You may have noticed that all-round top bloke and man of good taste James Dellingpole was done up like a kipper by the BBC’s Horizon programme the other night. Dr. North posts at length on the subject.
The question he was asked – “If you were suffering from cancer, would you rather be treated by the consensus scientific opinion, or some crackpot?” – is both leading and actually pretty easy for a sceptic to answer given the time to think rather than being ambushed in the middle of a three-hour interview set up precisely to capture that moment when you “um” or “ah” and look a bit shifty if they light it properly. Or even better, say something you don’t mean.
Quite simply, I’d want to be treated by something that works. The consensus scientific opinion on cancer treatment does work. Not as well as we’d all like, and maybe something better will come along (which, given the historic treatment of scientific rengades, may well be dismissed as “crackpot” if it’s too different to what’s gone before), but it makes reliable predictions. Consensus climate science doesn’t work: its predictions for temperature and humidity in the upper atmosphere completely contradict the observed measurements. The oceans are stubbornly refusing to rise any faster than they have since the last ice age. The consensus mob told us that the observed warming over the 20th Century (which may have been within the margin of error that they never told us) was far too great to be explained by natural variation, then the complete reversal over the last decade was dismissed as exactly that. If I was undergoing treatment for cancer and was told that I’d lose all my hair, my extremities would go numb, and the tumour would gradually shrink, only to find after six months that I’d turned into a hypersensitive gorilla with a tumour as big as ever, I’d start asking questions. The mystery isn’t why some people are sceptical of received climate science; it’s why so many aren’t.
The thing is though, I wonder why anyone’s surprised. Television is a medium of lies. Nothing you see there is real. Okay, I exaggerate slightly, but if you start with that premise you won’t go far wrong. Everything is done for the camera, for effect, and as North shows from his experiences making programmes, TV people will go to extraordinary lengths to get the effect they want. Remember the furore a while back when some people who, amazingly, didn’t appear to know already discovered that interviews are often done with one camera and the “cutaways” of the interviewer nodding pensively or laughing at a joke are put in later? Sure, those people were somewhat naïve, but the fact that you’re supposed to know you’re being lied to doesn’t alter the fact that you are.
The trouble is that TV is showbiz, not journalism. Print journalists can bend the truth with the best of them, and photojournalists can crop their pictures to omit things inconvenient to their premise, but neither is making a show, using the powerful audience-fooling techniques of theatre and film. Those media deliberately and openly set out to bamboozle the audience into thinking it’s seeing something it isn’t – the good old suspension of disbelief – and television, largely for historical reasons, follows in that tradition, even in its factual productions, only it isn’t always open about it. TV made in any other way would look strangely amateurish and long-winded to us (although, as Paul pointed out the other day, when factual programming was less theatrical than it is now it was much more popular).
The result is that for all the portentious presentation – and, let’s be fair, no doubt the best will of the journalists – the actual content of TV news and documentary is much closer to the tabloids than it is to what used to be the broadsheets (especially compared with what the broadsheets used to be when they were actually broad). The most serious-minded, rigourous journalist is at the mercy of his technical crew who “know what makes good TV”, and, simply, the faster pace and visually-oriented nature of the medium itself. I remember years ago the Sunday Times TV critic AA Gill saying something along those lines, and I’m sure there was a Yes, Minister episode about exactly what happened to Dellers: a few words cherrypicked from a three-hour interview to fit the programme-makers’ agenda, which the interviewee would never have said out of context. It’s nothing new: it’s more or less inherent to the medium.
Television is the modern(ish) equivalent of the music halls. Leave it to the comedians and entertainers. Like Snow and Paxo.