So who do you reckon won the great TV head-to-head of Christmas? Not Downton Abbey vs EastEnders, or Doctor Who vs Coronation Street, but the Queen vs Edward Snowden – Edward Snowden being the ex-CIA employee turned whistleblower currently residing in Russia, and the Queen being the Queen, currently relaxing in Sandringham. Snowden was Channel 4’s choice to give its traditional bad-taste “up-yours” Alternative Christmas Message – from which we might deduce that Ratko Mladic, Miley Cyrus and Mrs Brown and Her Boys were either unavailable or too expensive. In the event, it was no contest, the referee stepping in and stopping it in favour of the Queen after 15 seconds. Cruel, I thought, to have let it go on that long.
In fairness to Snowden, the Queen has been giving Christmas messages for a long time. She knows where to get her hair done. She knows how to sit. She knows how to modulate her voice, how confidential to appear, how to address, without being controversial, the concerns we’ve shared since she spoke to us last. Above all, she understands that her job is not to be wise but to administer comfort, which is to say to speak to us in platitudes. “Who’s a good boy, then?” we croon over our spaniel, tickling him behind the ears, and though he knows there’s nothing remotely good about him he luxuriates in the familiar sounds, confident that, for the time being, all is right with the world. Thus the Queen, on Christmas Day, to us. “Who’s a good subject, then?”
If there is a moment when she asks herself “Who’s writing this piffle?” she conceals it well. But I don’t for a moment doubt that piffle is what she recognises it to be. This, too, however, she recognises: that we wouldn’t be tuning in to hear Wittgenstein after a heavy Christmas lunch.
The wisdom of knowing when wisdom is not required, and that the commonplace soothes as the recondite never will, is the wisdom that underpins our constitutional monarchy. It costs a lot to sustain but I happen to think it’s worth it. If Channel 4’s ruse of an alternative Christmas message has a virtue, it is to remind us how much worse off we’d be with a monarch chosen from the ranks of stand-up comedy, reality television, Holocaust denial, and that branch of snitching that comprises frightening the intelligentsia with stories that someone’s reading its emails. How to stay edgy and challenging has been a ticklish problem for Channel 4 ever since its inauguration as an “alternative” broadcaster. There’s a limit to how “other” you can be when you have to be it every night. But with the wheeling-in of that dead-eyed sanctity Edward Snowden, 4 has finally touched bottom; if this is what the transgressive looks like we might as well be watching the Disney Channel.
Don’t get me wrong – I take the point that Snowden has alerted us to an inordinate predilection for snooping on the part of government agencies. But one man’s inordinacy is another’s sensible precaution. There is nothing new about spying. It’s an impulse as old as humanity, and for good reason. People mean one another harm. Checking out our neighbours’ intentions is no more than judicious unless, in the fun of doing it, we forget what we are checking for. I would recommend each party to the inordinacy versus sensible precaution debate to heed the other’s fears, though there is no sign that Snowden can hear much above the sacral thrum of encouragement coming from his fellow travellers or, like them, has any interest in weighing abuse against needfulness.
He was no sooner on our screens on Christmas Day than he was invoking Orwell, a name bandied about more often by the vainglorious than the word patriotism is by scoundrels. Big Brother’s electronic arsenal, Snowden reminded us, was as “nothing compared to what we have today” – which is frightening only if we confuse the Thought Police stamping us into servility with marketing men wanting to know what we buy and sell on eBay. No, I don’t want anyone to know what deodorant I use either, but that doesn’t make me Winston Smith.
Cliché number two was privacy. “A child born today,” Snowden said – though the Queen would have said it with more feeling, not to say more consciousness of its Christian echoes – “will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought.” Privacy is the current fetish of the educated classes, which might be explained by how little regard they show for their own, tweeting their every prejudice and perturbation, blogging whatever resemblance to cogitation passes through their minds, and distributing compromising selfies for a cruel world to snigger over.
As for the child for whose privacy Snowden expresses such heartfelt concern, he has long since abandoned all idea of an inviolable self, posting all there is to know about him on Facebook alongside a photograph of his naked girlfriend. A private moment of unrecorded thought! Reader, who wants it when you can have recorded fame instead?
With a naivety that wouldn’t shame a Miss World pageant, Snowden suggests that if governments really want to know how we feel, they should just ask, “for asking is always cheaper than spying”.
“Forgive the intrusion, but what building is it you feel like blowing up? If you’d be so good as to send us an aerial photograph, together with dates and names of personnel, the gratitude of our government would know no bounds.”
It has been said by some more beguiled by Snowden than I am that there is no evidence that all this surveillance has thwarted a single terrorist attack. I bet the Queen is thinking what I’m thinking: doesn’t that mean they should be trying harder?