The ballyhoo of phone-line rip-offs and general TV deception may on the surface confirm hip prejudices about the medium and its audience, but in reality anyone who cares about television's future should be feeling uneasy, argues Paul Stump
In Frank Conroy's oddball memoir of growing up in 1950s smalltown America, Stop Time, there is a disturbing tale of how an entire group of boys is entirely taken by an itinerant conman. It's heartless but absolutely compelling as a yarn, because the reader becomes a voyeur and is as irresistibly drawn into the stitch-up as the victims. It's a bit like that with TV these days. Hence the mighty furore in March over a string of scandalous revelations concerning near-criminal deceptions employed by many daytime TV shows which cost viewers substantial sums in wasted phone calls to pre-rigged or simply unregulated competition phone lines.
Mark Lawson - inevitably - was the one getting his beer money in at The Guardian with a long piece in the Media section about this spring's plethora of scams - phone-voting as bent as a nine-bobber, "Dr" Gillian McKeith's made-up qualifications, how in God's name Brainteasers' Alex Lovell, that bimbo's bimbo, ever got a job in TV in the first place. Lawson discusses the tensions between the amorality of such institutionalised wool-pulling and the reaction to it. Was the 'outrage' that greeted the whole sorry shambles indicative of just how ignorant and suggestible TV audiences had become in that they bought into the lot - or how sophisticated, in that they raised a rumpus because they saw through it all? For Lawson, what it boiled down to was the simple and oft-asked staple question of all TV folk: is the viewer stupid or not?
What 'outrage' there was, though, in public bars and around water-coolers, seemed in the present writer's experience to be rather low-key. And it was the defensive, shamed fury of being found out, of appearing stupid rather than merely being stupid. Most of us are terrified of seeming no-'count - so common in a democracy - and having it very publicly advertised. This is comparable to the nightmare of every secret illiterate, of having a newspaper thrust under his nose with the demand what does this mean? They react badly, sometimes violently.
Likewise, if you set up a Bunco Booth and fiddle someone out of their weekly wages, their outrage might be considerable, but is only really likely to prompt a punch in the mush if the sleight of hand is suffixed with a 'got you, you stupid cunt'. To this end, those who make programmes manipulatively depicting the blameless or defenceless as credulous and thick are likely to face a more righteous uproar than those who collude in the disgraceful financial hoodwinking of a mass audience. The likes of Chris Morris making Arndale plodders look like cretins is far more likely to raise hackles than playing fast and loose with phone lines, even when it comes to taking people's money under patently false pretences.
There is another school of thought; that the public, or substantial portions of it, are actually wiser than we fancy. That many people know that televisual pigs' number twos like X-Factor are fixed, contrived or generally fraudulent. To be cynical doesn't require a degree in media studies, after all. Many unmonied and uneducated people are serial victims of remorseless exploitation in their everyday lives, from chancers flogging hooky space heaters/Uzbek DVDs/pig-piss perfume to rubbish wages or inadequate benefit payments - and so they grab a slice of this black-economy action, they learn the ropes and the dodges, indulge in scammery themselves, whether for kicks, bunce or subsistence.
After all, where can the eye fall in modern life upon that which is innocent of deceit and profiteering? The United Kingdom is the world capital of spin, corporate-speak, doublethink; is it any wonder we are one of the planetary hubs of the publicity industry? Here is the place to launch your very own egregious rip-off, where, as joyful bulletins of flatlining inflation fall across the media like confetti, one can pay #202 for a train ticket from London to Manchester, stump up for a national stadium umpteen times over budget and umpteen years overdue, where boardroom salaries are rising 488% faster than those on the shop floor. Why else did London get its Olympics save for the fact that it is now even-more chancer-friendly than that grafter's paradise, Paris? And what of Iraq, an era-defining black hole of public money, lives and political reputations whose premise and continuing conduct are both based entirely on shameless falsehood? You'd have to be terminally obtuse to let that whopper pass you by.
And yet, the perpetrators of these sharpest of practises get away with it, seemingly with impunity. That's the Thatcherite law of the economic jungle for you - adapt or die, and hang the scruples. To paraphrase Martin Amis in Success, everyone is on the make - everyone has a line - everyone accepts we have to get nastier to get by. Fact of life, mate. So get in and grab yourself some action.
Let us not forget that there is, after all, a gigantic and shabby abdication of responsibility - a swindle, in other words - at the supposedly unimpeachable antipode of the scams, something that affects not just the addicted punter panting at the handset or the granny trying to win enough to feed the lecky meter. According to 'New' Labour's stooges, regulatory bodies Ofcom and Icstis were supposedly running a 'converged' model of regulation for the new century's 'converged' media and generally be savvier and sharper about the way they ran the broadcasting world were butter-woudn't-melt content enough to let the whole business chug further on down the sewer. In other words, they conned us. Ofcom and Icstis look like another broken promise, another feint, another betrayal of trust.
The hard-hearted will scoff; what do you expect? After all, in such a climate, the feckless, doltish and dense deserve no sympathy. Fuck 'em. Maybe; but should this approach motivate programme-makers? To sneer and wash one's hands of the affair's gamey morality is as ultimately meaningless as pulling the wings off flies. That millions buy lottery tickets, believe that copper bracelets cure arthritis, watch Charlton Athletic (guilty as charged), vote Conservative etc is depressing, but for television to so ruthlessly swizz the innocent and the ignorant for money is pushing it. Yes, it's been done before - any student of the medium can recite verbatim the US scandals of the 1950s, culminating in the notorious case of Revlon's puppeteering of The $64,000 Question in 1959. But sharp practise now threatens to become endemic. Whether people get mad about this or not is becoming immaterial - for those that care about TV, is it really worth sniggering at the impotent rage of a few chavs and trogs who've been casually done over when the medium we profess to love is dancing on a volcano by engaging in spivviness shabby enough to shame a travelling fair?
If trickery and twistery are a Fact Of Life and Del Boys of whatever social stamp (Sugar, O'Leary, Branson) are lauded for Getting Away With It and Good Luck To Them, people are nonetheless still jolted not by daylight robbery and plain lying but when this unpalatable state of affairs appears proven to them in such a public forum. After all, all this has come about thanks to the indecent bogarting at the profiteers' trough by good old friendly reliable television, the welcoming box in the corner.
Lawson astutely points out that TV's success arose partly because it traded on a veneer of trustworthiness. Its very novelty compelled a generation to believe in TV's essential goodness. Newscaster Walter Cronkite was indeed sold by CBS as 'the man you can trust'. But TV has also sowed more than a few seeds of doubt as to its fitness to inhabit any kind of high ground; from The X-Files to 24, it has oxygenated the culture of conspiracy theory, including those implicating the medium itself in evil or skulduggery. the aforementioned Morris, Steve Coogan, Sacha Baron-Cohen and others have all helped undermine the old idea of TV as an Olympian paradigm of integrity and moral-intellectual gravitas. Charlie Brooker has made a career out of it. They have undertaken this with often laudable panache, but is merely saying 'I told you so' by holding up a mirror at TV's vanity and double-standards and disparaging its audience always healthy? Faith in TV doesn't need to haemorrhage away any faster as relativism rushes in - 'whose truth is it anyway?' is becoming as distressingly familiar a refrain in television as in literature and history.
Yes, there are potential upsides from the springtime of the scams - enough people may have been shamed by their cupidity into never again calling, texting or emailing a TV programme, thereby relieving the medium of one of its great modern blights. Some might even complain vocally about the whole shameful rip-off that 'interaction' has become. But if the scams further harm the delicate ecosystem of checks and balances which maintain TV as ostensibly a vessel of knowledge and enlightenment, we stare into an abyss where trust in the tube is entirely optional and entirely fluid.
As the scams unravelled, there came news almost as depressing for those who regard TV as not simply by definition an idiot box (I know. We're sad. But bear with us. Just because it's an impossible dream doesn't mean we shouldn't try). Al Gore announced that his goodhearted but misguided charter for piped libertarian lunacy and semi-literate polemic, Current TV, an online channel largely governed by that dread spectre, 'user-generated content', was coming to Britain.
Guardian staff and their infallibly optimistic ilk always get boners for this sort of shiny techno-piffle; but the futurological faith of the new media zealots in a happy-clappy, self-regulatory Socratic forum for innovative and interesting ideas is probably as misguidedly simple-minded as those who believe the ghastly Saturday Kitchen goes out live or that Christmas specials are actually recorded in December with real snow (a touching article of faith for Old Man Steptoe, one recalls). Not for nothing do revolving-eyed far-right ranters in the blogosphere crave the free-for-all promised by viewer- and opinion-generated TV, for it hastens their longed-for postmodern Armageddon when subjectivity takes precedence over objectivity in broadcasting.
Why? Because it not only offers primus inter pares status for those who can best afford to access and control the means of production but also foregrounds unreason over reason, feeling over intellect, manipulation over considered scientific argument. It's TV where the motto 'Nation shall speak peace unto nation' is replaced by Tony Blair's quasi-Nietzschean dictum 'I only know what I believe'. In this who-cares never-never-land, ideas and values, irrespective of the rigours of scientific testing, become not just reified but commodified in a telly-land reduced to a mentalist meta-market where intelligent design goes up against evolution, Holocaust denial plays historicism, Banksy and Swampy challenge Leonardo and Copernicus, Kenny G goes to penalties with Ornette Coleman. Without faith in the medium, without reinforcement of a dedication to the highest standards of practise and performance, then its power to entertain, amuse and inform is doomed. Give TV its head and it becomes a forum for nutjobbery and snake-oil sales, where the loudest shouter prevails, in which things fall apart, in which nothing is real or provable, in which we all become children again, like those that Conroy's conman, who knows the very real and very unrelative power of money and bullshit, so blithely bilks.
I'm sorry - but those who court this distasteful prospect are just as stupid as the poor saps who rang Richard and Judy after the phones went dead. It's not just fuming proles twisting in the wind that a moral vacuum in TV concerns - when core values go west to this extent it is all viewers, all users, all programme-makers. And denying that is the stupidity we should really be worried about. Otherwise we'll all be taken.