Thursday, October 11, 2007


Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe is broadcast on the little-viewed wasteland that is BBC4, which makes these segments worth posting.

Brooker's usual schtick is over-the-top vitriol with a bit of randomness thrown in, plus a hefty chunk of utter disdain for the stupid. Large chunks of Screenwipe are really just a televised version of his TV review column in the Guardian. In the case of the early episodes, this was often literally the case - Brooker reading out his favourite reviews word for word. But there's been an increasing shift towards genuine exploration of how TV gets made, and even his reviews of mainstream TV are now punchily edited with footage to illustrate his point. Here's a neat little demolition of the X-Factor, for example. (By the way, the "If you hit me at..." drop was a running joke on that episode, which is why it shows up out of the blue near the end.)

After that was broadcast, the show went on to produce a spectacularly cynical "boot camp" episode in which all four categories were edited with exactly the same structure. Here are the contestants, the early auditions are going badly, the assigned judge is depressed at lunchtime and is filmed making a supposed phone call to a friend about how badly it's going, oh wait, things are looking up after lunch, here's a woman with a personal tragedy, hurrah she can sing, the end, repeat x3. Is the public much less media literate than everyone claims, or do they just not care? And if they don't care about the fact that it's wildly distorted from the truth... why do they care enough to watch? It's all very strange.

Anyhow, there's a lot of this sort of thing on Screenwipe. But sometimes Brooker drops the act altogether, to do something like the first three minutes of this next clip, about the coverage of the Madeline McCann investigation.

Now, in fairness to the news channels, the McCann family did go out of their way to court media attention at first - or, at least, to harness it for their own ends. But his basic point is entirely valid. The Sky News aircraft clip is jawdropping in its tactlessness, one of those occasional moments when you realise that no matter how cynical and contemptuous you may be about the media, you aren't cynical and contemptuous enough.

The disappearance of Madeline McCann is, of course, a tragedy for those who actually know her. But is it of any wider importance? Not especially. Nobody is suggesting that there's a major problem with child abductions in Portugal. There is no wider issue here, just a human interest story. Why is it on the news? Because people are interested, and most people don't care sufficiently to draw a distinction between "things the public find interesting" and "things that the public have an interest in." Broadcasters don't care, because human interest stories draw ratings and hey, what's the point in news coverage that nobody watches? Participants don't generally care, because they usually welcome the attention. Journalists don't care because, hey, they only went into the job to get on telly. And the public don't care because, frankly, most of the things that really affect them are excruciatingly dull. Much better just to elect somebody who sounds plausible and let them worry about the principles of macroeconomics.

But sometimes you get a case like this where the coverage really is grotesque and, arguably, shows up TV news for what much of it has become - not a source of useful information, not a meaningful part of the national debate, but merely a veneer of legitimacy for voyeurism.

This is a great broadside on the news channels, all the more effective for being unusually restrained.