Television: When heated talk fills every day

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The Independent Culture
Back in the days when careless talk was thought to cost lives, wars were prosecuted on the field; now they are conducted on screens. Last week's assault on American computers by Serbian virus bombers gave a sharp twist on a now-familiar concept: infowar. Every day our news programmes filled up with heated talk about the Balkans. There were lurid maps explaining where Montenegro was, or graphics showing how to blow up a missile launcher using only a Boeing, a glider and a Stealth bomber. There were clashing views, arguments, predictions, "defence analysts" and, increasingly, weather forecasts. After a while we, like the airmen, risked being what one American general called "weathered out".

As always, the availability of footage determined the story we were told. At first we watched bombers leaving Fairford, or jets banking over Italy. But once the camera crews had reached Macedonia our attention was diverted to the blank horde of refugees creeping along snowy mountain roads. Some rode in tractors, some in wheelbarrows. Most trudged along on foot. Their faces were expressionless. Someone had forgotten to tell them they were supposed to be grateful.

We are still struggling to learn how to conduct or even witness war as a public spectacle on this scale. The harrowing pictures of exiled Kosovars reminded us what the war was about, and will hugely inflate the aid budgets required to alleviate their misery. But this 24-hour scrutiny presents politicians with an awkward new front. Last week it encouraged them to wriggle close to the mealy-mouthed promise that there could be such a thing as a war in which no one was killed - as if war were diplomacy by other means. The announcers seemed shocked as they delivered the tidings that one American soldier appeared to have "cuts and bruises".

Previous wars might have taken a different course had their protagonists been obliged to play the media so busily. Mr Churchill, when you promise to fight on the beaches, won't that lead inevitably to body bags, or at least have serious environmental consequences? With respect, Prime Minister, a few fine words can't hide the fact that our army at Dunkirk has been crushed. Doesn't this bring your leadership into question? Haven't you lost the confidence of the community? Isn't your position, um ,untenable?

It is not only warriors who have to fight on this front. The walls of our world have more than ears; they have flies. In The Siege of Scotland Yard (C4) Roger Graef spent a remarkable day eavesdropping on the life of Sir Paul Condon, Commissioner of Police. Nor was it any old day: it was the publication date of the Macpherson report, with its damning conclusion that the police were guilty of institutional racism. Sir Paul and his deputies scrambled over the media obstacle course, lurching from interview to interview as they tried to peddle a plausible "line". At one point the Commissioner pretended to be Jeremy Paxman in order to wangle a straight answer out of his colleagues ("Just yes or no. Do you accept the judge's definition of institutional racism?").

Twenty years ago, in Police, Roger Graef was the scourge of the boys in blue. This time his camera was sympathetic, portraying the chiefs of Scotland Yard as patient, intelligent and well-meaning. He reserved his satirical edge for the blaring, noisy and predictable behaviour of the press, which seemed much more guilty of stereotyping than the man himself.

Sir Paul became the still point in a swirl of electronic chatter. "He's doing well," murmured the deputy Commissioner, Denis O'Connor, watching from the wings as his boss fought to remain in office. "He's a good boy." It all seemed friendly and supportive, not just masonic and corrupt. And when Sir Paul addressed 200 officers in Lambeth, urging them to embrace the changes that were hitting the fan that morning, he was unequivocal. "I don't want to hear any whingeing about unfairness," he said. "It's an unfair world, and it doesn't begin to compete with the unfairness and the tragedy for Neville and Doreen Lawrence." It was a good line. Shame it didn't make the news that day.

If Neville and Doreen Lawrence offer an exemplary image of bereaved parents, then Killer in the Family (Carlton) tugged an even rarer sort of victim into the limelight: the mums, dads and children of murderers. They don't count as victims; they merely have to live with the traumatic consequences of dire events. It was not an easy film to stomach, mainly because of the glib narration by Robert Lindsay, who spoke urgently about the "agony" of losing "loved ones", the "climate of fear" in which people struggled with the "horror" of their "plight". It was a sad disservice to the disjointed and pained eloquence of the subjects themselves. "I've got a son who's dead," said John Sutcliffe, father of the Yorkshire Ripper, "who rings me up every couple of weeks. He should have been hanged. I love that lad."

Dennis Nilsen's Scottish mother looked like the loneliest woman in the world. Her son had slaughtered men in his Cricklewood flat and buried them in the garden. She wrote to him in prison; he didn't reply. "I suppose I never talk to people about it," she said. "I suppose people don't want to know about that sort of thing. They don't want to know how you feel. I suppose." She was tearful and tentative. What else could she do but suppose, now that all her suppositions had been smashed?

After all these unhappy endings, Two Strangers and a Wedding (Carlton) looked at an unhappy beginning. In January a Birmingham radio station (BRMB) came up with a sales wheeze - "a blind wedding" and held auditions. We watched as the field was narrowed down to Carla and Greg, and were invited to share their joyful, if loveless, moment in the limelight. Apart from winning each other, they had earned a waterside apartment, a Ford Puma and a honeymoon in the Bahamas.

It was a game show, and the film had a certain voyeuristic urgency. Who would win? How would they get on? Greg was laddish, up for it, game for a laugh. Carla was vivacious (that is, she laughed enthusiastically at things that weren't funny) and excited. As we approached the moment of truth approached, Greg beamed and Carla gulped. He clearly thought she was a cracker, but then he hadn't seen (as we had) the tantrum when she lost her make-up.

It could have been a serious reflection on the psychology of marriage. Arranged unions can work as well as unarranged ones, though whether it is wise to entrust your future to the marketing man from a radio station (with astrological help from Russell Grant, a just impediment if ever there was one) is another question. And in any case the film had no interest in being serious: it just gawped. In a way it was out of date, relying for its drama on the old idea that marriage is irrevocable. And when the vows were exchanged they seemed for a moment solemn and binding. But we all knew that Greg and Carla could untie the knot as easily as it had been tied. No one was going to get hurt by this. They could easily split the Puma.

And, after all, they did have one huge thing in common - they'd both taken this hearty plunge. As time goes by it will dawn on them that their spouse would have been equally happy to marry someone else, and this may lead to some shaky moments. But they had both run the same gauntlet of interviews. They had both been chosen. They both had TV cameras in the room as they got dressed. It is not as if they won't have anything to talk about.

Brian Viner is away

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