1.Everyone shall possess the right to freely express and publicise his thoughts in words, images or by any other means, as well as the right to inform others, inform himself and be informed without hindrance or discrimination 2.Exercise of the said rights shall not be hindered or limited by any type or form of censorship Constitution of the Portuguese Republic, Article 37.º

Maddy: TV torture for the ADD generation

By William Davies is a sociologist and policy analyst. His weblog is at Potlatch
19th September 2007

'This is awful. I can't stop watching'

Following the first Gulf War of 1991, the French social theorist Jean Baudrillard made the famous statement that "the Gulf War did not take place". It was seized on by academics, journalists, and pub intellectuals in the English-speaking world as a prime example of the absurdity and irresponsibility of French philosophy. When he died earlier this year, it was this bizarre comment of his that the obituary-writers fixated on. What did Baudrillard mean by it?

The point Baudrillard was trying to convey was that the broadcasted images of the war had become a separate, autonomous entity, bearing no relation to what might or might not have been happening in a desert thousands of miles away. Media content had taken on a life of its own. What we were shown via CNN was like a stage play.

In the same spirit, we might now say that "Madeleine McCann's disappearance did not take place". The media has been the principal actor in the drama right from the outset.

The press conferences, the videos broadcast at sporting events, Gerry McCann's weblog, and - above all - the drama and speculation whipped up by the tabloid press, all amount to a festival of inter-linking content. Add to this the fact that there is a murder mystery at the centre of it (or is there?) and the whole question of what has really taken place becomes fundamentally unanswerable.

There are a number of things to notice about this. Firstly, the frenzied interest in the Madeleine story is fuelled by the lack of hard reality, rather than quelled by it. Once again, "the medium has become the message", but this in itself is not necessarily a new thing. One might say the same thing about the Gospels - where the leading character has grown in reputation, thanks to the shortage of hard empirical evidence about him. But the unfolding of the McCann story also tells us something much more contemporary about our media consumption, which flies in the face of contemporary wisdom about the digital, on-demand age.
We, the media?

We are familiar with the notion that consumers are now active participants in the media. The "people formerly known as the audience" produce their own content, decide when and how to watch television, and entertain themselves by spying on acquaintances via social networking sites.

We are also familiar with the idea of reality television. Big Brother allows us to watch real people doing real things, while prime time television in the UK is now dedicated mainly to factual programming - at least inasmuch as it is a "fact" that the relevant couple were captured on camera painting their own kitchen.

What is so irresistible about the McCann drama is that it gives us neither of these things. We are not viewing something that has been produced or manipulated for our entertainment or convenience. The story is (still) happening in real time.

Consider the pace at which the story unfolds. Nobody is in control of it, which means it occasionally gets quite dull. We can't fast forward or time-switch. We're not invited to phone in and vote for which suspect we would like to see arrested. Key scenes and pieces of information are kept from us in a way that would defeat the point of a show like Big Brother. But we find this all the more compelling.

The one nod to conventional broadcasting principles is that the ratings have mattered right from the beginning. When there was a risk that they might slump, David Beckham was drafted in to speak on the matter, thus giving the story a new boost.

Most grippingly of all, we have no idea what genre of story we are watching, so have no idea how or when it might end. To an extent, the same was true of the hit American drama Lost. But reality TV from the news department is always a one-off - there will be no sequel.

In view of this, newspapers desperately seek to juggle several potential plots at once. There is one in which the parents are villains, another in which the police are incompetent, and another in which Madeleine is still alive. If and when the story ends, it will make a lousy film, because by then the suspense of wondering what sort of story it is will have been lost.
TV torture

What this amounts to is a form of S&M for the me-driven media generation. Stories that I consume when I like, or I participate in on my terms, or I create using my camera leave us feeling listless and empty after a while.

As the German philosopher Theodor Adorno observed of Hollywood in the 1940s, the entertainment industries deliver exactly what we expect them to, and thereby deliver us nothing at all. True culture, in Adorno's estimation, has to disappoint or frustrate us.

What the McCann drama demonstrates is a bizarre longing for stories that aren't easily consumable and are indifferent to what we expect of them. For sure, the characters are good looking - our desire for media S&M hasn't yet reached the heights of wanting to look at ugly people - but most of the time there is nothing going on at all.

Could this be a trend for the digital age? The assumption that the user is acquiring ever greater power over content production and consumption may well be true, but the question is whether we necessarily want all that power.

Some people find wildlife programmes therapeutic, precisely because they feel so irrelevant. Others revel in the glorious monotony of five day cricket matches.

Once the McCann frenzy dies down, many will find an empty space in their lives. At that point, a canny TV company should go looking for a news story, whose nature is unclear, and whose rhythm and conclusion are blissfully insulated from the demands of ego-driven consumers.

Relevant:

Parents have complained after an advert appealing for information about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann was shown before a screening of Shrek the Third.

Parents who had tried to shield their children from Madeleine's story complained that they were confronted by awkward questions after their children viewed the advert. The word "snatched" was used to describe Madeleine's disappearance, and many parents have said their children found this disturbing.

Bloggers on Mumsnet have posted more than 500 comments on the issue. Some support the advert, saying that parents should not shield their children from Madeleine's disappearance, while others say that parents should be the ones to decide how much information they expose their children to.

A spokesperson for the McCanns' campaign apologised for any offence caused but appealed to parents saying that they, in the same situation, "would be doing the same, tearing their hair out and doing everything they could to find their daughter."

The advert and the film are both rated U. A spokesperson for the British Board of Film Classification told the Times: "There was nothing in the visual content or language that suggested a higher rating." Odeon cinemas have now removed the advert from screenings of Shrek the Third but will continue to show it at other times.

Were parents right to complain about the advert or should children be exposed to the story of Madeleine McCann's disappearance?




1 comment:

  1. With the advent of full time news channels like CNN, news has become entertainment. I have seen Canadian stories reported on American channels in a manner in which the stories have been embellished so as to make the stories more appealing to the public. The risk in all this is that the facts are sacrificed in order to make the news more entertaining.

    I have followed the McCann case through English and Portuguese media. What worries me or should I say irritates me is that I see in this case an unprecedented use of the media to pervert justice. If the McCanns are successful in their campaign to avoid justice, I can see this strategy being employed by others facing a criminal investigation, in which the evidence is stacked against them. In the past it was easy to select a jury that had no preconceived ideas about a case, but because of the Internet and television this is practically impossible. In the future good PR people will become just as important as good lawyers. So you can say lawyers try to convince the jury in the courtroom and PR people try to convince the public, the jury pool outside the courtroom. Of course I believe this strategy will only be able to be put into action if you are well connected or at the least wealthy.

    I think it is becoming increasingly difficult to shield your children from images or stories that may harm them. The story of Madeleine being snatched may cause some unease in very young children, but nowadays kids are exposed to so much worse.

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