bedroomed house in Bow in east London way back in the summer of 2000. Rather BB was the culminating moment in a process that had transformed the public sphere over the preceding 10 years.

In the 1997 General Election, the journalist and independent candidate Martin Bell won the Tatton seat at the expense of Conservative MP Neil Hamilton. Hamilton, mired in a scandal involving alleged payments in exchange for asking questions in the House of Commons, symbolised the corrupt politics of old. He was a politician who simply couldn’t be trusted, a dubious character, disingenuous and insincere. Bell, who’d made his name reporting on the Bosnian conflict of the early 1990s for the BBC, was the polar opposite. He was a morally correct character whose inner purity manifested itself in his resplendent white suit. What their policies or views were was beside the point. This was an election based on character, and on the moral, or immoral, attributes that constituted the candidates’ existence.

Bell’s victory captured in microcosm the impulse behind New Labour’s election victory. The manifesto pledge to ‘clean up politics’ amounted to a cleaning out of politics, a jettisoning of the all-too-palpably hollow rhetoric of left and right – ‘the totalising ideologies’ of yore, as Tony Blair put it in 1996. In place of political ideas stood politicians themselves. What was important now was personality, not politics. Being true, being morally right, and, most important of all, being seen to be true, being seen to be morally right – that is, transparent – was the lingua franca of the redefined public sphere. With this, the public sphere lost its impersonal character. It was now the personal character of individuals that came to the fore. Judging what one is replaced judging what one is for.

It is in the context of the emergent politics of personality, of a social environment dominated by the terms of the private, that the curious success of BB is best understood. It fulfilled the promise of a post-ideological public sphere. If the most important thing, in a public world bereft of the transpersonal ideas that once defined it, was to be oneself, then Big Brother was its inglorious, compelling culmination. For here, the self-selecting electorate of viewers really did vote on personality, on who they liked and trusted. Likewise, the cardinal sin was insincerity, two-facedness, of appearing to be one thing while actually being another. Just as politicians are now damned all too frequently for their hypocrisy, so BB contestants were voted out on the basis of bitching behind people’s backs. BB wasn’t just a metaphor for the public sphere; it was the contemporary public sphere. It achieved what electoral politics could only promise – complete and utter transparency. No one could be other than they are, no matter how hard they might try to spin themselves.

The media fuss that frequently engulfed BB in its initial years, be it the accusations of racism or the presence of a transsexual, was not an accident, a quirk of the media class. In a public sphere dominated by the judgement of character, BB allowed for a moral consensus to be formed around precisely that: character. The commentariat loved BB not because it was innovative or brave, but because it met a need. ‘[T]he democracy of this national conversation’, wrote Charlotte Raven in the Guardian in 2000, ‘is such that everyone is fluent within half an hour of watching the show, making it ideal for people who, for whatever reason, struggled to make contact with each other [in the old terms of social interaction]. In offices across the nation, colleagues who never passed the time of day are shouting to each other across the room about the latest developments on the web.’ For a commentators and pundits in search of the substance of a reconstituted public sphere, BB looked like something that genuinely articulated a popular consensus, albeit one that could vacillate from one week to the next, and evaporate within few days of the final eviction show.

Alas, no more. BB, a format that relied in part on the ingenuousness of the contestants, on their striving to be themselves, has long lost that role. The housemates became too savvy, their personalities became too affected, and the show too contrived. But, just as seriousness and substance in cultural life did not depart with the appearance of BB in 2000, so they will not return with its end.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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spiked-issues: Celebrity and TV and radio.

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