Television Review: Dispatches

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The Independent Culture
LAST NIGHT'S Dispatches (C4) hit the headlines before it was broadcast, thanks to its inclusion of a video of members of the Continuity IRA laying out some of their hardware. But the programme's most disturbing moment was a piece of film already in the public domain, of a public figure openly inciting terrorist violence: Mo Mowlam, in the aftermath of the Omagh bombing, announcing "Everything that the IRA can do to stop the Real IRA, of course, is welcomed."

Presumably she did not intend it to be taken this way; but, according to Joe Layburn's report, "Everything" has turned out to mean exactly the sort of punishment beatings and threats of violence that the Government has been getting upset about in recent days. The only reason the Real IRA called a ceasefire after Omagh was that the Provisional IRA turned up on doorsteps threatening to kill its entire 30-strong hard core. Meanwhile, Mickey Donnelly, a senior member of Republican Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Continuity IRA, described how a gang of Provisional IRA men had attacked him with iron bars and batons while his six-year-old daughter sat on his knee.

Sympathy for Donnelly was limited by the knowledge that the reason he was attacked was that he wants to continue armed struggle. But he exemplified the scary double-think that has lain behind the Troubles for so long - the idea of a "clean" war. Hard men were queuing up here to explain that nobody approves of atrocities or civilian deaths, but heck, that doesn't mean the war can't go on. As news is turned more and more into another branch of entertainment, Dispatches did what news is supposed to do: made the viewer sit up and take notice of grim reality.

Thursday night is rapidly turning into exhumation night: after Meet the Ancestors, Horizon (BBC2) looked at efforts to dig up the corpses of people who died in the massive influenza outbreak of 1918, which killed more people than the whole of the First World War. This was of more than purely archaeological interest: finding tissue with traces of the 1918 flu could help to explain what makes some strains so virulent, and to fight a future outbreak.

Horizon performed its usual trick of converting grisly science into easily- swallowed narrative, this time coming up with a satisfying tale of lavishness and self-advertisement defeated by modesty and thrift. Dr Kirsty Duncan, "geographer and Highland-dance instructor", took ground radar and inflatable tents, along with more scientists than you could shake a stick at, to Spitzbergen inside the Arctic Circle to search for corpses preserved in permafrost. Dr Duncan visibly bloomed in front of a camera, and her sensitivity to the awfulness of disturbing the dead was heart-rending. Meanwhile, Dr Johan Hultin, a retired pathologist from San Francisco, headed off to Alaska accompanied only by his wife's pruning shears, and cheerfully turfed up a series of dead Eskimos until he found one fat enough to have preserved some lung tissue (this was where the shears came in handy). Guess who got it right? Don't let anybody tell you science isn't a moral activity.