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Taking Things Seriously. Lesson One: Stay off the telly.

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.

10 Comments

  1. Ian F4 says:

    The position on climate change is progressive:

    (a) the climate is changing, and this may or may not be detrimental to the earth and it’s ecology
    (b) that CO2 is a major contributor to (a)
    (c) that excessive human activity is a significant part of (b), enough to make a measurable difference to (a)
    (d) that if it continues it will result in ecological catastrophe

    You can probably get scientific consensus on (a), (b) and even (c), but the last point is not a forgone conclusion yet it is assumed that a consensus exists, when it does not.

    Dellingpole is not a fan of (d), and there is no consensus on it either, so he has no case to answer. Any documentary is worthless if it fails to make the distinction on the progressive scientific opinions on climate change, or, even worse, deliberately sets out to blur the distinction, as happened here, as has happened in many other Gore-ist agenda documentaries.

    But (d) has to be the selling point, without it there is no concept of sounding like a daft bugger by denying your activity will lead to your doom, without an assumed consensus (d) there is no documentary.

    The proper analogy would be “you have cancer and if you don’t take this really expensive pill right now this instant or you’ll die in 30 seconds, or do you want a second opinion ?” (and this has been said every 30 seconds from about an hour ago).

  2. Kevin B says:

    Would you like your headache treated by the top surgeon in London who follows the consensus – he slits the veins in your forearms with an unsterilised knife and drains some of your blood into a bowl – or would you go to the quack herbalist – probably a witch – who’ll feed you essence of willow bark.

    Though I’m not sure climate science has reached that bleeding stage of progress.

  3. Sam Duncan says:

    Hah, Kevin! Excellent point!

  4. Peter MacFarlane says:

    “Television is a medium of lies. Nothing you see there is real. Okay, I exaggerate slightly,”

    No, you do not exaggerate at all.

  5. Lynne says:

    God made fuckwits big and small.
    Some that creep and some that crawl.
    The BBC employs them all…

  6. EndivioR says:

    Heh. My Loss of Innocence came when I was taken as a kid to see Billy Smart’s Circus. The first bit of fishiness came when someone with a mike asked the audience to remove their Remembrance Sunday poppies, coz this was going to be shown on TV as a “Christmas Special”. This put many in the audience in a bad mood for a kick-off. Then a stand up comic came out and proceeded to tell a lot of filthy jokes. The ripple of giggles was duly canned and marked as to be intercut with the later Unfunny Clowns. Then we were asked to stare upwards into the overarching vaults of a totally empty Big Top and “look surprised and awed”, while they collected some close ups. The whole procedure took maybe half an hour. After that I could never take television seriously again.

    Well, I still made an exception for Diana Rigg’s legs, but that was about it.

  7. RAB says:

    Well it didn’t look that bad to me. Ok he hummed and harred a bit, but did say that he didn’t accept the questioners analogy.

    What he should have done was come straight back at the interviewer with the Einstein quote i.e. When asked about whichever theory of Relativity it was, he was asked by an interviewer, there are many scientists who think your theory completely wrong professor. How many would it take to convince you that you have it wrong?

    He replied…

    Only one, as long as he was right!

  8. Voyager says:

    The people making TV are being paid. The people watching TV are paying. Yet they want you to appear on TV for free.

    So there is one rule – unless you are selling something don’t even consider appearing on it unless they pay.

  9. Paul Marks says:

    No do not stay off the television – you will get a fair deal (from most people) at Fox News and Fox Business.

    However, as all the other English language news stations on the planet are controlled by leftists……

    The line should read “keep of the telly – apart from FNC and Fox Business”.

    It really is that stark – the left control all the other English language news and current affairs stations (and the entertainment ones also).

    So there is just Fox (not Fox entainment – just Fox News and Fox Business) and some internet sites.

    Plus some newspapers – although they can not be trusted (for example most of the “conservative” newspapers in Britain (including the News International ones – unfortunatly) employ leftists in key positions.

    In the United States the main non leftist newspapers are also owned by News International (led by the Wall Street Journal).

    Actually no wonder the left hate Rupert M. so much – if it was not for him they would have a de facto monopoly on news and current affairs reporting in the English language.

  10. The Pedant-General says:

    Paul M,

    The line should read “keep of the telly – apart from FNC and Fox Business”.

    It really is that stark – the left control all the other English language news and current affairs stations (and the entertainment ones also).

    And then the great majority of the population will NEVER hear anything to the contrary.

    No: the correct approach has only recently become available to the masses:
    - take your own recording, secretly if necessary, at the same time.
    - wait for your words to be taken out of context by the leftists
    - broadcast your tape showing the context

    That way you get your point across AND you get to discredit the leftists.

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