Terence Blacker: When life imitates the art of drama

It is no longer enough for the radio and TV networks to update us on the facts
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It can be an odd business, writing for the public prints. The strangest things can provoke the most unpredictable reactions. When last year, for example, I wrote about the passion of football fans and made a passing reference to a riot involving Millwall supporters, I was inundated with outraged e-mails.

The riot I had described as occurring in August had, I was told, happened in May. During the subsequent three months, the fans had transformed themselves into sweet and gentle members of the community. I had done them a terrible injustice.

The surprise here was not just at the exquisite sensitivity of Millwall fans. It was how nice and presentable they were. Apart from a few ill-spelt and expletive-laden efforts, most e-mails that came in seemed to be from respectable middle management who, I imagined, would no sooner riot than commute to work in a Union flag T-shirt.

Sport brings together all classes, it might be said - but then so, it turns out, does hooliganism. Millwall have been in the news again over the past few days but on this occasion it has been a supporter of a rival club who made the headlines. When police kept back some of the West Ham supporters at the end of a game, there was abuse between the two sets of fans, to which a yob from the Hammers side responded by throwing coins at his opposite numbers.

"If you keep people back like that they are going to get pissed off," he explained after appearing at Woolwich magistrates court, where he was found guilty of threatening behaviour, fined £2,500, given 150 hours community service and banned from attending matches for five years.

Intriguingly, the yob turned out to be a grey-haired man in his mid-forties, who is at the peak of the advertising profession. Eden Diebel has been named in Campaign magazine as one of the world's top 10 directors of commercials. He won an award at this year's Cannes Film Festival and has made ads for all the flashiest companies. In the advertising world, he is a major player.

None of this is necessarily surprising. Anyone who has been to a big football match in the past decade or so will know that it is rarely crop-haired teenagers who cause the trouble. Almost always, the fat idiot sitting behind you, screaming foul abuse, usually at his own team, is a professional type in his forties or fifties for whom watching football provides a gruesome form of therapy.

But beyond the misbehaviour of middle executives on the loose, there was something peculiarly apposite in the fact that the coin-lobbing villain of this case worked at the epicentre of contemporary culture, in TV commercials, and it was a constable from the Metropolitan Police's football unit who unwittingly pointed up why that might be. "This case demonstrates that anyone attending a football match should remember that they could be on film at any point," he said.

Filmed at any point: in our morally confused world, that is both a threat and a promise. The coolest commercials skim the froth off what is happening in those hidden-camera documentaries and TV reality shows which have proved that real lives can be shaped, manipulated and goosed up to provide the rest of us with edgy entertainment.

Once, if we saw on TV a young woman cracking up, having been kept in a brightly-lit prison with a group of strangers, we would know that we should feel concerned. Now it is Big Brother. Her tears could be real but they might also be faked. She is probably playing the game, too. Uneasy and yet fascinated, spectators can add more ambiguity to the mix by participating themselves, voting for some cruel new twist in the story.

Here is entertainment which battens on real feeling, which blurs the difference between manipulator and victim, the fake and the true, game and pain. The problem is that the confusion affects not only what we see on television but has begun to influence the way we live our lives. Self-dramatisation is in the air that we breathe. Filmed at any point, Eden Diebel became, in his expensive moment of madness, an actor in his own reality show.

Is it not possible that some of the ways in which the media and the public have reacted to the horrors of the past few weeks are, in an incomparably more serious way, also reflections of a world in which real life has somehow been corrupted by the values of drama? It is no longer enough for the radio and television networks to contain regular news reports and to update us on the facts; all programmes must be suspended and a mix of repeated footage and pointless speculation served up in an atmosphere of fevered concern.

Former policemen stoke up the tension by writing ever more lurid predictions in the tabloids. A note of something very close to excitement is evident in the voice of newscasters, reporters and, increasingly, even of members of the public who are interviewed. That very contemporary sense of being part of an unfolding story, first evident after the death of the Princess of Wales, is never far away.

Eden Diebel would understand all this and, in a small and rather silly way, he may have become a victim of it himself. His public line that being caught chucking coins at Millwall fans had "ruined his life" can be seen, and dismissed, in that context. Elsewhere, the infiltration of real life by something odd and self-consciously dramatic may have more lasting consequences.