TELEVISION / States of mind: John Lyttle compares factual and fictional views of security, the state and cynicism

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The Independent Culture
LAST NIGHT two journalists used television to expose the inner workings of the modern state. New Statesman reporter Duncan Campbell's Dispatches (C4) adopted the documentary approach to tell of Menwith Hill, a self-contained multi-billion dollar US satellite surveillance complex sprawled across 500 acres of British soil. Meanwhile, in his play The Vision Thing (BBC2), Mark Lawson of the Independent demonstrated how entangled the Tory party had become with the snapping poodle press, how soundbites mattered more than policy, and how there were wheels within corrupt wheels: who was bugging the Foreign Secretary, Nathaniel Parker's adulterous affair and why? MI5? The wicked PM (Derek Jacobi)? And had God really spoken to Jacobi's predecessor (top-billed Richard Wilson)?

Put so baldly, you might be forgiven for thinking that the differing political outlooks of Campbell (head-banging investigator) and Lawson (tongue-in- cheek sophisticate) would mean they would travel up vastly different garden paths. Actually, their immediate concerns had a cosy, almost parochial, familiarity: conspiracy theory, paranoia, the notion that we're always being lied to, looked at and listened in on by shadowy, unchecked forces. One of Campbell's American interviewees ritually invoked 1984 and a certain large sibling - which lacked a certain impact, given that the preceeding, de rigueur camera-hidden-in-bag footage made heavy weather of Menwith Hill's lamentable security precautions: women campaigners seemed able to wander onto the dome-dominated base at will, dart into the buildings, lift documents and skip away again.

Lawson's sense of humour was infinitely more conscious (his first, wickedly judged line was, 'This story will not appear in my memoirs') but even his most poisoned darts, like Campbell's rants, made remarkably little impact on their intended targets, despite hitting them dead-centre every time.

This is neither man's fault. Another modern state is terminal cynicism, a condition Campbell and Lawson are at pains to rail against, yet are ultimately powerless to change. Campbell exhaustively collects the evidence against Menwith Hill and its hi-tech invasions of privacy, cites the constitutional and moral laws broken, details the electronic spy network that covers Britain like a rash, and uses radio equipment to tune into the transmission gathering - your calls, my calls, everyone's calls.

The emotion one (unjustifiably) feels, however, is exasperation at the presenter's naivety, not anger at the uncontrolled institution. What, after all, did he expect?

Similarly, Lawson was able to pen a pick-and-mix insider's scenario borrowing from Dianagate, the Mellor affair, the last days of Thatcher and Michael Dobbs's House of Cards without this witch's brew ever courting disbelief or anything remotely resembling shock - sensitivity thresholds are high this decade. Indeed, even the rude picture of PM Richard Wilson crawling across the floor at No 10, apparently poised to chew the carpet, appeared less absurd and more . . . well, to be blunt, fitting.