The admission by the BBC that its programmes are not always what they appear to be raises important issues about perception, image and reality and the role of the mass media in manipulating and distorting their relationship. In a world dominated by marketing, commercialism and image, the BBC is doing no more than other broadcasters struggling to retain audience share. It is truly ironic that it took the monarchy, an institution with a medieval image and history, to restore reality by exposing the fact that footage showing the Queen storming out of a photo-shoot was untrue and the result of a manipulation of actual events. In other words, rather than the image presented having a connection to a deeper reality or truth, the exact opposite was the case. This casual blurring and inversion of fact and fiction is what leads the BBC and other broadcasters to invent winners of TV phone-in competitions and from there to obscure the nature of the real world in a more systematic way.
Instead of a probing analysis of government actions - such as workfare for single mothers, the collapse of a Tube consortium, and more disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan this week – we are saddled with endless “reality” TV programmes. Wall-to-wall scheduling of property buying, DIY disasters, losing weight, gaining weight, the Big Brother house through to celebrity dancing on ice is the standard fare. This leaves precious little room for news and analysis, even on programmes like BBC News 24. Rolling headlines with no insight is mesmerising but totally deceptive and uninformative. It is a reflection of a channel that threw in the towel when one of its reporters rightly accused New Labour of “sexing up” the intelligence on Iraq’s weaponry. The story was true but the BBC chairman and director-general had to resign.
Alison Cahn, a former BBC producer who helped make Death on the Rocks about the assassination of IRA members in Gibraltar, wrote in the Daily Telegraph today: “I think there is a thread that unites the mis-editing of the Queen with the dishonest use of phone-in lines by the BBC. It is the pressure now put on programme makers to deliver the desired programme at all costs, so that honesty and fair dealing, with both audiences and participants, is no longer seen as the rock on which programming is based. For me, the experience of moving from more traditional documentaries to making ‘reality’-type TV was invigorating but ultimately depressing. I remember a Channel 4 commissioning editor asking me to alter the chronology of a piece of interview, which would ‘sharpen up’ the story by making a woman look heartless. I refused. On another occasion I was told by a BBC executive producer that I wasn't ruthless enough because there were things I wasn't prepared to say or do to deliver the programme he had in his head.”
The distortion of the truth by the media is, of course, not new. Newspapers like the Sun and Daily Mail do it every day. The Mail, notoriously, actually invented a letter that helped bring down a Labour government in the 1920s. Newspapers and broadcasters play a crucial role in sustaining the ideology of the status quo and in keeping dissent allowed on the airwaves and pages to a minimum. But the contemporary approach is absolutely connected to the fantasy world that is modern capitalism. Here, you can be what you want to be because you are worth it. This is justified by a post-modern philosophy that claims that the world is what each individual thinks it is and that notions of objective reality are old-hat. So reality TV, which is actually unreal TV, becomes the norm and fictional people win prizes. Bread and circuses anyone?
Paul Feldman, communications editor