Television, the virus that knowingly ran amok. How to censor it?

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Jerry Mander, an advertising exec, made a startling finding. He, perhaps wasn’t alone. Revelations like this are often the embers accompanying the zeitgeist fire. Yet the book he published to tell of it was compelling. In one summation he wrote:

In one generation out of hundreds of thousands of human evolution America had become the first culture to have substituted secondary mediated versions of experience for direct experience of the world.

This was 1978. Television had barely been in service with a portfolio for forty years, but Manders in his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, saw its effects. Back then the average US household with a child watched TV for eight hours and the average person for four hours. Today it’s five hours plus. And in the UK, Covid-19’s lockdown has led to a surge in TV viewings according to OFCOM — around 6 hrs. 25 minutes.

There was a time when the world’s ill were unknown unknowns. You didn’t know that you knew they existed e.g. poverty etc. Television changed that. It created a paradigm, the illusion it knew everything and if it wasn’t on television it wasn’t relevant anyway.

A good example is Greta Thunberg and Climate change. Just because she’s not on television would suggest to many that she and the cause she champions is no longer relevant. It’s not ignorance anymore but wilful dismissal.

And then the idea that television’s drama truth is reality’s truth.

If the form of a television screen as an object of desire was one thing, its content, quite separate, was another. Advertisers like Manders would soon discover its power. It was the salesman you met at arms length at your front door, now cosying in your living room.

Advertisers working with psychoanalysts, and there were many, found how to turn on your deepest unconscious desires for a commodity, when you actually didn’t need it. Ernest Dichter, one of the pioneers, took cake mix sales through the roof by a simple instruction in a commercial. Add an egg. Housewives, he surmised, could now feel they were creating the bun in the oven for their husbands.

Of all the content on television, one particular strand, news and current affairs, wrestled with its ability to shape opinion. Hence, it introduced themes like impartiality, balance, fairness, and truth. All contested concepts, but with giants of this form, such as Edward Murrow being held in great public esteem, it served people relatively well.

However over the years, several factors exposed television news’s soft belly.

  1. In the US, news no longer had to be impartial; ergo it could tell one side of the story with the ability for the reporters to skew any sense of what appeared an objective truth. Television news adopted the habits of the Ernest Dichter at al. This was persuasive messaging dressed as objective news, such as Fox.
  2. Several other communities were becoming prominent, meaning the mono story around myths, shaped by one culture’s opinions and bias required deeper examination towards accountability.
  3. And policy decision making by elites who controlled the information flow could on occasions become visibly divorced from the greater mood of the public. In any case who were the decision makers?

Today, television could equally easily be described as the stranger in the house and those that work behind it giving direction — an unelected political party. That at least is how many people feel at the moment with a major incident at the BBC.

In a news report last week, a regional journalist reporting on the physical assault of a health care worker, who is black, used the word “N****** in her report. She was describing what the suspects had said to the victim. Moments before the word, she announces an intent to say something that might offend some, but there was no indication it would be this emotionally charged word.

Some viewers demanded an apology. It was not forthcoming. Instead the BBC claimed the word was justified in its use, adding that it had consulted with the victim’s family. If that wasn’t enough, a second use the of the N-word appeared in a documentary that week. Its presenter has since apologised.

Thus far 19,000 complaints have been received by the BBC with respect to the use of the word, and no one at the BBC has been prepared to step forward to explain the decision making behind it and the doubling down. Generally, saying to viewers, “the N-word was used” will suffice. Generally the viewer would know what you mean. You don’t need to traumatise people any further to make a point. And understandably you certainly wouldn’t on air use racial epithets from other cultures.

In both cases the word was used before television’s watershed, around 9 pm and by white journalists/presenters. And no, here, it wouldn’t matter were they black. They weren’t.

Yesterday, a DJ by the name of David “Sideman” Whitely resigned from BBC1 Extra. Small gesture you might think and symbolic that it will have no net effect on the row brewing. Whitely’s principled stand was the toxic environment he could no longer work in. He’s is a millennium version of a Rosa Park moment, taking a stand with considerable loss to him (financially). What is one to do?

For most complaints there’s a procedure. This is the official repository, where the-obscured-from-public-scrutiny make the decisions issued by a press release.

But there’s something else you can do. Write to the journalist or producer directly. In calling programme makers to task, it’s worth knowing the nuanced ways of complaining to make a point stick. Be strategic. If there was something that the programme got right say so, then do a forensic critique about what they got wrong, offering suggestions. Then cc: your email to the programme head and programme commissioner for oversight.

Media Executive and Professor Marcus Ryder’s blog Black on White TV offers a masterclass in the art of dissecting an issue.

A producer on receipt of all-out criticism may well become defensive. However, it’s less easy to dismiss a critique if the letter shows an understanding of the production process and how future faults could be avoided.

Television and news reflect as well as shape the world we live in. In practice the world is far too important to be left to journalists alone, which means what? That perhaps television should create a permanent screen to safeguard itself.

We’re important, but we’re not the only source of the truth. And sometimes we get things wrong

The next step is how to minimise this, There are solutions. You might know a few. David “sideman” whitely is trending. Do you know why?

At the time of nearly publishing this, the BBC DG Tony Hall apologised for the use of the N-word. Whilst many people have welcomed this, and the BBC is indeed revered as a great institution, there remain some questions.

  1. Who are the decision makers and why isn’t their decision making process more transparent?
  2. How will you ensure reporters are aware of social and cultural issues that they don’t make similar mistakes in the future?
  3. Do the bosses understand their actions and offence caused by the use of the word, and defending its use?
  4. Why has the BBC DG had to intervene 2x in so many months over cultural-race issues. Aren’t there execs in charge to undertake these decisions? And why have the got both wrong? How does the corporation amend this?
  5. Why did it take so long to apologise? Why did it take a DJ David “Sideman” Whitely to resign, before the DG gave an announcement.
  6. What happens when the current DG leaves?
  7. Would placing people of colour in the decision making process have any effect?
  8. How could the BBC get this so wrong, this time and with the recent Naga Munchetty incident?

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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