July 21, 2007
Life Imitates the BBCBy Graham Cunningham
The current scandal involving the BBC is just the tip of a very large iceberg. Its cutting-room trickery designed to make the British queen appear fractious and ridiculous was all just a regrettable mistake says the BBC. Cynics, on the other hand, might think that this ‘mistake' chimes rather too coincidentally with the British chattering class' disdain for monarchy.
This was tacky journalism for sure but not, you might think, anything too sinister. The really big lie however is the one that says that this particular piece of manipulation is just an unfortunate lapse in the BBC's normally impeccable standards of truth telling. For the truth is that the BBC - in common with all other big media brands - manipulates reality every week, every hour, every minute.
The range of ‘information' and opinion in which we are almost completely reliant on it is frightening. And yet notice how whenever the media machine touches on something about which you have direct personal experience, how wide of the mark it invariably proves to be. The sheer quantity of this kind of 'information' coming at you in the modern world takes a great deal of intellectual effort to process properly. It is easier to just let it wash over you. Eventually it becomes a quicksand and it sucks you in.
The mass media age may have increased our freedom of speech but our mass-mediated perception of reality has arguably stifled our freedom of thought. In times past people may have known only what was going on in their own neck of the woods but at least they knew it intimately, which perhaps provided some reality check. Also one community was relatively free from the influence of another. Not anymore. Now, thanks to the likes of the BBC you know so much more - and have an opinion on so much more.
Now you know that some brutal murders merit grief on a national scale whilst others deserve barely a passing mention. You know that jumping up and down at rock concerts will help to save the world from poverty. You know that man made global warming is threatening to destroy the planet and it's all the fault of capitalism. Just like you know that capitalism was virtually brought down on the stroke of midnight in 2000 by something called the Millenium Bug. Older people know that the world was very nearly overwhelmed in the 1970's by The Next Ice Age. You know that if you have ever stood next to someone smoking a cigarette it might one day kill you. Best of all you know what the most important thing going on in the world at any one time is because it is the thing that headlines the news. Thus has the mass media deluged people's consciousness with trashy certainties at huge cost to their freedom of spirit. Killing off The Age of Reason and replacing it with the Age of Feeling.
It is not even that the BBC and its like are deliberately trying to present a distorted perspective on current affairs or anything else. It is worse than that; the distortion is so embedded in media culture that it collectively fails to comprehend that there are other perspectives. The BBC and its hinterland of favoured contributors teems with champagne lefties, celebrity poseurs and assorted other have-your-cake-and-eat-it fellow travellers of the liberal establishment elite.
And it is a veritable honey pot for the not so big wide world of the arts and academia. The joke is that they all think of themselves as radicals and guardians of freedom. Funny business radicalism; the word suggests boldness, independent mindedness, freethinking. The reality is the opposite. It is a me- too mentality of fitting in with the prevailing ethos, often first absorbed during student days. I remember when I was at university in the 1970's, one or two lonely guys in tweeds and sports jackets flitting furtively across the psychedelic bead strewn quadrangle clutching their briefcases. I remember thinking those guys are the real radicals here. The thoroughly predictable ‘radical' offerings from the BBC in-crowd are invariably dripping with media establishment mythology and the depressing fact that the BBC is often hailed as a great bastion of intellectual independence merely demonstrates the overwhelming brainwashing power that the little box in the corner now has on our intellectual horizons.
The last half-century was so dominated by the spectre of the totalitarian state that no one foresaw what was really coming down the line. George Orwell partly saw the future that we now inhabit - but with one crucial difference. In his nightmare 1984, a political elite controlled the television in the corner of the room and used it to brainwash the citizenry. Whereas in the real post 1984 nightmare, a pervasive mass media - a cancerous organism out of the control of anyone, even its own media elite - brainwashes everyone, politicians included. It is not that anyone is actively trying to brainwash you; it is more that a powerful tendency to group-think is the very nature of mass broadcasting.
And of course this has been going on irrespective of which political party has been supposedly in power. All the mainstream political parties are running scared of media power. A couple of years ago I listened to a very telling discussion on BBC radio. The panel were all media presenters of one sort or another. One of them - a well known ex-politician turned media figure - was asked whether he missed having his hands on the levers of power. He laughed and said something like Don't be silly; we all know that we have far more power than any Member of Parliament. They all chuckled knowingly and then quickly changed the subject.
The media is the least accountable institution in our society by far. And yet, for many decades now this enormous power has gone unchallenged - almost unnoticed. They have schooled us in the ways of attacking everyone else - everyone but themselves. We have become schooled into the idea that the media does the challenging on our behalf. Surely the media is our defender against the power of politicians and big business etc; isn't it?
There has, in more recent times been some help at hand in that the alternative media of the Web is at last beginning to offer some kind of challenge. It is, however, an uphill struggle because after several decades of unchallengeable media orthodoxy much of the population has only ever known a soft-left p.c. world-view right from the cradle. So for them, it is axiomatic, for example, that politicians like George Bush are just idiots and that ‘protesting' about industry and commerce makes you a more caring person. The alternative media tend to focus mostly on the perceived big political issues of the day - Islamic fundamentalism and environmental hysteria etc.
But the most insidious brainwashing happens at a more subtle level than this. The most insidious brainwashing lies in the power of storytelling. It is at this subliminal level that the great soft-left crusades - moral relativism and the cult of victimhood have been won. More than anywhere it is in radio and television film, drama and soap opera.
Try these tests next time you are watching your favourite BBC drama or Hollywood movie: If the characters happen to include - say - a white middle class guy and a non-white working class guy, who is going to turn out to have surprising hidden qualities and who is going to turn out to have a surprising hidden dark side? Or compare the proportion homosexual characters on your tv screen with that in your own real life. Try and find the drama where the ‘right wing' character turns out to be full of compassion and the ‘left wing' character full of bile or where the successful business executive turns out to be rather a nice chap.
This sort of myth making has underpinned so much of Western story telling for at least fifty years now and has been more corrosive of freedom than any political regime. As for Reality tv - that is an Orwellian concept if ever there were one.
The BBC's great trump card has always been the widespread perception that the media is the essential guarantor of a free society. This is true only in one very limited sense i.e. that in a free society it would be unthinkable to try to control the media. But that is a far cry from the mass media actually being an engine of freedom. The greatest engine of freedom is more probably the wealth created by free market capitalism. I would argue that mass mediated group-think has actually been a major enemy of freedom in the 20th century.
It may be that the biggest threat to freedom today is Islamic terrorism. Or you might think it is the big brother state - or more precisely the big nanny state. Personally I feel like Winston Smith in 1984 and the biggest threat I see is the soft-left group-think that pours daily from the big Western media. And why do I see this as more threatening even than the armies of bureaucrats with their can't do this and must do that? Even more than the salivating, hate-crazed zealots? Because the nice liberal journalists, scriptwriters and television celebrities, in spite of their laid back and chummy manner are slowly choking people's ability to think straight. In this respect the BBC is arguably the most frightening Orwellian force of all. Yes, for sure it should be stripped of its taxpayers subsidy. But freedom demands much more than simply this.
Until free thinking individuals - true liberals in other words - turn some of their intellectual fire power on to the mass media machine itself, Western society will continue on its current trajectory. After all, arguably, it was late 20th century media promotion of victim culture that - more than anything else - was the root cause of the global conflicts which it now so glibly and piously tut tuts at on our tv screens.