Thinking about the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, which involved at least one person who thought she was participating in a TV prank show, it struck me that our civilisation has been in the process of being laid low by our consumption of trashy media.
For sure, we live in the platinum age of TV drama, which is a surprise to me. A few years ago, when ITV shares were a few pence each (9th March 2009: 17.5 pence per share), it felt as if scripted TV drama was going to be a thing of the past, as advertising revenues collapsed and the BBC was chipped away by the neolibs and their tame newspapers.
But enter Netflix, and enter Amazon, and enter HBO, and it turns out that scripted drama has never been better. Left to the likes of Fox/Sky, the US networks, and even the BBC, it would not be so healthy. We’d have wall-to-wall procedurals, and the stuff the BBC makes these days, which seems calculated not to frighten the Daily Mail horses and attract as little attention as possible.
No, when I talk about trashy media, I mean three things, in the main:
- 24 hour news
- Talent shows
- So-called Reality TV
Unlike a lot of my fellow Media Studies professionals, I could never bear to even watch a single minute of reality TV, so I kind of pretended the topic didn’t exist. But I know for a certainty that if I was looking at so-called Western civilisation from the outside, I would see reality TV and talent shows as a sign of the degradation and decadence of liberal democracies, and the wealth and fame heaped upon individuals with little or no talent as emblematic of our debased values.
That Donald Trump, a stupid man who fell into a heap of inherited wealth, who doesn’t know what a tie clip is, could become a household name is something you’d point to as evidence of a degenerate culture. Add to that the fame and wealth of Simon Cowell, a person who wears v-necked t-shirts, and yet was still given a job as an arbiter of taste in music, and you’ve got enough evidence to damn a whole civilisation.
And then there’s the 24-hour news cycle, which, turns out, didn’t mean more news or more depth of coverage or more analysis, but less and less and less, until journalists are churning out a dozen ore more clickbait stories a day and political coverage is reduced to whether someone can eat a bacon sandwich or bow his head at the correct angle when showing respect to the war dead.
Looking at all this from the outside, of course you’d hatch an assassination plot in which you’d dupe somebody into thinking they’re participating in a TV prank show. It’s Art of War 101, right? You’re using the enemy’s own decadence as a weapon.
What North Korea does on a small scale to deal with its own domestic issues, Russia (very much not a liberal democracy) is doing on a much larger scale, having apparently exploited the stupidity and venality of a range of assets in a very long game in order to undermine the ability of the US to oppose it. The game is Smileyesque in its complexity, but it appears to have involved Wikileaks, various online hate groups, and a reality TV star who was able to exploit the inability of news organisations to do their job* and win an election. What Smiley did to snare Karla, Putin has done to snare a whole nation.
Back when Twitter was new, when Facebook was new, some of us naively thought that these new platforms would be for us, that we’d be able to organise and resist using these agile new tools. Cynical voices pointed out that these platforms were owned by corporations, but we thought we knew better. Of course, it turns out that these platforms were far more effectively exploited from the right than they ever were from the left. Because the one thing the left can never stop doing is squabbling amongst its various selves.
And then this week, just when you think that something is up, when the new President is denouncing the media like a newly minted North Korean dictator; just when you think the Western media might start doing their job*, even if it’s too little too late; just then, there’s an explosion of news (and social network coverage) of an event so fucking trivial and unimportant that you can’t believe anyone would be taken in by it for even a single second.
Yes, I’m talking about the Oscars, an awards ceremony in which a small, self-selecting coterie of previous winners votes for a new set of winners in their own image, usually in order to promote a few films that hardly anybody saw. And yet, when someone cocked up and handed the wrong envelope to a presenter so facelifted he probably couldn’t open his eyes wide enough to read the small print on the card, we not only got the immediate reaction, but ongoing coverage of the incident, including Zapruder-like frame-by-frame analysis, as if this was 1972, and this was a break-in at the Watergate hotel.
It was almost as if the media were waiting for something they could switch their attention to, so that they didn’t have to keep reminding people that they’d elected a tie-sellotaping Russian stooge to high office.
*SPEAK TRUTH TO POWER