One surfed so easily from those mob scenes in Portsmouth to those outside the Big Brother studio when blowsy Caroline was voted out and Machiavellian Nick met his nemesis. The one mob was, of course, ugly and full of hate, the other was facetiously high-spirited when it screamed: “We hate Nick.” But both were mobs.
Hannah Arendt, in her Origins of Totalitarianism, distinguished between “the people” and “the mob”. The people seek for “true representation” politically whereas the mob “hates society from which it has been excluded” — interestingly she called it “a residue of all classes” (which well fits arrested football hooligans). The mob, she argued, is highly individualistic, all for “number one” as it were, unless a great leader emerges to legitimise its sense of being outside society, to turn spasmodic hatreds into tendency. Our two mobs are excluded from society in different ways: the mob on the Paulsgrove estate was, by many measures of social deprivation, objectively excluded; whereas the mob on the factoid studio set is subjectively excluded; it cheerfully excludes itself from conventional ideas of seriousness and social responsibility. Let us call the two the hate-full mob and the empty mob.
So Channel 4 has, indeed, created or cribbed a brilliant show for the empty mob, a cunning synthesis of game show and debased, dumbed-down documentary which even impels some serious attention. First, it creates the illusion of naturalism. Nearly all tele-dramas, not just the soaps, are for us watching others like ourselves doing recognisable things — there is very little imagination, fantasy or magic realism — even if the frequency of murder, rape, other violent crime and even sex on first sight and adultery, are statistically unusual. They close down rather than broaden imaginative horizons.
Most of us, not all, know that it is all “made-up”. I remember having to tell, when asked, a former partner's foster-child that the cowboys and Indians on the box were not really getting killed. This is the twilight zone of the factoids that can fool or confuse even adults. We are too often in a shadow-world between journalism and entertainment. Channel 4 makes fatuous claims that Big Brother seriously reports on how people react under pressure. Considering how heavily cut the film has to be, and how aware the happy family is that they are on camera, this is nonsense on stilts.
Also Big Brother gives the viewers sentencing power: the illusion of popular power, happily in this case illusion. “Crucify him, crucify him!” Not just the tabloids feed this mentality, but increasingly BBC presenters will ask a relative of a victim what the punishment should be, or draw from an allegedly “ordinary person” a snap, prejudiced and often ignorant opinion. Well, if they are not representative, at least they are an “authentic” voice — that magic word that links populism high and low.
Then Big Brother attracted a huge mob to come and watch the expulsions from the anti-Paradise of those voted out. Davina, the presenter, dashes through them, like a frenzied post-modernist Anglo-Saxon messenger in Alice, inciting and feeding their lines, but all scripted, of course, unlike the mob leaders in Portsmouth. She is the apt embodiment of clamorous triviality or the purity of purposelessness. And they can go home and look for themselves on video. True reality!
Lastly, Big Brother turns Orwell's potent metaphor upside down. His Airstrip One was totalitarian. There the “telescreen” was emphatically not for entertainment. But the programme Big Brother pretends to be the voice of the people, or “the empty mob”.
”Well, we are a democracy, aren't we? Why can't the people have what they want?” Even if this entails what Tocqueville long ago called the “the tyranny of the majority”? No need for knowledge, good education, reasoned judgments, recourse to authorities and experience. All that is what populists call elitism. Beatrice Webb once remarked: “Democracy is not the multiplication of ignorant opinions.” Dreadful woman! But pause a moment. Surely the will of the majority must interact with reasoning, liberty and human rights? Consider capital punishment. Perhaps the case for populism would be stronger if those in TV and the tabloids who hide behind “public opinion” while seeking to stir it, made serious attempts to ascertain what it actually is, not just viewing figures and readers’ letters. Social survey organisations rarely turn down good business.
Orwell's picture of Big Brother's strategy, however, brings us close to the world of sitcoms, game shows and the prize inanities of the Big Brother show. The party made no attempt to activate the proles in support of the regime. They are simply depoliticised by cultural debasement, dumbed down, kept from even thinking of demanding fair shares. The party looks after the proles by producing for them rubbishy newspapers, containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology; sensational five-cent novelettes; films oozing with sex; and sentimental songs which are composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator. There was even a whole sub-section “Pornosoc” engaged in producing the lowest kinds of pornography.
That was not Stalin and Hitler's regimes; it was and is savage, Swiftian satire of the British popular press. A wicked exaggeration, of course; at the time only one paper fully fitted the bill — by happy coincidence the News of the World. Back then, even they got the naughty bits in only by long verbatim reports of court proceedings, in case they appeared grossly sensational, even faced prosecution. What demands they then had to make on the literacy of their readers.
Orwell was deadly serious in arguing that capitalism, faced with a largely literate and free electorate, could only by means of cultural debasement maintain a class system so grossly unequal and inequitable. He knew nothing of Habermas and Frankfurterschule neo-Marxism. Old George worked it out for himself. Seemed obvious; 14-pint common sense.
Rebekah Wade in her seclusion may think she understands the common people or she may just be selling her master's newspapers on the street. But she certainly stirred a mob reaction on an issue that needs sensitive and informed leadership — incitements to thought not precipitate action. The broadsheets, except the Times, did begin to remind us that there were only five children murdered by strangers last year, compared with hundreds of deaths on the roads and that 98% of recorded child abuse is within families; and that while tabloid reports of cases of murder, welfare scroungers, incompetent doctors and so on are usually well- researched and true (for fear of libel), they are usually numerically insignificant. Panics make news, statistics are boring and demanding. When my doctor told me six years ago that I had prostatic cancer, he said: “Do you understand the concept of probability?” I said yes. “Thank heavens,” he replied. We sadly agreed that many now believe that they can live in a risk-free world; and that if somebody can't be found to blame, then the law is at fault.
Who knows how Ms Wade's readers would react if presented with less simplistic reactions? Which of us last week did not feel an often unexpected respect for the reactions of police, probation and social services, and dismay at the political leaders who talked far more strongly of the need for new laws (so far unreasoned except that some people seem to demand it) than in rebuke of vigilantes. Stanley Baldwin once rebuked Lord Beaverbrook for exercising “power without responsibility; the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”. Who says that now to Murdoch? But Baldwin lived in “elitist” not “populist” days. It takes political courage to appeal to the best instincts of people, not the worst.
Orwell understood the difference between “what the public is interested in” and “the public interest”. That is why he wrote that book whose warning has been treated with cynical contempt and is itself treated as “prolefeed”.
Bernard Crick: ‘Big Brother belittled’
Published: newspaper ‘The Guardian’. — ‘Guardian Newspapers Limited’. — GB, London, 2000. — August 19.
Machine-readable version: O. Dag
Last modified on: 2019-12-29
Bernard Crick about George Orwell: [Index page]