Monday, January 22, 2007

World goes mad -- official

In April last year I published a novel called How and why Lisa's Dad got to be famous. You can download a free copy of it, if you wish.

A few months later, I came across a novel by an American, Daniel Scott Buck, entitled The Greatest Show on Earth. I reviewed it on 31 August 2006.

Both these novels were about reality TV. Both novels imagined a TV show which offered extreme forms of entertainment. In my case, it was a show which led up to a man with AIDS having unprotected sexual intercourse with a woman who didn't have AIDS, live on late-night TV, in return for a prize of a million pounds. In Mr Buck's novel, a young woman who is desperate for fame and attention falls in with a TV 'psychotherapist' who specialises in unearthing 'repressed memories' of ever-more violent and dramatic instances of child abuse, satanic murders, and so forth.

Mr Buck and I both portrayed a world in which the media -- newspapers and television particularly -- would seize upon these sensationalist reality-TV shows and would exploit them for their own ends. Given a sufficiently violent, sexual, and controversial TV starting-point, we argued, a media firestorm would ensue.

Well, the events of last week, in the UK, proved that Mr Buck and I were partly right and partly wrong.

We were dead right in predicting that, for reasons of their own, the media are just standing there with their tongues hanging out, waiting for someone to throw a juicy titbit their way. But we badly misjudged how sensational the trigger needed to be. We over-egged our puddings. It turns out, in reality, that the reality-TV show which kicks off a media firestorm need not be all that sensational at all. It can be entirely trivial and commonplace.

There is running, in the UK at present, a TV show called Celebrity Big Brother. Every year or so, Channel 4 gathers together 12 or 15 celebrities -- so called -- locks them up in a purpose-built house, without any contact with the outside world, and allows them to interact. Every few days, the public gets to vote on who should leave and who should stay. In due course, a winner emerges.

Last week, during the course of the current Big Brother run, two of the house inmates had a row. The two women concerned were Jade Goody (a Brit) and a Bollywood film star called Shilpa Shetty.

The row developed over the right number of Oxo cubes to use when cooking a meal. (Remember please that I am not making any of this up.) Jade, who has a very big mouth, proceeded to yell abuse at Shilpa for some time, and Shilpa stood up for herself.

As rows go, this was minor-league stuff. It was a shouting match, of the kind that you can hear any time on a soap opera. But, because this wasn't carefully scripted soap opera, the row went on longer and was messier. There was physical contact between the two ladies: no cat fight, no scratching, biting, hair-pulling, rolling on the floor. And nobody ran to the knife drawer and emerged with the intent of performing amateur surgery.

So far so negligible. However, someone, somewhere, seems to have decided that Jade's yelling constituted racist abuse and bullying. And both of these words, racist and bullying, are serious politically (in)correct no-nos.

Before you could say Just a minute girls, the UK media went mad. And I mean that literally. Television stations, radio programmes and newspapers all abandoned whatever claims they might have had to rationality, and spread themselves, in all directions, with reports, comments, interviews, photos, vox pop, opinion polls, you name it, they had it.

Unless you have lived in the UK these last few days, you cannot really understand how the nation seemed to stop dead and discuss this issue and nothing else.

In truth, the whole thing was a fuss about nothing. You and I, in two or three minutes, could come up with quite a list of racially insulting remarks, for the dusky-hued to hurl at pinko-greys, and vice versa. None of those was heard on Big Brother. As for bullying: you can see worse on any school playground. All that took place was a standard, run-of-the-mill shouting match, of the kind that gets neighbours banging on the walls in every city in the world, seven days a week.

But the media, as I say, went mad over it. Here are a few examples of the madness.

Mr Blair, our Prime Minister, was asked a question about the Big Brother row in the House of Commons. Naturally he took the matter seriously. He declared solemnly that we must combat racism wherever and whenever it occurs.

Our Prime Minister in waiting, Gordon Brown, was on a formal trip to India last week, presumably to discuss matters of mutual benefit to that country and the UK. But, because Shilpa Shetty is Indian, the Indian media had gone just as barmy as the UK lot. So instead of talking about trade, he found himself being constantly interviewed by the press, and questioned about who should be kicked out of the BB house first, Jade or Shilpa.

You really couldn't make this stuff up. I know, because I tried. So did Mr Buck. We did our best, but we were defeated by reality itself. The modern media go far beyond anything that any novelist might dream up.

Meanwhile.... Yes, there is a meanwhile.

Meanwhile, there were some real stories developing, news stories which might actually mean something, and which have some real impact upon the welfare of the nation. These were almost buried under an avalanche of rubbish.

There was, for instance, the little matter of the war in Iraq. But that's so boring, isn't it? Old hat. Heard it all before. No one will tune in for that.

But there is also, quietly ticking away in the corner, a metaphorical time bomb.

In today's Times, William Rees Mogg sums it all up rather well. In an article entitled 'The last days of the great driveller -- the scandal that threatens to engulf Blair', he points out that, for some time now, the police have been investigating three possible criminal offences that may have been committed in relation to Labour Party fundraising. Two people who work very closely with Tony Blair have been arrested: Lord Levy and Ruth Turner. They have not yet been charged, but, judging by the fierce attacks which have been launched on the police by friends of no 10 Downing Street, there is evidently cause for panic in the Prime Minister's office.

This, I think you will agree, is a story of some importance in the real world. But it was very nearly lost in last week's uproar. The word Watergate is beginning to be heard in the land, because what may have gone badly wrong is not so much the original crime (if there was one) as the attempt to cover up what happened (via lies and the destruction of evidence). Covering things up can amount to perverting the course of justice, which is a serious charge in the UK. It did for Jeffrey Archer.

The UK media madness was epitomised, for me, by a TV soundbite from Tessa Jowell.

Tessa Jowell is Tony Blair's Culture Secretary (whatever that means), and is a member of the Cabinet. She is also the husband of a man who has faced a long-running police enquiry into allegations of bribery in Italy, and she still has a number of questions to answer about her own conduct. She is known in some disrespectful quarters as Sign-anything Tessa, or Mrs Mortgage. Smart enough, it seems, to be a cabinet minister, but not smart enough to understand her husband's complicated financial dealings.

Just think how Ms Jowell must have felt when she opened her front door last week and found that the street was packed with cameras and sound men. Oh my God, she must have thought. Has the Prime Minister been arrested? Are there new revelations in Italy?

But no. No, all the media wanted to know was how she felt about Big Brother.

Well, that was easy. 'Disgusting,' she snapped. 'Racist and disgusting.'

And then she got into her Cabinet Minister's car and went off to her Cabinet Minister's office. And as she went, she doubtless wiped the sweat off her brow, heaved a great sigh of relief, and said, 'Phew. Fooled 'em again. Thank you, Channel 4.'


Anonymous said...

One must really place the blame for this at the feet of a public which seems to have an insatiable appetite for such stuff. On the other hand, there does seem to be a limit. In the US, in addition to claptrap about "American Idol" and "Brooke Hogan Bashes Jessica Simpson," there seems to be some actual realization sinking into Americans that they have both an out of control President and an out of control war.

Anonymous said...

It's been argued by some that this Big Brother conflict is a class conflict, rather than a racial one. But under New Labor, it is probably even more un-PC to mention class than race.
I need hardly add that - if class exists - our Bollywood star has more of it.
Watchers of Big Brother have none.

Margaret Porter said...

Your perceptive commentary on the public and press reaction (or non-reaction) to occurrences in so-called celebrity-land and at Number 10 is most welcome.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Juvenal: "Two things only the people anxiously desire -- bread and circuses" (panem et circenses).

Glynn James said...

Agreed completely, there is no excuse for allowing such drivel to dominate the news and overshadow other, real issues.

I watched the very first big brother series with interest, and it was quite fun to watch (some of it anyway), because it was something different. The whole boom that has happened with this type of tv now is just ridiculous. I don't even want to think about the biographies ghost written for past contestants. It's sad that publishers lower themselves to produce such drivel.

Unknown said...

30,000 complaints is no small thing...especially when they're all directed at the nunmber one cash bringing programme on channel 4. Jade is stupid, but we knew that. I just didn't think channel 4 would glorify it all so much. Yikes. I've had a similar rant on my page abou the whole thing. Its interesting stuff you have to admit...enough for us both and i expect several thousand others to write on it!

Anonymous said...

Well done, Grumpy. I don't think it does anyone any favours to equate racism - which is real and frightening - with one daft bat calling another daft bat a poppadum. Madness, indeed.

As Macaulay is so often quoted as saying, 'We know of no spectacle so ridiculous as that of the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.'

Sadly, it is a fit that all political parties AND the media in the UK are busy simtulating and have been for the last ten years and more. Presumably because it keeps them away from all the things in their Much Too Difficult Box.

And a small unsurprising postcript - Rupert Murdoch is now said to be interested in buying Telefonica's share of Endemol, the producer of Big Brother.


Anonymous said...

For sure this was a class motivated spat, not a race one. But then the producers knew this would kick off, didn't they? Isn't BigBrother a dead horse and this was just the sort of flogging to bring it back into the spotlight?

oh well... Maybe it will be the death of this show and we can move onto a book market that is dominated by the winners and nearly winner and the girl/boy friend of people who once stood next to a cousin of someone who knew the bloke who's brother once had a pint with a contestant of big brother....

And in answer to your question old Grumpy... No you didn't over egg the pudding. Any writer putting this sort of drivel in a book (two woman have a row, effigies burnt in Pakistan) would be rightly rejected by readers as being "too far fetched"...

Roo said...

Surely the highlighting of Jade's racism is a good thing?
She may not have set out to be overtly racist, but the result of this low level underlying racism is just as racist as donning KKK robes and burning crosses.
We, as a nation, cannot begin to tackle racism born of ignorance by turning a blind eye to such goings on and saying they aren't racist.
This debate being started by these events is one that is long overdue and will allow for more people from classrooms to boardrooms to study their own behaviour and ask the question "are my actions racist?"