Black Mirror

Generally, I’ve quite liked Charlie Brooker. His misanthropy may be caricatured and repetitive but he does it very well. It was put to especially good use in his series of BBC shows deconstructing the media, which I didn’t always agree with but found very funny.  I don’t, however, tend to read his columns with any regularity these days. This is probably party due to the ‘Hari effect’. The Hari debacle really blew apart my previous, complacent notions about the liberal media. Not just what Hari did and the insidious subtexts that I began to notice in his work but also the defensive response from many of his ‘liberal’ readers. Since then I have approached ‘liberal’ columnists far more critically, not only in terms of their narrative and subtext but also on the very straightforward level of whether they are actually achieving anything. To put it briefly, columnists like Melanie Phillips and Richard Littlejohn are able to be so histrionic and demagogic because they play to a very specific crowd and reflect their own prejudices back at them. I’ve long thought this the case – these days, I’m far more conscious of the exact same trend in the liberal media.

Now that Hari has been forced off the stage, Brooker is easily the most shared writer on my Twitter feed. His columns certainly don’t offend me in the same way Hari’s ultimately did. He doesn’t really pretend to be offering anything other than a humorous take on random topics. The reason I rarely read him anymore is that his entire shtick seems to be based on an implied (though often just explicitly stated) ‘other’. The barbarians at the gate. Far more than ‘just’ being humorous, it seems that Brooker’s appeal relies on flattering his audience that they are superior than most other people, raising the spectre of hordes of right-wing morons who believe everything you would expect them to believe while he (and by extension, his readers) are beleaguered beacons of enlightenment. I’ll expand on this as I go.

Last night the first of a new Brooker series, ‘Black Mirror’, was broadcast on Channel 4. I wasn’t initially intending on watching it. For a start, Beyonce was on ITV at the same time (I mean, come on!) Then there was the fact that, on Saturday, numerous retweets of Brooker proudly linking to a negative review of ‘Black Mirror’ from the Daily Mail appeared in my feed. The implication was that, if the right-wing, moronic Daily Mail hated it, it must be good (of course, the logic of this would suggest that any positive reviews in the liberal media are equally meaningless, which was unsurprisingly not followed through). This didn’t exactly raise my hopes for the show offering something other than another version of the barbarians at the gate.

However, lots of people seemed to love it last night. I saw people calling it ‘brave’, ‘hilarious’ and countless claims that it was the best show on tv in a long time. What really intrigued me was the frequent praise of the show’s ‘satire’. So, using the magic of Channel 4 + 1, I thought I would give it a go.

So, the premise of the show: a royal is kidnapped, the kidnapper unleashes a Youtube video demanding the Prime Minister fuck a pig live on tv for her safe return, people joke about it a lot on Twitter, public opinion turns against the Prime Minister, he performs the act, people gather around the world to watch it, it turns out that it was all an art-prank. If that sounds unnecessarily blithe it’s because it really was that simple. As someone commented on Twitter, it was a ‘Monkey Dust’ sketch that should have lasted a few minutes stretched out to an hour.

It could, of course, have stretched out this premise had it had anything of note to say. I struggled to find it. I couldn’t see where the ‘satire’ that everyone was praising was. Politicians want to be popular, the media is exploitative, people are prurient and lack basic compassion….what ‘observation’ was ‘Black Mirror’ making that you wouldn’t find in the pages of aforementioned right-wing, moronic Daily Mail? Its representation of the general populace was especially horrible. They were only ever seen as open-mouthed, juvenile voyeurs staring at screens (the ‘black mirrors’ of the title). If this was an attempt at making a point about the media it was lost on me, as the show stressed that the public was learning about events through the internet, unfiltered. If it was a point about the logical conclusion of ‘reality tv’ and the base emotions it appeals to, it was far too generalised. It lacked any countervailing perspective or sense that most people don’t actually watch reality tv and rejoice in the humiliation of the famous and powerful. No, it offered up images of deserted streets and scores of people gathering in workplaces and bars to watch the event with glee. The sole concession to any humanity was some uncomfortable looks and a lone voice wanting to turn it off, but carrying on watching nonetheless. This was a bleak view of human nature.

The show ditched all attempts at plausibility in its effort to push this idea of people as base, passive idiots. I don’t believe for a second that public opinion in such a situation would ever swing behind the ‘terrorist’. You could perhaps envisage people rejoicing in the humiliation of a much-hated despotic Prime Minister but we were offered absolutely no context to this. He just seemed like a pretty average guy, albeit one who debased himself for ‘his people’ and for a princess. The speed with which events moved from the kidnapping to a consensus that the act should take place was absurd. People have a strong sense of natural justice and the situation would have aroused mass outrage. Outrage that a skilful and mendacious politician/media could have used to demonise the powerless, which is what would actually be the most likely outcome of any such situation. They would have blamed Muslim terrorists, or feral youths. The spin and manipulation that would have occurred would have been far more sophisticated and would have included social media rather than being made impossible by its baying masses. There were certainly social points that could be made from such a scenario, just very different ones from those offered by ‘Black Mirror’.

From what I have read, Brooker seems to be on the left of politics. It is surely a fundamental, passionate and unbendable tenet of being on the left that you ultimately believe that people are, on the whole, good? Yes, the media, politicians and our wider culture can conspire to mislead people and encourage the baser aspects of their natures, but that is a perversion and interruption of their central humanity. I believe that, I really do. Someone offered me the scenario of people gaping at a car crash as proof that human nature is ‘naturally’ prurient and passive. Yet if people witnessed a car crash and no-one was around, they would do something, wouldn’t they?! That certainly was not the humanity offered in ‘Black Mirror’.

It was an hour long expansion of ‘the other’ that so much liberal media relies on. Few people watching and applauding ‘Black Mirror’ would have believed that any of its points applied to them; instead they would have laughed at its representation of other people, other idiots. Far from being instructive or attacking the powerful (for me, the basic requirements of decent satire) it flattered its viewers with the certainty that people ‘out there’ are lesser than them.

The other recent example of this which springs to mind is the film ‘Weekend’. I’ve seen much praise for this film focusing on the fact that it presents a ‘gay couple’. The film itself emphasises this point, with one of the characters complaining of a homophobic populace that would rather watch violence than a gay couple in love. Yet it is surely clear that no-one would have a problem with representations of gay romance would ever go and see ‘Weekend’. Instead it preaches to the converted, going to pains to offer ‘provocative’ scenes of gay sex as if it is blowing the minds of bigots when it is just cementing the idea that its viewers are inherently liberal merely for watching the film in the first place. By positioning itself (and by being positioned by many of its supporters) as a ‘gay film’ it is completely self-defeating in its message and its intent. Deliberately so, it seems, because its success relies on this notion that there is a lack of representation of gay people (and it’s notable that it’s two white gay men, but that’s a side point I won’t go into here) in 2011, which is a debatable point at best.

We are rightly critical of tabloids and of right-wing media in general when they do nothing other than affirm the beliefs of their readers/viewers, however wrong they may happen to be. We seem to be far less willing to do this of the media which reflects our own views back at us. This is a  ‘black mirror’ we love to stare into and the only satire I can take from Brooker’s show is the highlighting of his audience applauding his hateful presentation of human nature while believing none of it applies to them.

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