Keeping the Rabble in Line

Banging on about representation: The would be media lens

Friday, June 08, 2007

Big Brother 8 and (another) racism row.

So, during the course of a conversation with fellow housemate Charley, Emily was heard to use "a racially offensive word to a fellow housemate"; more here This has - quite rightly - become a major "talking point" The exchange went something like this:
Charley: "Oooh I hope I'm not pregnant"

Emily: "You're pushing it out you n####r" - I assume Emily was referring to Charley pushing out her stomach.

Nicki: "oooh, I can't believe you just said that!"

Charley: "You're in trouble"

Emily: "don't make a big deal out of it ... i was joking"

Charley: "I know you were ... but " ...]inaudible[..."... some serious shit"

Offensive yes. Now, read the BBC report above and
again here they seem to be suggesting that it was whilst dancing in the's the quote from the BBC report: "Emily said:
'Are you pushing it out, you n#####r?' to Charley Uchea, while they were dancing in the living room on Wednesday evening." (end quote)
So the BBC report - presumably put out by Channel 4 and/or Endemol in the first instance - becomes quite important in providing a context does it not? My own textual analysis (of the BBC report) is that: it was part of friendly "banter" whilst dancing, so "pushing it out" *may be* some reference to dancing, and the use of the offensive word may be *safely* contained within a particular (lazy, assumptive) narrative, action and identification. Importantly: these ideas (of action, narrative and identity), are potentially offensive anyway: inasmuch as the term, actions and narrative(s) are considered "Street" or "urban". OK, I know this is based on a partial "reading" or interpretation, but, this seems to be the suggested (preferred) reading. Given that it did not happen like that at all, they were chatting in the garden whilst having a cigarette, why was that version of events allowed to be propagated?

Could it be that Emily is educated and middle class, her "values" are proximate to certain dominant discourse(s) and as such "common sense"? Therefore there *might* be an attempt to conceal a casual, unthinking, lazy prejudice and recuperate it "there's no way she can be racist is there? She's just a normal sweet girl!" I suppose it's possible. Dominant ideologies are just that (dominant), precisely because they are often not interrogated, just assumed to be (common sense).

Perhaps Channel 4 were not going to show it in the highlights programme? If so, had we not seen it, we could then assume it was part of a "characterisation" in the context of a dance with housemates...still offensive and racist ...

However, the contextual detail was/is considered important.
Someone with whom I was having a debate, before the programme aired, considered it problematic, that Charley used the same offensive term. Along the lines of: "Why is she allowed to use the term and not Emily? ... I reject the lazy logic that says one use of the term (by a young black woman) is considered OK and the same term (by a young white woman) is considered racist." Lots of issues to be dealt with here. Charley may have a right to, and claim on, the term, that Emily simply does not. Even if the claims of reclamation and neutralising an offensive term are not sufficient - that's not to say they are not important - then perhaps we should again consider subjectivity, identity and one's position within ideology. This (sort of neatly) returns us to context. If one is to claim that context is "all important", then perhaps one's position in a context (proximity to discourse) has to be considered important. The identity of the user of the term ... the context ... is important yes? That might be why one can use the term and one cannot.

Was Emily racist?
I suspect that very much like the Big Brother producers in Celebrity Big Brother 5, she had little idea what actually constituted racism...therefore, yes, she certainly has the capacity to be racist no matter how she may, rather pathetically claim "I didn't mean it in an offensive way"

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Iraq Body Count: A problem of monicker

There's quite a debate going on over on the Medialens message board. It concerns the relative merits of the organisation: Iraq Body Count, or IBC. The crux of the issue is its methodology - which is flawed. However, the biggest issue seems to be the easy appropriation of the figures by many media organisations and politicians. This is in part, a problem of language.

The site is called "Iraq Body Count": the sort of 'grubby' business of picking through the carnage, giving the impression of the actual physical counting of the deceased [out in the field as it were] This is palpably not the case, as readers of the methodology would know. As the IBC website makes *clear[ish]*, the figures arrived at are a result of compiling a list of the "reported deaths" - and that these have to be reported by more than one news agency. Therefore, we can see the obvious flaws in this methodology...AND the flaws in the naming of the site. Initially designed to reveal the actual human cost of conflict, and to prioritise the actual deaths of those that "we dont bother to count" IBC served a useful purpose, I mentioned them myself. However, the site, and its [very low] figures are being appropriated in order to minimise the true likely figures of the Iraqi dead. Perhaps the site should make it more clear that in fact, it is merely a count of the "Media's reported Iraqi deaths"...has less of a ring to it, but is more accurate. Perhaps IBC are victims of their own "success" [if success is an appropriate phrase in this context] but there is demonstrably a problem at this juncture. If the original intention was to highlight innocent Iraqi deaths, and US/UK governments complicity in them - and there is no reason to suspect this was not the authors laudable aim - then they are being cruelly used by the very people who are largely to blame for the carnage. IBC is, in many ways, hoist by its own utilisation of a name to which it cannot realistically lay claim.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

It's Behind You!

So, is it all in the edit?

At the risk of repeating myself on reality TV matters, I feel I should comment on the latest incarnation – Celebrity Big Brother. As the subtitle of this post should indicate, I am interested in the construction of the Reality of “Reality TV”. The "edit" such as it is, begins at the shows very inception. It is framed as "a slice of life" "Reality show". With great claims of voyeuristic pleasure, it is shown “live” on E4. This “Live Streaming” anchors the programme to notions of the real, as if this channel provides some unmediated perspective. All these anchorage points have serious implications for how the programme is received and read. For this post, and perhaps for obvious reasons, I shall use George Galloway as a case in point.

The show is cast - Galloway is cast as villain because in the populist/public imagination HE is already villainous. "We" 'know' him through the public utterances repeated ad nauseum [in particular the "Sir I salute your courage" video clip]. It's cast as drama [hero, villain, love interest, love rivals], framed as soap [even down to the classic Two Shot, lingering shots on rivals/lovers], has the constant deferral of narrative closure [at least for a few weeks] of soap and it's edited as drama and/or soap [editing creates the narrative drive]. So the casting provides the initial requisite conflict, the framing, casting and editing of these character[isation] traits provides a further narrative, and then the wholly controlled and contrived "situations" in which the housemates are placed, sustain the drama/conflict/love interest further. All these signifiers are points of recognition and reference for viewers. Viewers are [perhaps unwittingly] encouraged to locate the characters within a dramatic matrix, but crucially, by repetition and media support – "magazine" shows such as BBLB, Big Bro's Big Mouth, Richard & Judy, various tabloids – the [should be] slippery idea of reality is sustained and endorsed. This mythologised position as an unmediated slice of life is important, and sets it apart from Eastenders et al, where the contract with the viewers is differently framed, in that, on leaving the house, the Big Brother evictees are public property in a most intimate manner, where, via weeks of streaming video "as live", we are encouraged to think we “know” them. The ramifications for someone like Galloway are legion.

Now George Galloway chose this path, I think he was very badly advised indeed. One suspects he had never seen the show before. The form contains and restrains far more than the oft quoted "reality" of the show would have us believe. For all the talk of Galloway as master player of the media, he is/was fulfilling his villainous character function with aplomb. Did he hope to disrupt the conventions of the form? It is possible to 'read' the programme disruptively but less possible for a "character" within the programme to resist the casting, characterisation and narrative of the chosen - yes edited - representation. So yes, George made a mistake. However, thanks to the dominant ideology of news discourse, he was already villainous. Anyone remember Andrew Marr's comment on BBC news bulletin: "on one side of the house we have conventional opinion, whatever the disagreements across the benches...then way way over the other side we have George Galloway" Do a search on any news website, put in the name Galloway and see how many references there are to "maverick" "rogue" "demagogue" "controversial" "Loudmouth" et al. He's already the villain...the shame is, *perhaps* he thought he could resist this characterisation and disrupt the form.

Now I know whilst in the Big Brother house, he certainly looked like a bully [who knows, perhaps he is] but the key thing is, I don't know, I don't "know" him...I know a version of him. And here is the crux of the issue: as already stated, Galloway is the public elected face of the anti war movement, but he has already, willingly [long before his BB incarnation] been cast as the Saddam apologist outsider. In a sane universe, we'd here about Donald Rumsfeld's meeting with Saddam in the 80's - when Saddam was our "friend"- the video of Rumsfeld shaking hands on the anthrax deal, that then went on to kill Iranians would be on repeat. We'd here about David Mellor's signed weapons deal agreements on behalf of the British Government. We'd have a critical thinking media that positioned Tony Blair and George Bush as Imperialist aggressors...or at least suggested that this might be a possible starting point for debate. So Donny Rumsfeld, David Mellor, Tony Blair et al have actually committed [war] crimes, or at the very least been complicit in them. What do we see...."sir I salute your courage..." Galloway being an obsequious fool, grovelling to a dictator [whom he had called, in his book: "a blood soaked dictator”] and embarrassing himself. My word how he embarrassed himself...but are not other agents of western governments apologists for Saddam, or is selling him weapons, looking the other way whilst he murdered Iranians, Kurds and Iraqi's with whom he disagreed, a different, more respectable activity?

This post is not supposed to be in support of Galloway, it is really a critique of his position in the media landscape. This position is seemingly completely at odds with actual events. He is framed as the maverick gobshite, when some of his utterances are in line with many people's thoughts [the war in Iraq for instance as an act of Imperialist aggression] Despite the best discursive efforts of news broadcasts and newspapers, this is a fairly popular opinion. It's not often/at all that you hear this said though...unless it's from the mouth of the "maverick...demagogue...controversial" MP for Bethnal Green and Bow. This is one of the ways discourse works, repetition and convention, embrace some opinion, whilst marginalising others. George was already the marginalised panto villain, his Big Brother appearance has sustained it even more.

For all that, I don't know Galloway. He is not my MP, I am not in Respect. The point of this post is merely to discuss the hysterical reaction to BB. Furthermore, the post is a *discussion* of the techniques and devices of BB...and more broadly, how these techniques and strategies help to sustain a regressive unethical discourse. In his own way, Galloway, for all his possible human flaws, tries to raise a voice against this...One doesn't need to "support" him to see the difficulty in doing so.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Guess who's coming to dinner? Guardian's pathetic Leader page

I normally try to avoid analysis of print media as it is not my specialism. However, this and in particular, this just screamed at I felt compelled to write.

As mentioned yesterday the approach by the BBC to the brutal killing of innocent civilians in Pakistan was, at best abject and at worst complicit with state terrorism. However, the Guardian has proved to be no better. Firstly, the illegal attack merits only a single paragraph on the front page...buried at the bottom. This surely merits a front page banner headline doesn't it?...or am I confusing the "liberal media" with an institution that cares! We then turn to page 18 to see the headline "Pakistanis vent fury over US attack" [emphasis mine]. The identification of the *Pakistani/Iraqi/Iranian/Palestinian* delete as appropriate - as only capable of "venting fury" is not new. Of course the right to fury at this brutal, murderous act is understandable but the headline [on page 18] implores the reader to focus attention on the reaction of the "furious" villagers as opposed to the terrorist act of the American war machine. In order to underpin this representation further, we are told in paragraph two that "up to 10,000 people reportedly protested in the largest city, Karachi...many chanted 'death to America'" So the image of a 10,000 strong "mob" furious and filled with an *irrational* hatred of America is the dominant one. The US authorities have apparently remained "tight lipped" on the action. No indignation at this "tight lipped" position. The "bounty of $25 million" is mentioned again with all its wild west connotations. Now let's turn to the Leader page.

It is necessary to quote at length here:

"It is hard to say how many people would have mourned Ayman al-Zawahiri if he had indeed been killed on Friday by the US missiles that hit a Pashtun area near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. That was apparently the intention of CIA officers when they dispatched a remotely piloted Predator aircraft to execute the deadly hi-tech mission. Eliminating Zawahiri would have been a significant coup for the US in its "war on terror".

This then is not signified as an illegal and immoral act but as a "high tech mission" with all the connotations that high tech implies [enlightenment ideals of technology and progress]. It is an attempted "elimination", not murder - and no I am not sure I would mourn his passing, but that is surely not the point. Again, no discussion of the ethics of this policy, in fact it is endorsed by the phrase: "eliminating Zawahiri would have been a significant coup" well, not much room for ethics and principles here.

It gets worse:

"The incident shows, not for the first time since 9/11, that intelligence is a dangerously imprecise business. Zawahiri was believed to be coming to dinner in a mud-brick house in Damadola village. Yet at least 17 dead, including women and children, were found in the rubble. Pakistani sources claimed that several of the victims were "militants" and US officials spoke of taking DNA samples to ascertain the identity of the dead, but an Arab TV channel reported that Zawahiri is alive and well.

The death toll is a grim reminder of the fact that, legal and moral considerations aside, operations of this kind - like the "targeted assassinations" carried out by Israel against its Palestinian enemies - are rarely cost-free. The "collateral damage" of killing innocent people risks recruiting others to the jihadi cause, not least in the teeming madrassas that are so often identified as breeding grounds for extremism."

"Intelligence is a dangerously imprecise business" so it's only its imprecision that is problematic, not the principle. And he was due to be "coming to dinner in a mud-brick house" signifying the primitive conditions in which these poor savages live. Yes yes I know "they" may live in mud-brick houses, but its inclusion here serves no purpose other than to expose the fact of their primitive [uneducated, technophobic] living, I can see no other reason for its inclusion in this context. The death toll is only a "grim reminder" and not, as one might expect, an act of murderous[Imperialist] aggression. The beauty really is in the detail though, for the following words " and moral considerations aside" are particularly instructive. WHAT? What do you mean, legal and moral considerations aside? This is a pathetic and abject approach. Why must we put these considerations to one side? I cannot imagine this being uttered had the attack [as mentioned yesterday] happened in a Sussex village. Also these attacks are "rarely cost free" disgustingly evoking an economic analogy - perhaps ten pesky Muslims would be, if not cost free, then perhaps cost effective. Maybe this is unfair, but, the killing of innocent people by the most powerful war machine in the world must, at least be correctly administered. This is akin to being against the death penalty because "too many innocent people get killed"...not because state sanctioned murder is disgusting and immoral, but that the incorrect application of the process might kill the wrong persons. Finally, the unethical, immoral and illegal hurdles cleared [in the heads of the policy makers at least] we should still be wary of "recruiting others to the jihadi cause"...I barely need to finish the sentance do I? Once again, not that the US/UK Imperial alliance are in any way just plain murderously wrong in this particular instance, but that we risk recruiting for the *opposition* No ethics...just self preservation. This position surely locks us into eternal conflict. This from the "leading liberal newspaper" in Britain.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

18 people killed: "A diplomatic embarrassment"

At the start of the BBC news broadcast, the news reader announces this act as a "military operation"....not an act of murder, or perhaps more accurately: state terrorism. This is an astonishingly blase attitude to take to the killing of innocent civillians is it not?

Ben Brown takes up the story:

"At least 18 bodies were pulled from the rubble here, they include women and children, but unfortunately for the Americans it seems they do not include Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man they were trying to kill. Missiles rained down on the village of Damadola apparently fired from CIA Predator aircraft, remote controlled drones...Ayman al-Zawahari is al Qaeda's second in command, widely considered to be the brains behind al Qaeda and the mastermind behind the September the eleventh attacks. The Americans have put a $25 million bounty on his head, but it seems he's escaped their clutches yet again, their intelligence was simply wrong. In Damadola the dead have already been buried and now the Americans are left trying to sort out the diplomatic embarrassment of having attacked a soveriegn country and a key ally. Pakistan's government has formally complained and told the Pakistani people it will not allow a repeat of what happened in this village. The government here in Pakistan does support the war on terror, but it does not permit American military operations on its soil, so tonight Pakistan had condemned the attack and the American ambassador here is being summoned to the foreign ministry. Ben Brown, BBC News, Islamabad..."

We don't really need to go through this pathetic report in too fine a detail to uncover its ideological bias do we? But for the record, Ayman al-Zawahiri was "the man they were trying to kill"...but "unfortunately for the Americans" he was not among the dead. No debate or even questioning the ethical stance of a soveriegn state attempting kill a man - no matter how repugnant an individual he may be - The fact that in the 'crossfire' eighteen people have been killed in their beds and their man was absent is merely a disappoinment, or "unfortunate" for the Americans. So attempted murder is now OK is it? There seems to be little [if any] critique of this policy, just a mildly expressed regret at its incorrect application. Had al-Zawahiri been killed, one can only assume that it would have been seen as a victory for the "good guys"? And the cherry on the cake is the "diplomatic embarrassment". Is that all? We can say it slowly Ben...IT. IS. STATE. TERRORISM/MURDER. It is so much more than a "military operation" and/or "a diplomatic embarrassment" But I'm getting carried away...I've been duped by the narrative of "the War on Terror"

It all comes back to discourse. The reason this sort of reporting happens as a matter of routine, is of course that all "operations" by western agents are framed by the war on terror. If we are in a "war without end" then each "mistaken" killing of innocent civilians can be written off as "collateral damage" in the [forever ongoing] War on Terror. In the BBC report, recreated verbatim above, the dominant image and narrative is that of Ayman al-Zawahiri. The focus quicky shifts from the innocent deaths to the
[as yet unsuccessful] hunt for "al Qeada's second in command" Note too that it suits the filmic villain characterisation and narrative to refer to him as the "mastermind" - think Bond villain again. Images of the ["Good Ol"] Wild West are also invoked by the "bounty" placed on his head. So the story has become about the evil man's escape from the "clutches" as opposed to the brutal murder of innocent men, women and children. The discourse is the war on terror, not state murder. I am afraid the "intelligence was simply wrong" will not do. Had aircraft dropped bombs on, for instance a Sussex village, killing 18 people, would our media refer to it as an intelligence failure and a diplomatic embarrassment?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

BBC 10 O'clock news: Iran the naughty school child

Just a short response to the risible BBC 10 O'clock news from Thursday night [12th January 2006]. Iran tops the bill. "Fears grow as talks with Iran collapse" In reporting this story the BBC reporters and anchor [Huw Edwards] e use of language was reprehensible, though tragically, not surprising. Iran is to be "reported to the UN council" like the naughty school child it is. This infantilization of an entire nation continues with pictures of Jack Straw and other European foreign ministers emerging from their "high level meeting", solemn expressions, heads shaking, 'we've done our best' looks on their faces to face the waiting media. Apparently it is "with great regret" that Iran is refusing to "fall into line" - a line the permanent members of the UN Security Council regularly breach with impunity. So the scolded child must be reported to the head master. Naughty Iran!

All the language used by the "high level ministers" and the people doing the reporting signifies Iran as a deviant threat to the social order. "Ministers worry that their development of nuclear technology will result in an increased threat of weapons of nuclear capability" So the ministers are "worried" that this deviant other poses a "threat". Huw Edwards then crosses live to Caroline Hawley outside the Foreign Office who exclaims "the diplomatic efforts having failed, and Iran digging its heels in, it appears now that the pressure will be stepped up a level a bid to halt the development of weapons of mass destruction..." Western ministers are involved in "diplomatic efforts", Iran "digs its heels in" [perhaps like a child stamping its feet, refusing to budge] it's pretty transparent that this [no] language is not neutral, "we" are represented as the conciliatory, diplomatic, reasonable ones, making strenuous efforts. Whilst Iran is the intransigent child, in need of admonishment, reporting to the UN for "failure to fall into line". At the same time as this childlike representation, Iran is also considered a "threat". The opening lines of the broadcast mentioned "fears grow". The term weapons of mass destruction is only applied to the deviant [be it Iran, Iraq or North Korea]. Here in the west they're called a "nuclear deterrent"...that which deters the "threat" from the rule breaking, perhaps malevolent, untrustworthy, intransigent child-like 'Other', with their weapon of "mass destruction". Notably, the “refusal to fall in to line” by Iran is a refusal, so ‘they’ are the agents of disruption, but this is then referred to as a “new threat” to develop weapons of mass destruction – with the requisite pictures of the messianic Mullahs. Just in case we're in any doubt what that threat might look like, the broadcast then clumsily inserts a clip of a mushroom cloud, followed by a clip of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ranting at a crowd in Tehran. To sustain the dichotomy further, the “regret” expressed by the west signifies sadness but this results in a “new stage” in the diplomatic efforts. We don’t threaten, just move on to a “new stage” – this new stage is accompanied by shots of troubled looking European ministers and pictures of Whitehall

The narrative of this news broadcast also requires some scrutiny. The next story in Thursday's 10 O'clock bulletin is of the stampede in Mecca This is significant in the continuing circuitry of representation. "Cor, what they been up to now?" Its position in the bulletin is telling and symbolic of an exercise in encoding the Middle East as mysterious and *almost* beyond comprehension. The only thing lacking is Huw Edwards introducing the sequence with a wry smile to camera in the mode of "Tarrant on TV ["look at those crazy Japanese"]...Huw: "look at those 'mad Muslims'" Again, I realise this stuff happened, needs to be reported and given due prominence, but their position in the narrative, selection of images and choice of language is constructed around othering, infantilizing, patronising and dehumanizing.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

More4: Ah...righto, THAT's the reason is it?

So More4 are showing a series of programs this week apparently examining the reasons for the Iraq conflict. We're promised a critical examination of the reasons for going to war and the truth of the matter. What do you think we'll end up with? At this stage, it seems only fair to point out that we've only had the first of the series. However, tonight [Tuesday] Peter Oborne's documentary already discussed on these very pages makes a return to our screens. More on Oborne later.

Firstly to Why We Went to War broadcast last night. The programme's very first images are of tearful relatives waving goodbye to their loved ones on some unspecified dock side. We then cut to a quick montage of sexy clips of missiles being fired, fighter jets roaring off into the distance on their 'humanitarian mission'. Absent from the imagery is the destruction wrought by these missiles, but that's not the focus of the TV program. "This film provides the most detailed examination of the political process that took Britain to war" is what we are told. Settle down then, this will be a searing endictment of the political establishment...Blair's in for a bumpy ride no doubt! Not quite. After the introductions and the sexy shots, the programme proper begins:

The sea in half light [at dawn, glinting in the early morning sun], a Union Flag fluttering in the breeze, Brighton Pier, fishing boats viewed through fishing lines, a "bobby", a single boat cast in early morning shadow bobs on the water, the sea gently lapping at the shore, seagulls faintly calling out, a single gull sweeps accross the clear blue sky, the Grand Hotel with Union flag billowing -- all to a gentle but vaguely haunting piano. Fade to Blair [an actor], statesmanlike going over the finishing touches to his speech for conference. The voice over informs us that "It started on a perfectly normal late summer's day". Remember, this is about Iraq. Blair's first words in this broadcast are as follows: "We share the same goals, and the same values....". Back to the voice over/narrator: "Tony Blair was in Brighton preparing to confront angry trade unionists......and then, the world changed"

Let's go over this again shall we? The visual imagery is carefully montaged and provides a particular narrative drive. The images of boats, sea, the sound of seagulls, the half light of the dawn is calm and beautifully [filmically] shot. The seagull[s], shingle beach, and bracing breeze are so demonstrably British. Everything is calm and instantly recognisable, this recognition provides a sense of familiarity and comfort. Then the verbal signifiers provide further clues as to how we are 'supposed' to read this scene. The emphasis being on "...a perfectly normal day" and then of course "the world changed". The entire world changed from this vision of placid normality to one of unforseen and unprecedented danger[s] -- Where Saddam Hussein figures in this new vision of the world is not clear, what is clear though, is that over the next 18 months of real time, 1 hour and 30 minutes of the documentary, the representational apparatus of the various media will insert Saddam into the narrative as chief villain --Blair's first words are also significant. "Sharing the same values" in the context of this particular story fits in with US/UK "shoulder to shoulder" policy, but also positions Blair as a compassionate leader, with a shared set of values with his labour/union activists. He is also a strong leader. As the voice over informs us, he is preparing to "confront" [stand up to and not back down against] the trade unionists. Of course the trade unionists are encoded in a rather inflamatory position as "angry"...but I digress. "Then the world changed" is the key point here. In "Why We Went to War" the next shot is of the assorted Blair aides and Blair himself turning to the TV to see the planes hitting the second of the Twin Towers. Alert readers will of course see that this particular representation sustains the myth that this single event provides the trigger for everything that follows [all other geo-political and historical possibilities are repeatedly ignored -- by all news media not just this documentary]. What's more, it makes this case dramatically and emotionally; as such, in the narrative of this documentary, under the guise of a "searing endictment" it attempts to provide a legitimation of this particular course/chain of events. The following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are to be understood through the prism of this world view and as a "reasonable" response to the brutal act on 9/11 [let us be in no doubt that the terrorist act of 9/11 was brutal]. So, the point is not that September 11th 2001 provides the trigger for everything that follows, but that it provides a justifiable trigger for everything that follows. Just for good measure, we see the planes hitting the tower more than once.This piece of analysis is drawn from the opening 3 minutes and 19 seconds, and already one can see the construction and narrative put to work. So in the first 3 and a half minutes of the broadcast, viewers are encouraged to locate themselves in the familiar and familial surroundings of a peaceful and harmonious Brighton with all its attendant beauty. These images are cut against the brutal murderous act in New York - the most unspeakable shattering of the familiar harmony and beauty. One might go so far as to say: that viewers are interpellated to stand "shoulder to shoulder".

Suffice to say, the entire programme was a classic exercise in dramatic and emotional licence. To begin the broadcast with 9/11 was an interesting, highly calculated and perhaps dishonest narrative device. The chief [westerns] protagonists or "actors" were encoded as earnest, thoughtful, ethical, benign but misguided. Strong men standing up "shoulder to shoulder" in the face of an unprecedented threat to "our values" -- oh how I despise the rallying call to "our values". As ever no mention of oil or geo-political strategising, no mention of "The Project for the New American Century", no mention of power and influence in the region as possible motivating factors. The denoument of the programme shows Blair, ashen faced, earnest, even mournful, a sad, thoughtful and tragic figure. Perhaps mistaken or misguided, ill advised but never calculating. Always depicted as on the side of the angels. If the battle must be fought on binary territory -- Good Versus Evil -- [of course simplistic media representations sustain this idiotic outlook] then let us be in no doubt as to where Blair is positioned in this ideological territory. Now, these final images of Blair may well be an accurate portrayal, I don't believe he's an evil monster bent of murering Iraqi's, but its insertion into the narrative of this program humanises him in a way that is denied the "emeny" protagonists. Blair is always human and occasionally remorseful. His *"sincerity is never in doubt"..."just like a fighter pilot, Blair was locked on to a target"*
Via a carefully constructed set of images, drawing on traditional narrative and heroic representations of character, Blair represents "us" and all that is good about "us". This continued good guy persona -- flawed but essentially caring and motivated by benign intentions -- may even reify the rational west V irrational 'Other' position.

*actual quotes from "Why We Went to War"*

Friday, December 23, 2005

More Imagery

As a brief follow up to the post below, how can we read the following images. Here on the right, we have the very obvious "returning hero" imagery in all its glory. I do not know the persons represented, nor is it important, they are merely emblematic in this instance. I'm sure they/he is a fine human being. The point is, that these images are common place in news media. The stars and stripes backdrop serves its patriotic duty [as does the soldier] in this image. The soldier himself is made instantly human, loving, vulnerable, protective, patriotic and heroic. A tearful return as befits the hero.There are similar images of the departing troops, waving a tearful goodbye to their loved ones as they head off bravely to battle the "enemy". Television news footage is replete with the emotional upheaval experienced by those left behind. As the troops head off, the verbal narrative provided by the voiceover is often bordering on tearful. "Our Brave Boys" et al

The enemy of course is never given the same representational opportunities. A humanised version of -- for instance -- Iraqi soldiers is absent from the narrative. The visual signifiers of the "Other" are more often than not demonic, irrational, mad, raging and incapable of reason and/or reasonable response. The image on the left certainly demonstrates this point to some extent. Now I know this stuff happens, but the editing decisions and the narrative it creates is not accidental, nor is it "fair and balanced" These editing decisions are just some of the techniques that provide and perpetuate the narrative of the Rational, honest western agents versus the irrational, distrusful Other from the "East". Quite often these images are "cut against" one another. Add to the mix the laughable musical score from Panorama and the voiceover, then it should soon become clear just how insistent the western narrative is...and how it drowns out, almost to the point of silence, the voice of the other.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Saddam Hussein: Trial by repetition of signifiers

A Preface

What follows is not an endorsement or a defence of Saddam Hussein, merely an analysis of the casting of Him as today's Hitler, and the televisual techniques employed to do this job. In short; what visual and verbal signifiers are put to work in the circuitry of representation?

With a nod to Stuart Hall this post begins by suggesting that there is no such thing as an ideologically neutral sign system. Signs function to persuade as well as to refer. As discussed previously on this blog, sign systems help to naturalize and reinforce particular framings of 'the way things are', although the operation of ideology in signifying practices is typically masked. If signs do not merely reflect reality but are involved in its construction then those who control the sign systems control the construction of reality. This last italicised sentence is the launch point so to speak. I do not mean to be conspiritorial, nor do I adhere fully to the hypodermic model but am interested in how the high modality form of Television News attempts to position the viewer[s] and the methods employed to do so.

Chasing Saddam's Weapons

The BBC Panorama program named above is an interesting case. Note the title: The existence of the weapons is not in dispute, nor is their ownership...and it is up to "us" to "chase"/track them down, in hot pursuit of the fleeing evil Saddam. Within the program itself, there are a number of visual, aural and verbal signifiers designed to cast Hussein in the role of chief villain. In becoming Saddam [the media’s version of this man] a significant process of characterisation has to take place. The single name sobriquet denotes a universal familiarity appropriate for a demon [think Blofeld, Scaramanga, Jaws or Goldfinger from the Bond films]. He is probably the most demonised leader of the Television age. The globally iconised visual image of Saddam was that which was lifted directly from Iraqi TV broadcasts. These defined the dictator in various guises, often in military uniform, presiding over meetings of officials, and being enthusiastically greeted by the Iraqi public. These images are doubly or even trebly bound in that, they further demonise him because he is always represented in Military fatigues and therefore encoded as non democratic -- which of course is true, but tacit and overt western support of the non democratic dictator is conveniently airbrushed from history -- he is also lauding it over a [perhaps cowering, terrified] public and if this represented public are not terrified, then they are complicit, as such, they are an othered community, fit for slaughter in the theatre of good V bad conflict. Although there is much footage of Saddam recorded and broadcast over many years prior to his capture, the staple of the Panorama broadcast and from most news broadcasts are mostly derived from relatively few images. The repeated use of ‘stock’ images of Saddam seamlessly inserted into the mix of live and other TV coverage simply reinforce overly simplistic Western political representations.

The dominance of the stock image[s]

One of the consequences of the dominance of ‘stock’ images is that through their instant, repetitious and global dissemination they inhibit access to alternative frames of reference for the viewing audience[s]. Stock images are significant in view of their familiarity for audiences…in effect this is how we effectively ‘know’ Saddam. None of this is to claim that the man is not despotic, unrepresentative, undemocratic and murderous, it’s just that the perpetuation of these images is in direct inverse proportion to the threat “He” posed – even to his own people or peoples in the immediate area. He truly is to be read as the Hitler of our times.

Other key issues with regard to stock images/footage are the fact that they are infrequently dated, so that audiences can be oblivious as to the time and context of their recording; secondly, their very repetition acts reflexively to promote their recognition and even greater circulation [they are used precisely because of their status as instantly recognisable images on which to draw]; finally, they might bear little or no resemblance to what or whom they depict today. In this respect, stock images constitute a false media memory. They represent a past without signifying it as past.


An overly simplistic western media representation of Saddam – one that has been drawn upon by Television drama and Hollywood film – helps to sustain this demonic/evil/Bond Villain characterisation…it constitutes the dominant cultural memory. It is a highly selective and pervasive mode of representation. So, Saddam is very clearly cast as the villain, in the Panorama broadcast there are various other strategies put to work. The soundtrack used is "Eastern" and "mysterious", so amateurish it is in its construction, it's like Orientalism was never written, Said and his ilk never existed. Of course, any appropriation of dramatic techniques must include a "good guy" in stark oppostion and contrast to the villain. In Panorama and the most recent news broadcasts, these roles are variously filled. In Chasing Saddam's Weapons, Hans Blix plays the role well, his soundtrack is the classical music score, signifying class, taste and an appreciation of lifes finer things. If he were any more Inspector Morse, it would be ridiculous. Morse et al and the player[s] cast in that particular role in the news drama narrative are of course encoded to represent everything that is good, considered, careful and rational about "our values" here the news is doing the job of Blair et al, sustaining the ridiculous position of "US = rational/normal" versus "Them irrational/abnormal". Just in case we're still in doubt, Jane Corbin's voiceover calmly refers to Blix as "the quiet Swedish diplomat", the quietness described, Corbin's soupy voice and the reference to diplomacy are all in stark contrast to the characterisation of Saddam, cut against this are images of the remains of dead bodies, had these figures been mutilated and scorched by "our" guns, rest assured they would have been absent and invisible.

Saddam as the personification of evil is significant. Again, it returns us to the bad apple theory, in so doing it implores the viewer to overlook systemic failings and instead suggests all will be well once the abberation is defeated. So the “enemy” as personified in the evil, ruthless Iraqi leader [at the expense of geo-political context] increased his standing in the Middle East and in the wider world far beyond the real threat he posed. Still, never mind eh...job done!

So the mixing of stock and recent footage has a deleterious effect in furthering a necessarily complex and broader understanding of the “conflict”. The mixing of quickly retrievable archive footage to forge instant visual narratives is a standard feature of Television news. The emergent frames of the stock footage – from the 91 Gulf war and since – primarily serve to anchor media and political representations of Saddam in a context of “pure evil” personified [and as such worthy of our attention and “valiant”, “heroic” intervention as the antithesis of this evil representation] to an extent that few other alternative visions of him are available. This is what is know as an “image history”. Whether it is of places, people, events or all three, a key problem is their apparent irrefutability, particularly when strengthened through repetition on TV and remediation across other media. Television news is the ideal medium for such constructions as often no further contextualisation or explanation is required when an image or set of images supports news narratives. Television news therefore can be seen to promote an essential inhibited and oversimplified view of the past and people, not just through its paucity of detail and brevity of language, but because it is increasingly dependant upon the visual image for its direction and narrative drive.

*For a more detailed analysis of Media Memory, please do see: Andrew Hoskins: Televising War*

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Space Cadets: One final leap into the hyper-real

Well it seems the people of Endemol and Channel 4 television have finally decided to say "to hell with it!" In the most postmodern of forms [TV], the most postmodern -- or at least hyper-real -- of television events is now unfolding on our screens. Space Cadets has been referred to as Reality TV, now this term itself is difficult for many reasons, [though interestingly the term itself is never explicitly problematised on television itself, nor by mainstream TV critics] but in Space Cadets, the terms really does demand some attention.

Firstly the term Reality TV very obviously fastens itself to notions of real life/lived experience -- that which "we" know as authentic, "unmediated" and which we experience in the everyday. This is not to suggest that we can experience things "unmediated" [experiences and encounters are made sense of, or mediated through and in language] I merely use the term here to highlight its position in the televisual landscape as set in opposition to other genres and anchored to specific ideas of The Real :
Drama = Constructed, fictional, acted
Reality TV = Live, authentic, Real.
This seems self evident, but significantly the term is never allowed to be critiqued by mainstream discourse. It just is real[ity] TV

The Market Leader and Soap Opera signifiers
Our best initial means of analysing the form of reality TV is to discuss Big Brother [the market leader]. First, a quick re-cap of some of the key components, with various examples from BB. It's cast as drama [hero, villain, love interest, love rivals], framed as soap [even down to the classic Two Shot, lingering shots on rivals/lovers], has the constant deferral of narrative closure [at least for eleven weeks] of soap and it's edited as soap [editing creates the narrative drive]. So the casting provides the requisite conflict, the framing, casting and editing of these character[isation] traits provides a narrative...all these signifiers are points of recognition and reference for viewers. Viewers are encouraged to locate the characters within the soap matrix, as such, one could say; Big Brother is the Soap of the summer.

As for the chosen cast members: The default position of the "contestants" - for that is what they are in this context - is to mindlessly spout some nonsense with regards to "the experience"...."you know, living with a group of strangers". It seems to me that they use these phrases as sort of defence mechanisms lest they be accused of harbouring ambitions to win the show, become famous, or the worst sin of all, "playing up for the camera". Playing up for the camera of course marks one out as inauthentic. This apparent sin of inauthenticity, fakeness, "not being yourself" is the most heinous of crimes for what passes as comment in the "Reality TV" landscape. One BB6 contestants most frequent discussion topic was focussed around some spurious notion of "authenticity" and "being Real". The eventual winner -- banal, idiotic, pretty boy -- perhaps unwittingly nailed the whole idea of the show this year. He, and a few others were quite blunt about "this'll make good TV Innit" line of thinking. BB is now in its sixth series and as such the contestants have a sort of knowingness about the show. However, this knowingness does not translate to a cultural competency about the "form". Nor does this knowledge translate to a viewing public -- at least not to a viewing public allowed "On Air". Those interviewed on Little Brother or on the E4 fan shows still frame the debate via the same spurious notions of "realness" and "authenticity" as the housemates, again these important anchoring points are meant to be opposed to fakery and playing up to the cameras. However, as already mentioned above, in all forms of dramatic representation; casting and narrative are the keys to "success" of the program. All the housemates are cast, and significantly, cast to type. So, do we have an irreconcilable difference? On the one hand it is soap; on the other, it refuses to relinquish its grip on The Real...or does it?

In the hyper-real world of the television show, perhaps the contestants are incredibly self aware, or at least conscious of "what makes good 'reality' TV" or even "what makes a good self identity on TV". If what's required in that environment, is a bunch of uncritical, self obsessed, narcissistic, banal, unthinking, witless consumers, then each year this representation of self identity, just gets more and more convincing. Perhaps reality TV's contestants' very notion of authenticity is now bound up in previous experiences of the very form in which they are located. Perhaps the contestants and uncritical viewers had it right all along: this idea of authenticity [in which so much is invested] and "being real" can be entirely traced back to previous incarnations of the genre as the paradigm of 21st century [hyper]reality and selfhood. Perhaps in this world, the kind of self [re]presented on TV, is authentic. Constantly repeating the phrase: "I'm opinionated, ya know, I'm not scared to voice my opinion" is the new mark of authenticity. This self, in which so much is invested, is increasingly the mark against which all other selves and [hyper]realities are measured. "Having an opinion" it seems, is the new intelligence.

So that's the world of Reality TV, it looks like soap opera and its narrative unfolds like soap. It is replete with characters that have a similar narrative and dramatic functionality. But it is considered real. So is reality a soap, or is soap reality...and where/when the hell is Space Cadets going to feature in this interminably long blog?

Space Cadets, in terms of its casting, it is no exception to the general rule of Reality TV. In that: it is populated with attention hungry narcissists, desperate for their moment of [in]famy. So the casting and framing devices are similarly constructed. There is a narrative drive involving the interplay between "characters" and the love interest is, as expected, the focus of some representational attention. What takes this incredible show further into the realms of the hyper-real though is its attention to [filmic/televisual] detail. The show is based around duping a number of contestants into thinking that they are being trained for a space mission, and then being sent into space to orbit the earth for 5 days. Leaving aside the ridiculous -- but very cleverly constructed -- idea of "becoming a Space Tourist" after 3 weeks training, the lack of G-Force, no rocket required to take off and no zero gravity, we can still analyse some facets of this show in relation to the simulacrum/hyper real. On arrival in "Russia" [in actual fact a disused then reincarnated US Air base in Suffolk] the duped contestants were heard to exclaim "it's just like in a film" "the Russian Guard blokes were a bit scary, just like you see em in films" and so on. So in order that the contestants be fooled, Channel 4 Producers ensured that "Russia" resembled the Russia of filmic representation. The guards adopted the expected harsh, shouting, sharp tones of Russian soldiers from various [though not varying] war films "as seen on TV", and all was good. Before the "take off" [in actual fact a simulation shuttle] the "lucky three" were taken for a peek at the shuttle. Through a half opened hangar door, just visible through billowing smoke, was a large Shuttle nose cone. Again, a contestant was heard to say "it looks just like i'd expected it know it was like something out of a film". The entire world of Space Cadets is an incredible example of a hyper-reality, a world in which the simulacrum is more real than reality. As long as things look the way we expect, as seen via representation, the simulations are able to be reconciled with our [tele]visual experience[s] and expectation[s] then it will be real to all intents and purposes.

Space Cadets is the ultimate simulacrum; The contestants inhabit a world where they are playing out a 21st century version of an "authentic" self; they are part of an unfolding television soap world narrative; and the things they think are Real, are only a simulation/simulacrum.

What next?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Nowhere Fast*

Paxo Stuffing

Just watched an edition of Newsnight where the "attack dog" Paxman was questioning Cindy Sheehan with -- as well as other questions, this little gem: "We are where we are, what are you proposing that the US and its allies do?" Firstly, this follows the standard practice of the liberal political class...assuming that the responsibility for alternative forms of action lies with those objecting to an illegal war of aggression and brutal occupation. Would be incredible, were it not so serious and complicit in the perpetuation of said illegal occupation. What an incredible point at which to begin. Asking for alternatives here and now, is not an argument, it's not a position. Having just caught a burglar in your house, would you then expect this burglar to petulantly propose you come up with solutions to his cashflow problem. I realise this is not a precise analogy, it is obviously flawed, but discussing alternatives to an illegal action based on "well we are where we are" is ridiculous. A lack of alternatives to an illegal action do not legitimise that action. So Paxo, "we are where we are" indeed. However, there were and are a whole host of alternatives that do not necessarily include the theft of an energy resource, a potential imperialistic adventure, the killing of innocent civilians: "how many you say? Who knows, we don't count them" [thankfully, some people do] the shoring up of geo-political positioning et al...under the laughable guise of "bringing peace and democracy to Iraq". I'll say it again, the onus is not on those that object to the war to provide really is not. Warmongerers! You must do better than this! -- although, tragically, as this post and others seek to prove, it seems they actually don't have to dobetter than this.

Finally, to return to a favourite theme of mine. The "what would you do" question is a classic tactic designed to put "us" on the back foot. This claim of the moral high ground, on the grounds that "well at least we're doing something, you're proposing nothing" needs to be questioned, deconstructed, and exposed for the lie that it is. That question, so often fired off by Paxo, Blair, Bush, Straw, Cheney, Rumsfield, Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity etc etc makes the assumption of the aforementioned misguided but fundamentally benign nature of "our" intervention. Those of us that object to this war and subsequent occupation need [somehow??] to make our voices heard. The question needs to be reframed. We're being trapped in the discourse and it's shrinking fast. If, in the end, some of these people finally admit "look, OK, it was partly motivated by **oil, but you know, it's a finite resource and we need it in order to sustain our selfish way of life"...then at least we can exchange views with a degree of honestly, no matter how much we might disagree. If the gound on which we meet is constructed on deception, then we can never go anywhere.

P.S. There are many alternatives that I [and many others are happy to discuss] it was just not the focus of this post. Maybe more on alternatives later.

*Nowhere Fast: The Smiths
**Oil: of course this is just one of the many potential reasons for war in Iraq. This has already been successfully written off as a "conspiracy theory" by the elite, but one can certainly make a compelling case for this argument.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

"Interesting grammar" *

A very rapid response to the Jonathan Dimbleby Show on ITV -- Just finished

On his Sunday lunchtime show, Dimbleby just conducted a live interview with a member of Palestinian Authority [govt]. He used the term "security" with reference to Israeli actions...but the term "violence" was attributed to Palestinian actions. Security has associations with a sort of preservation, an insurance, an agreed assurance to keep people safe. It is rational and calm[ing], safeguarding...a restoration of order. Most of all, it "provides protection". The other [in both senses of the word]: violence, is an irrational, illegal, uncontained set of actions. It is a disorder as opposed to a restoration of order. It is raging and destructive. So is it severe and dare I say it: savage, perhaps an uncontrollable urge...almost part of a deranged "psyche". This language is not neutral, is any? Use of language that consistently, uncritically, unthinkingly encodes one set of actions as horribly normal, regrettable but understandable and, crucially as a response to the irrational violence of the maniacal 'Other'...and represents this other as just that, an irrational, violent deranged subject -- incapable of compromise, is deeply problematic. However, it is unproblematised within reporting, interviewing and writing the news agenda. It is part of the media discourse, that's "just the way we do it" and subsequently it is embedded within the 'writing' of the news narrative[s] dint of repetition ad infinitum both "security" and "violence" are naturalised as "the way things are", and as described, the "way things are" for certain "sides"/types of people.

Maybe more later...

*Interesting Grammar - Morrissey

Saturday, November 26, 2005

"I will bring you stories and bleary eyed photos, like a regular tourist" *

Whilst it is no doubt sad that George Best has passed away, I am already fed up with the coverage. This is of course, not Best's fault. But as Rob says with the assistance of Eagleton how much do we need to know about the man? And how much of this stuff is clutter, but all too necessary [for the 24 Hour News channels] filler on a slow news day? Why was he of interest to many who never even saw him play? It is now being repeated ad nauseum that Best was the first modern football celebrity, without him, no Beckham...

If the platitudes and cliches are any barometer, then his celeb status is confirmed. Perhaps "we" need celebrity culture, it fulfills a desire within "us" to both revere and dam in equal measure. What I find particularly nauseating is the desperation to deify this character in specific ways: no doubt there are coaches being booked as I write, ferrying the mourners up to Old Trafford, all laying their wreaths, scarves and notes of "Simply the BEST" so desperate to be part of the narrative...something to mention, the "I was there moment" of the year. Perhaps George does deserve the reverential treatment, as a football fan for thirty years, I can certainly appreciate his skill, and as a student of popular culture I am interested in his life [and now death]...and despite the three week "deathwatch" provided by our news channels, I was still moved to sadness by his passing. If he does deserve this deification, perhaps the best way to proceed is to resist the urge to indulge in a sort of collective grief tourism. This pornography of grief is not a tribute to anyone.

* Tourist - Athlete

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Dispatches: "Building a democracy based on liberal values"

Ok, this is a sort of rapid response to the disappointing Channel Four program "Dispatches". Subject: Iraq; Presented and researched by Peter Oborne. Whilst it would no doubt be unfair to say "everything one needs to know about Peter Oborne" can be found here, it should provide subtle clues as to what we are dealing with. We can also look here. However, that may be to do him a grave disservice...after all he may only be unwittingly constrained by the discourse in which he must operate. If we look here for instance, we see that he is at least partially aware of the politics of lying and seems to want to seek it out in order to expose it. But, like the subject of yesterday's blog explained?? it can only go so far. So Peter Oborne should not be [and is not] the principal target of any analysis. In this case, he is just the unfortunate emblem of a system, the unwitting receptacle if you will.

The Dispatches program of 21st November 2005 looked an interesting broadcast, and in many ways it was. However, it made all the usual points: As ever, it presented itself as the bastion of critical values whilst at the same time was utterly toothless where it needs to be. Yes it may well have been critical of Bush and Blair -- though this of course is a hobby and a necessary pantomime along the lines of the "bad apple" theory, it was also critical of the planning and the execution of these "misguided" plans. Whilst all this is the case, the makers made the usual errors. Just in case the viewer be in any doubt as to which side s/he should be on, Peter Oborne, when discussing the "insurgency" [a term not analysed or critically evaluated whatsoever] is wont to employ threatening language: "dark forces"..."vicious, violent assaults"..."murderous militia" et al whilst framing the "coalition" power[s] and agents of those powers as misguided, misadventurous, benign but lacking support and so on. As yesterday's blog...and many by medialens point out, the entire genre of this type of programme, and the context they provide is a fiction, namely: that western ideology[s] are only ever benign [perhaps misguided] but never less than well meaning. These guiding principles are firmly maintained and ones which we are never allowed to deviate from. Again, the coalition [another term used uncritically] are providing for the Iraqi's, freedom, democracy and security. They are though constrained and endangered in this mission[ary] project by the vicious, irrational, Other of murderous fundamentalists.

The verbal narrative drive of the program was also couched in the following types of language: "The British forces, whilst trying to set up a western style democracy, frequently came up against people rallying behind the extremist Islamic fundamentalist candidates...they defeated the coalition backed candidate" Firstly, it is a given that the mission was to export western style democracy -- this is questionable but unquestioned in the narrative of this broadcast, and furthermore, isn't this democracy in action. The tone of voice, visual signifiers etc did not implore the viewing subject to see this as a positive point. A classic moment of "you can have democracy, but only if you pick our chosen candidates" Of course there is research to suggest that a privatisation of Iraq was the MO certainly was not democracy. The visual signifiers were also instructive. Editing of course creates a narrative, so there were images of "irrational" Iraqi "mobs", filled with rage and hate...cut against the brave boys of the US and British forces "calmly" and responsibly "spreading their message" [the actual words used on one occasion!]

In Oborne's defence, he does maintain that democracy looks a long way off. In fact at the conclusion of the broadcast he is quite certain of this. However, that peace, freedom, security and democracy were/are the fundamentals of the invasion and occupation is still assumed.

I may provide a more extensive account of this program once I have watched it again...

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Iraq: Bringing the troops home - The phony debate

"Hey, we're the good guys...if we leave now, they'll be carnage. We simply must stay and get the job done"

Firstly, what exactly is this "job" that needs to be done? Who's doing it? What are they doing it for? And for Whom?

A quick read of any national newspaper, a listen to the radio, or a glance at the TV News -- quickly leads one to encounter only silence with regards to the above questions. Well, perhaps only the most banal of these questions is being asked, and even then, with the answer already assumed. Of course, the job, at least "officially" is the spread of democracy [via napalm, white phosphorous, the flattening of Fallujah, and the killing of perhaps over 98,000 Iraqi's]..."Our Brave Boys" [TradeMark The Sun Newspaper] are the ones doing this job, bravely putting themselves in the line of enemy fire. They're doing it to ensure our security, to spread democracy to the Middle East...and finally, they're doing it for the Iraqi's. Of course much of this is utter rubbish, or at least deserves debating fully. However, the debate that is allowable in the politico/media discourse makes certain assumptions, namely:

That the invaders are acting on behalf of the invaded population;
That "these people" need our help, that "we" are there to save them;
That western power and the agents of that power have only benign, worthy intentions;

These assumptions are the 'only show in town'. So a cast list of "critical attack dogs" bravely surveying and seeking out the truth, appear on our screens and in our newspapers. By means of showboat interruptive interviewing and "hard hitting" commentary, these guardians of the fourth estate monitor the powerful for us. All the time ensuring that we are not lied to. However, the most basic assumptions have already been made. The lines have been drawn: Ok -- this is the territory, these are the issues, any deviation from these lines of enquiry and you'll be silenced, usually absented. To quote Chomsky:

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate”

So the "frank and full exchange of views" has a pantomime quality. In fact, it's absolutely a necessary part of the media game. Of late, there have been a plethora of these debate shows and articles.
John Snow on Channel Four News last Wednesday chaired a debate between the ridiculous "pro" and "anti" Iraq conflict commentators. BBC Panorama had a "One Hour Special" two weeks ago structured around the same issues...with the usual cast list. Of course, the anti war opinion [the Lib Dem position] did not dispute the "given" of benign intention, only that this intention was badly planned and executed. Similarly Peter Preston in last Monday's Guardian seemed to suggest, not surprisingly, that one of the real problems with Bush is his over reliance on Dick Cheney. We can presume that "liberal" Preston is not a big fan of Bush, but he does seem to hint that Cheney's pushing him in a more rightward direction, and at the same time, holding him back from a more progressive orientation. Whilst it may be true that Cheney is a zealous "crusader", the implication from Preston is the "creeping chaos" of the current administration can be curbed apres Cheney. I realise this is very loosely linked, but I highlight it here to demonstrate a number of strategies. A) It alludes to the "more innocent" bad planning and execution as opposed to imperialist intention; B) The tactic of blaming one person -- or at the most a "cabal" of neo Cons -- rather than seeing it as a systemic and essential ideology of the political ruling elite. If it's only one or two "bad apples" then these can be dealt with, whilst not examining the entire system with all its attendant corruptions.

Furthermore, via Lenin's Tomb again...Ann Clwyd in discussion with the most famous "attack dog" -- Paxo here is in fantastic form. Her racist assumption[s] regarding the "Iraqi" psyche going unchallenged [of course]. Clwyd makes the most basic [racist] essentialist assumption that "we" [whomever this "we" are] can teach the simple savage "other" some semblance of a value system that they A) previously did not have...and B) that they were/are incapable of possessing by dint of their "psyche". The fact that this passes without critical comment is instructive, and demonstrates the uninterrogative, lazy assumptions and fictional frame that surrounds political debate.

The very idea of imperialism is the great unspoken of our culture. It's un-named and absent, whilst the benign "spreading of democracy" becomes the norm. A cursory glance at many US/UK military adventures would lead one to conclude that imperialist ambition, geo-political strategising, acquisition of energy supplies may at least be a motivating factor. However, that this is absent from the discourse is instructive, revealing and dishonest. To even enter the debate on this territory is to be contained and constrained in and by a conservative ideological discourse. So, a re-framing is required. How this is done, i am not sure [suggestions on a postcard...e-mail...comment?]

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Guardian's apology to Chomsky

In today's [17th November 2005] Guardian the paper issues an apology to Chomsky over the dreadful hatchet job Emma Brockes performed on 31st Oct.

Both Lenin and Qlipoth discuss this admission. Qlipoth in particular is very good.

So then, what to make of the "apology"? Of course, the apology is an admission of a wrongdoing, and as such, perhaps we should be grateful and maybe even celebrate this little victory! But how much of a victory for the progressive left is it?

The publishing serves as both a soothing balm on the conscience of the offenders, but more importantly it advertises the "honesty" of the paper. A classic tactic designed to absorb any flak and a way the Guardian can say: "hey look, we sometimes get it wrong, journalists, sub editors and editors sometimes get it wrong, for this we apologise". The damage has been done already, regular Guardian readers may well have run screaming from any Chomsky article, thinking he "a little too out there, a bit too extreme!" So the apology/"admission" -- though definitely welcome -- has a classic discursive functionality.

This is a tactical sleight of hand that sustains the discourse and conceals the ideological function of a compliant "liberal" media.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

"Hey, why is the news always bad?"

Stewart Lee, on his live DVD....details Here discusses in the most concise fashion, the discourse of news values [not only is he concise and erudite, he is funnier than I am] *

"On September the 11th 2001 I was actually on holiday, right. That seems distasteful now, but I wasn't to know at the time. You know, I didn't plan it. The attacks I mean, not the holiday. And I was actually in the city of Grenada in Southern Spain. It's an interesting place. Grenada was the last point of Muslim occupation of medieval Europe, it's still a very mixed city. Lots of mosques, lots of churches, lots of Arab Spaniards and white European Spaniards all getting on fine. I was walking around on there on nine one one - the NINTH of November. Reclaim the calendar. I was walking around there on the 9th of November 9 - 1- 1 and...I went into a little Spanish bar. On television there was all this film of buildings on fire and buildings falling down and people running around screaming. And I said to the barman, "where's that?" In Spanish "Donde esta?" And he said "Nueva York"....and I thought, "Oh it's in Colombia or somewhere, it doesn't matter" then I watched for a bit longer Glasgow and I realised that it was in New York, where English speaking people live...and therefore a terrible newsworthy tragedy was occurring."

I used this example principally because I find it funny, and I like to share the work of the marvellous Mr Lee with anyone that happens to read this blog...or anyone that listens to me. "...and therefore a newsworthy tragedy" is of course the key phrase. To constitute news, the event must disrupt the norm[al]:

"What is absent from the text of the news, but present as a powerful force in its reading, are the unspoken assumptions that life is ordinarily smooth running and harmonious. These norms are of course prescriptive rather than descriptive, that is, they embody the sense of what our social life ought to be rather than what it is, and in doing this they embody the ideology of the dominant classes." **

The "news is always bad" complaint overlooks the very obvious point that the "bad" is read as a deviation from the norm -- the norm therefore constructed as "good". This normative assumption is all the more robust for being unspoken, silent and un-named.

So, as discussed in the post above, news discursively sustains norms, and that these norms are not innate but, partly at least, constituted by representational apparatus, and as such, ideoloically loaded. However, these norms are also cuturally and socially prescribed. What is considered a major disruptive event by "our" news in, for instance, London/New York/Madrid, would barely -- if at all -- make the radar [or be included in the bulletin/discourse] had the event happened in Colombia/Uzbekistan. As far as the events of September 11th 2001 go, of course, hijacked planes being deliberately, suicidally and murderously flown into buildings in any country, would "make the news". What is less certain, is whether that date would for ever more become that date, forever transformed into and recognisable as the catchy media sobriquet: "Nine eleven". Had the terrible tragedy [and let us be certain, New York, Madrid and London are tragedies, as are the un-named, unspoken of tragedies "elsewhere] happened "elsewhere" in some "Other[ed]" country, the foundations of history would not have been so seismically shifted.

This has major import for the ways in which the world is understood and read. For instance, disaster, political, institutional corruption, famine, violence et al are not necessarily encoded as disruptive of the "norms" of othered societies -- large swathes of Africa, India, Pakistan -- rather, this is the[ir] norm. It is certainly how the the viewer is encouraged to view those "other" places. These lands are places of disruption anyway.

As a postscript, this reminds me of an interview I once saw on Channel Four television. The last time the India cricket team came to play in England, Mark Nicholas [James Bond wannabe presenter of the coverage] was interviewing Bishan Bedi, the former Indian spin bolwer. A film of India was shown, with the requisite images of overcrowded streets, children begging for money in squalor and filth. A mawkish voice over impored the viewer to help the poor of India by donating money via some cricketing charity. It was classic stuff, imperialism imagining itself as charitable, kind and helpful.. True to form, Nicholas, furrowed of brow and earnest of tone, turned to Bishan for comment. Marvellous television then followed where Bedi launched into a fabulous critique. The representation was incredibly partial. "Why do you only show Indians as poor savages, begging for money from the kind white man, I've walked around London many times and seen hundreds of poor and homeless people begging for money! These people are not represented as the image of British identity. Why do you insist on perpetuating this rubbish?"...or words to that effect.

For clarity, I suppose I should have just opened with the Stewart Lee quote, then ended with a telling of the channel Four story, but the writing is an important exercise.


* Stewart Lee -- Stand Up Comedian DVD
** Fiske, J -- Television Culture

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Discursive formations

Bat020 on Lenin has an interesting [as ever] discussion
regarding way[s] in which speech and news of political class is positioned as normal and natural and absurdly "non political"
"Of course, right wing ideology has long held an aversion to the "political", preferring instead to present its actions as "sensible" or "pragmatic", mere expert technical administration."

This is classic discourse in action, where the values of elite systems of power are considered non partisan and neutral. The discourse of the high modaility form of "realism/news" are a tissue of conventions that typically mask their ideology. A close analysis of the discursive formation of [in this case] TV News remind us that there is nothing 'natural' about our values; they are social constructs in which we are enmeshed.

This is fairly standard semiotic/image/cultural analysis. The continuation of the BBC charter is reliant upon their news being seen to be objective [for objective, read giving voice to both sides Tory and Labour, as if there are only two sides, and even more, as if Tory and Labour are different in any meaningful way[s]]. Both 'common-sense' and positivist realism insist that reality is independent of the signs which refer to it, analysis emphasizes the role of sign systems in the construction of reality. Although things may exist independently of signs we know them only through the mediation of signs. We see only what our sign systems allow us to see.

With this in mind, are there no ideologically 'neutral' sign systems? Signs function to persuade as well as to refer. Sign systems help to naturalize and reinforce particular framings of 'the way things are', although the operation of ideology in signifying practices is typically masked. So therefore analysis always involves ideological analysis. If signs do not merely reflect reality but are involved in its construction then those who control the sign systems control the construction of reality. At this point, I feel I ought to make clear that this is not some conspiracy theory. This is the way discourse functions -- by convention as opposed to clearly defined boundaries.

So then, the discourse of TV news typically reinforce and naturalise elite positions as normal. The rest of us are polemicists, raging against the system and typically positioned as irrational, fuming, angry lefties "out of touch" with reality! This is particularly handy as if "we" are considered out of touch, irrational and angry then we can be marginalised and excluded from the discourse.

One of the political projects of the progressive thinker should be to mark out, explain and make clear the systemic ideological bias of the representational economy....

Saturday, November 12, 2005

BBC London News reverential treatment of Chinese government.

Apparently London's Lord Mare "has close links with China and will be making over 600 hundred speeches over the coming year..with the intention of encouraging business in the square mile which is already worth over a billion pounds"

Human rights...shmuman rights. The erasure of critical debate on the "objective, fair and balanced" BBC is always a laughable concept, but not even a cursory mention of "protest" about the "alleged human rights abuses of the Chinese Government". Entire coverage of Chinese state visit is framed by economic considerations.

I ask you, "alleged" abuses? FFS. And why is the Chinese government given such reverential treatment by our salivating whorish TV news. Why are they not called dictators?

....for the answer we need only go back a paragraph to see the "economic considerations"

Keeping the Rabble in Line

A quick introduction then...

I am Chris and I will be posting on a semi regular basis. I'll probably bang on about the TV news, politics, academia and occasionally the travails of the England cricket team...maybe other stuff too.

The Foucault quote that begins my blogging life should read as my entire reason[s] for writing, blogging, teaching, talking and acting [out] my fantasies. At the risk of arrogance, it's why i am interested in 'stuff'. It frames all my academic writing and also serves as a riposte to those that consider Foucault just another pomo reactionary concerned only with the abstract. Phoooh to that. The less powerful - I am loathe to say powerless - should "speak back" to those that seek to disenfranchise. The "fair and balanced" media, having internalised the values of the elite, do not do the job assigned to them, or perhaps critical comment was never really part of the deal, it was just a clever confidence trick in which we invested hope.


...more later

Friday, November 11, 2005

“Because they claim to be concerned with the welfare of societies, governments arrogate to themselves the right to pass off as profit or loss the human unhappiness that their decisions provoke or their negligence permits. It is the duty of this international citizenship to always bring the testimony of people's suffering to the eyes and ears of governments, sufferings for which it's untrue that they are not responsible. The suffering of humans must never be a silent residue of policy. It grounds an absolute right to stand up and speak to those that hold power.”

Foucault, M. Liberation: 1984