Archive for the ‘T'Interweb’ Category


This blog almost certainly contains something that someone somewhere will manage to find offensive or at least annoying. To those people I respectfully suggest you lie down in a quiet, dark place for a short while, and think about how you might try to chill out a bit.

Meh indifference

Way back in the 2000s (remember them, eh, kids?!), the smart response to so much content online was meh, like, whatever. It seemed to be a badge of honour, an attitude, that you were, like, so not interested in all this trivial nonsense. You could rise above it. Who needed LOLcatz anyway?

Now Bento, ‘the keyboard cat’ dies and it makes the national news.

The amount of memes and content and reposting and churnalism has overwhelmed us. We’re increasingly incapable of setting our Slow Thinking System 2 to work, rationally processing and analysing the world. Ever-shorter attention spans are driving TL:DR, while ‘intelligent’ algorithms drive us deeper into social and political echo chambers where we only see stuff we already like.

Confirmation bias becomes embedded, debate mutates into violent shouting matches, and the idea of constructive compromise is an outdated weakness.

Anger Inside Out

From meh to outrage

The apathetic shoulder-shrug has long gone, now everything is outrage and offence, hyperbole and superlatives. With no sense of irony, it’s almost impossible to overstate the speed at which the internet can go apesh*t over anything and everything.

In case you’ve not experienced this, allow me to outline the (all too predictable) process.

  • Newspapers splash headlines about ‘fury’ or ‘storm’ as though the nation is up in arms, when in fact they’re simply reposting a few angry tweets or comments from random individuals
  • These headlines spark reactions in others (even if the headline bears little resemblance to the substance in the article). Remember, people aren’t reading the article, just assuming the headline is true
  • Outrage spreads like a wildfire, no one checks the actual facts and ‘an internet storm’ is born. 140 (or even 280) characters is never enough to convey the real nuances or shades of grey
  • The speed with which it spreads seems to validate the outrage through a herd mentality: if so many people are in on this, it must be something…
  • Scepticism or restraint is seized upon as condoning the outrageous behaviour. As President George W Bush made clear more than a decade ago, there is no permissible middle ground

Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists

  • And before anyone can draw breath, today’s trending topic of outrage is tomorrow’s ‘seen it, don’t care’. The relentlessness of 24/7 online news, and its ethos that no story is too small or extreme to merit a manipulative headline from which they can sell ad space, means that something else will come along, probably in time for the evening rush hour, or tomorrow’s breakfast news, or lunchtime.

Perhaps the first time I remember this was in 2001, before Social Media even existed, when the hilarious Chris Morris satire “Brass Eye” lampooned sensationalist news stories, often at the expense of MPs and celebrities. Its ‘paedogeddon’ episode about internet paedophiles created a storm among many of the Great and the Good, claiming it to be offensive and calling for it to be banned without having even seen it.

More recently there was Steve Martin’s tweet about Carrie Fisher in the aftermath of her death in December 2016. His attempt to pay tribute to his friend was swamped by moral fury and he removed it within 72 hours.

steve martin carrie fisher tweet december 2016

In the US, Starbucks’ has produced seasonal red cups to replace its usual white & green to celebrate the festive season. They’ve done this for years, such that their release has become a signpost for the season of good will. Until 2015, when the plain red ‘design’ was decried as an ‘attack’ on Christmas, part of the systemic societal ‘persecution’ of Christians and Christianity in the US.

Starbucks Seasonal Red Cups Christmas Festive

I can see a cheapskate cost-reduction that’s pretty offensive, but an attack on Christianity?!

The entertaining and insightful writer Jon Ronson has written extensively about our current culture of offence and shaming. This review of his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” is terrific, and gets to the heart of things when it discusses

…a scuttling crowd of people who want nothing more in life than to be offended. Offence, for this lot, is not a straightforward emotional response, instinctive and heartfelt. It’s a choice, something they actively seek.

When did we move from offence being a spontaneous and unconscious response to a strategy for life?



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More than 50 years ago the great American broadcaster Edward R Murrow declared that television (not religion) was becoming the opium of the people. He despaired at the passivity of viewers and the poor quality of programming.

A lot of mainstream media attention today focuses on what it sees as the banality of social media chatter, about LOLZ and OMG and videos of cats, and how the internet demeans us as a species. But I Reckon it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good cat video, and this is an outstanding cat video (or at least, a video about cat videos).

But instead of caring how many followers I have, my social media experiences are now about self-expression and wanting other people to recognise that. Why on earth would anyone write a blog except for attention, approval and recognition? I love it when someone I respect retweets me. Only a few days ago the excellent film critic Nigel Floyd replied to a witty comment I’d made on one of his posts (at least I thought it was witty, and it must have at least piqued his interest!).

We all want to be liked, and social media now provides with ample means to get the ‘positive strokes’ we might need. See how funny I can be tweeting on #cheesefilms or while watching #BBCQT. See how clever I am in my blog posts and film reviews. Look! I’m following really hip/cool/clever people and I can share/plagiarise their thoughts. Look at my beautiful pictures on Instagram, cast your eyes in wonder over my lovely Pinterest boards…

(I’m not on Pinterest, but the rest of those are true)

westonbirt arboretum blossoms instagram

Look, filtered and everything!

Getting affirmation from the twitterati or from friends and colleagues is great fun, and it becomes almost addictive. I’m disappointed if I post something on this blog only to find barely anyone reads it (IDIOTS! They don’t know what they’re missing!). Contrary to appearances these things don’t write themselves. But I come back again for more, because the dopamine effect I get when it does ‘work’ is a fantastic feeling. And

I’ve written about that ‘high’ some more on my company’s very excellent marketing blog here.

Of course, social attention-seeking can backfire on the vain…

A few weeks ago I was notified that I was being followed by @rolandjoffe, the famous film director of some outstanding Oscar-winning films, especially The Mission and The Killing Fields. This came as quite a surprise, and I kind of fell for it. I followed his account without checking much, only to receive a Direct Message hours later…

roland joffe tweet


On further inspection it seems that Mr Joffe rarely, if ever, tweets. I was followed (almost certainly) not by him, but by production staff, or studio marketing interns seeking out people who tweet about films a lot. It was nothing personal, purely a marketing strategy. I could and probably should have guessed that in advance. But then that’s the power of the dopamine…

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I’ve only recently written about trying to live more in the moment, about trying not to be overwhelmed by what I haven’t done, and it’s not getting any easier.

We recently enjoyed a great week’s holiday in Dorset, staying in a lovely farmhouse cottage in a very pretty, beautifully quiet village. I forgot to bring my iPod charger, so after the first evening I was bereft of music and podcasts, we didn’t take the laptop, and with my archaic mobile phone, I had very limited internet access. I could broadcast by text, but that was about it.

It was fabulous. We discovered, or rather re-discovered how to live, how to talk to each other. We had time to do all the things that everyday folks used to take for granted, because they simply didn’t have the options that we have today. These luxuries of synchronised devices and multiple channels, of always-on connection and near-constant alerts and reminders are not luxuries at all: they can be like the proverbial albatross around our necks, ever-present and inescapable.

Instead of staring at a screen waiting for something to happen, clicking ‘refresh’ and ‘just checking Twitter’, we got on with having a good time. We’d go for a walk through the woods on the farm, wander up the footpaths into the village for a pint – in the middle of the afternoon! We’d go into the field behind the cottage to fly a kite, just for 20 minutes or so. We’d luxuriate in an icecream, or just sit and watch the sea. We’d read the paper, read a book, do the crossword, play cards. We even did a 1000-piece jigsaw that was in the cottage.

It was fabulous. The lack of distraction was brilliant.

Back in the workplace, I’ve been trying to apply myself to doing one thing at a time, to avoid falling back into the habit of opening up Facebook or just reading someone’s blog. It’s a very noble cause that has much to commend it, but it’s not easy. As I do work in social media I often ‘have an excuse’ to have those things on the go, but I really shouldn’t. It’s a proper #firstworldproblem, but I do need to learn how to concentrate again. At university I was quite proud of how I could really dive into an essay, head in the books, reading, learning, digesting, compiling arguments and evidence for hours at a time, focused and productive.

What happened?

Hierarchy of Digital Distractions

Each layer up the pyramid trumps anything below it...

More and more I like holidays that are a proper mix of being active, for doing things with our children, and being inactive. That week in Dorset we went out mackerel fishing (we only caught one, but I did then gut it and cook it for tea!), fossil hunting at Lyme Regis and we walked up The Golden Cap.

Golden Cap, Stonebarrow Hill, Jurassic Coast

The Golden Cap, from Stonebarrow Hill

But we also spent time just ‘being’ with each other, not doing very much. You should try it sometime.

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It was reported last month that mountain rescue teams in The Lake District have been receiving increasing numbers of call-outs for walkers who are ill-equipped to be out on the mountains, through lack of appropriate gear, map-reading ability, or plain common sense. Dubbed ‘the shorts and flip-flops brigade’ there have been instances of people attempting to navigate in poor weather or fading light using nothing more than Google Maps and their iPhone.

When I was a child I was a Cub Scout. My mum was an assistant leader (The leaders’ names were all based on characters from The Jungle Book: she declined to be Baloo the sleepy brown bear, instead choosing Bagheera, the sleek and smart Indian leopard!). Apart from the usual knot-tying (left over right and pull it through), games and generally being prepared, we made reasonably frequent forays out into the countryside, learning to read maps and indeed read the terrain around us, relating that back to the contours and features on the map.

I’ve been kind of fascinated by topography ever since, and love poring over maps, plotting routes and the like. While I recognise the benefits of being connected to a GPS tracker that can tell others your location, the idea of setting off for a hike or even a drive without any more understanding of where I’m going than what Google Maps or a SatNav device tells me is the next direction to take leaves me completely cold.

It’s about the journey, not just the destination. Relying on battery-powered tools that simply say ‘follow the path for 700m, then turn right’, without any connection to the actual terrain and features of a landscape just seems insane to me. It makes me question why you’re there in the first place, without having either ‘the right tools for the job’ or indeed given much thought to what you’re about to do. It’s like turning up to the gym wearing a suit, having just eaten a massive Sunday Lunch and drunk a couple of pints.

Navigating primarily by machine  – either walking or driving – means you’re not fully present in the journey. You might as well stay in the living room and plug yourself into a game on the Wii or XBox – perhaps “High Fells Walker“. Part of the pleasure I get from ‘real’ navigation is using all my senses to assess the situation and make decisions, using my intuition alongside the information provided by the map or the compass. I can make detours, extend or cut the route short, change my mind in full awareness of the alternatives. I feel more connected with my surroundings and the environment.

It won’t surprise you that I’m not a big fan of car satnavs either (although I recognise their huge value in unfamiliar urban situations or to avoid traffic jams). In 2008 we took an extended Grand Tour around France for a month, and drove over 2,400 miles. We travelled from Calais down through Burgundy, across the Massif Central, into the Pyrenées and back up via the Périgeux and Loire Valley. The whole trip was planned at home using Google maps, which was invaluable to judge overall daily driving distances, alternative routes and places to stay, possible detours to specific sites.  Streetview is amazingly useful, as it helps give you real visual clues and prompts, so places you’ve never been seem almost familiar. I even made town centre maps to help navigate in cities.

er, could you call this a bit 'on the spectrum'?

But we drove with a big ol’atlas in the car. We watched out for landmarks and interesting buildings. My daughters learnt to recognise vines as we drove past (they didn’t quite get the differences between, say, Chardonnay and Syrah. That’ll come…).

My atlas is my friend...

I’ve written before about air conditioning and the like ‘isolating’ us from the reality of our environment. Navigating by satnav or iPhone is another aspect of this. It can cause untold dangers if you’re not properly prepared (you can take me out of the cub scouts, but my training is always with me!). Perhaps just as importantly, it diminishes the experience, and seems to me to disrespect the beauty, grandeur, history and complexities (both man-made and natural) of our surroundings.

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Digital technology has fuelled churnalism, in that it has increased the speed of information flowing around the world, enabling newspapers and news organisations to cut back on actual journalists. It’s harder and harder to develop a genuine exclusive story, so they simply get regurgitated. It’s easier for companies, brands, interest groups to circulate their stories and agendas, so more of them do it, and more of their stories are picked up by the news agencies, reported and repeated.

This has democratised the news, in that anyone can access information in ways and at speeds that were inconceivable a generation ago. Like it or not, Twitter is at the vanguard of this, as it has accelerated real-time reporting around the world. On a domestic level, this has enabled and enriched my TV viewing, from the shared experiences of watching the UK election debates, reality shows like #strictlycomedancing, and even dramas. It is the mechanic for up-to-the-minute weather reports, through the brilliantly simple #uksnow…

Snowing around Glasgow...

…and it has enlightened the world with horrifying despatches from #egypt, #iran, and #japan.

But it has also fuelled the darker side of churnalism, by which I mean often desperately low standards of reporting, where stories get printed first and fact-checked only when they are exposed. A couple of examples from recent months…

Last year the Daily Mail failed to notice that the twitter account @realstevejobs wasn’t in fact the real Steve Jobs, and so it reported a tweet from this account as fact, that Apple might have to recall the new iPhone4.

Kat Arney spotted The Independent reporting The Big Chill Festival’s surprisingly original name, a ‘fact’ it acquired from Wikipedia.

The demand for stories about and obsession with ‘celebrities’ can mean that anything they say gets reported… even if the celebrity in question didn’t actually say it…

But all that’s pretty trivial really, in the big scheme of things. Twitter and Social Media have given freedom of expression a new dimension, in that apparently anyone can say apparently anything, and be heard across the globe. And sometimes ‘They’ are listening, and They don’t always share the same opinions.

Early in 2010, during a prolonged period of wintry weather that caused disruption across the UK, a man named Paul Chambers was trying to visit someone in Northern Ireland. He needed to catch a flight from the Robin Hood airport in Northern England. On finding he would be unable to catch the flight, he was understandably annoyed, and tweeted his frustration.

Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!

David Allen Green, through his Jack of Kent blog, has documented what happened next with brilliant clarity. Despite every ounce of common sense across the country and indeed the world suggesting this was a massive over-reaction and waste of public money when some other reprimand and punishment might be more appropriate, Paul Chambers was arrested, lost his job, and found guilty of sending a menacing message.

In a childish, petulant and marvellously futile show of solidarity, the twitterati came together to protest at the way the Crown Prosecution Service had applied the law. The CPS argued that the publishing of such a remark was menacing in its own right, regardless of whether there was any actual or intended menace. Reprinting the remark (as I have done above) was an offence. So I, and thousands of others, reprinted the menacing message, signing off with #IAmSpartacus, a tribute to the famous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s masterful film.

Image taken from mashable.com

Surely they couldn’t arrest us all? But why not? As is his wont, Charlie Brooker took this a step or two further…

A few days later, I noted a tweet commenting that in the aftermath of this sort of thing, Twitter had changed. It used to be like a conversation in the pub, full of bad humour, trivial nonsense, occasional bad taste and even mildly offensive jokes. Now it was still the same conversation, but in a pub in Soviet East Germany. You never knew who might be listening, and what they might think, and what they might do.

In my final part of this series of posts, I’ll review the tremendous Das Leben der Anderen, one of my favourite films of the last 10 years.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that Twitter has turned the UK into a paranoid police state, but I genuinely feel that the media and some elements of the state struggle to control it, simply because it cannot be controlled, at least not in a democracy, with Freedom of Speech, and all that.

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Nick Davies has been writing about the phenomenon of Flat Earth News for years now, documenting the way technology has been used by media owners to recycle and churn stories for a 24-hour rolling news cycle, with ever-decreasing standards of journalism and almost a brazen lack of care for the consequences.

Media power has been concentrating in the hands of fewer and fewer conglomerates in the last couple of decades, for example…

  • Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation & Sky Television networks across the globe
  • Axel Springer and Bertelsmann are based in Germany but extend across all of Europe in newspapers, publishing
  • Silvio Berlusconi’s TV (Mediaset) Publishing (Mondadori) and Advertising (Publitalia) interests control 3 out of 7 national TV stations, and through his role as head of state, he can influence the 3 state-owned RAI channels
  • Richard Desmond in the UK owns two national daily newspapers and Channel 5
  • Time Warner, Sony BMG, Walt Disney… the list goes on

There’s no a priori reason why this concentration should necessarily degrade standards. Concentration occurs in many if not most capitalist markets, but I Reckon that in the media environment it has resulted in stripping our costs (fewer journalists) and ever-faster turnaround times (more stories of whatever quality presented more quickly, but having less longevity).

Most significantly, this has led to a culture where almost everything that anyone says is reported, regardless of their significance. (Even) the generally world-class BBC isn’t immune to this. BBC Radio 5 Live has been reiterating its approach for at least a year, that they will present…

…Your views on the stories that matter to you.

Sorry to disappoint the BBC, but that’s not what I expect or want from a news broadcaster. I’m looking for facts, and some clever, interesting, important and relevant people to interpret those facts for me. This is something the BBC has historically been pretty darn good at. I don’t want to hear what John from London or Diane from Leeds thinks about bankers’ bonuses or house husbands. I have a reasonably good idea in my own mind What I Reckon about most things. And if I don’t, I’d prefer a learned expert to inform me, rather than Susan from Wrexham.

Increasingly, 24-hour rolling news in 2011 is characterised by churnalism, by which organisations with an agenda can reach an increasingly large audience increasingly quickly. Greater concentration of media outlets means fewer contact points for news aggregation services like AP or Reuters. Broadband technology & social media mean that ideas spread more quickly than ever before around the globe. Stories get reported, re-reported and spread virally before anyone actually stops to ask if they are true or accurate, let alone interesting.

Richard Peppiatt, a reporter from The Daily Star in the UK, resigned this week, in a very public outburst. He openly acknowledged fabricating stories to fill pages.

Daily Star favourite Kelly Brook recently said in an interview: “I do Google myself. Not that often, though, and the stories are always rubbish. “There was a story that I’d seen a hypnotherapist to help me cut down on the time I take to get ready to go out. Where do they get it from?”

Maybe I should answer that one. I made it up. Not that it was my choice; I was told to. At 6pm and staring at a blank page I simply plucked it from my arse. Not that it was all bad. I pocketed a £150 bonus. You may have read some of my other earth-shattering exclusives.

‘Michael Jackson to attend Jade Goody’s funeral’. (He didn’t.) ‘Robbie pops ‘pill at heroes concert’. (He didn’t either.) ‘Matt Lucas on suicide watch’. (He wasn’t.) ‘Jordan turns to Buddha.’ (She might have, but I doubt it.)

But churnalism means that stories are reported and regurgitated blindly without any semblance of fact-checking. Brands. companies, pressure groups, Government Departments, Media Owners with an agenda can secure massive coverage incredibly quickly. This contributes to and facilitates an environment in which The Politics of Fear can operate and thrive. Two examples…

Richard Peppiatt complained about an anti-Muslim agenda at The Daily Star. Its rival The Daily Mail also seems to pursue almost anything it deems to be ‘different’. Different = Threat.  In November 2010 The Daily Mail ran an article that was ostensibly complaining about incomplete food labelling of halal meat products, but in lurid terms decried the ‘cruel’ slaughter methods of this Islamic practice, and that this meat was now being served in ‘schools, hospitals… and famous sporting venues such as Ascot and Wembley are serving up halal meat to unwitting customers’.

In no respect does the article comment on any other form of animal cruelty, such as battery chickens or industrialised milk production, but instead plays on the fears of its readers that halal = alien culture = threat, but under the guise of cruelty to animals. The Daily Mail defends Christians the right to deny homosexuals a room in their B&B, but portrays halal slaughter as barbaric. It’s a one-sided, biased article that warps a tiny issue about food labelling into a major threat to ‘our way of life’.

Around the same time, in November 2010, rolling TV news in California reported a ‘mysterious missile’ off the coast near Los Angeles. The local TV station first noticed it, and reported it with measured tones

Military Mum on nature of ‘Big Missile’ … a possible show of US military might… officials are staying tight-lipped …

And they trot out a former defence secretary to ask him what it might be, based on one grainy bit of unidentified footage. And then the TV news gets holds of it. And then the internet got hold of it. And the TV network commentators complained about the lack of comment or clarification from Government sources. In fact, the lack of comment was because nothing had actually happened. There was no missile or show of strength. Eventually it turned out that the contrail was consistent with what might be seen behind a large aircraft if you happened to spot it at sunset from the unusual aerial angle of a TV helicopter. In other words, it was probably an optical illusion.

But by the time that came out, the news channels have filled a couple of hours, and then moved on to whatever’s next (sports, probably). No one is apparently accountable for the rubbish they’d been previously touting as ‘breaking news’. No one apologises for any concern they may have caused to viewers. No one stops to think if maybe, just maybe it might be better not to conduct journalistic fact-checking on live television.

There are a number of media blogs like Tabloid Watch, and indeed the new churnalism site which do keep tabs on this, but they aren’t much more than bows and arrows against the lightning.

As this brilliant visualisation illustrates, the media have had a decade or more’s experience at making mountains out of molehills, from the looming apocalypse of The Millenium Bug, where aircraft could fall from the skies, to the plagues of SARS and Bird Flu which could wipe out tens of millions.

the end of the world is nigh (apparently)

These stories come and go, but serve to reiterate a sense of threat and unease in our society. This can cause problems for Governments, who are forced to defend their planning for unlikely future disasters (if pens got hot…?). However, Governments also exploit this in turn either to promote their own agenda (the all-pervading yet rarely realised threat of terrorists lurking next door) or indeed to hide behind – notably the infamous email at around 2.55pm GMT (09.55 EDT) on September 11th, 2001 from Jo Moore, then advisor to a British Government Minister.

Now more than ever, we cannot believe everything we read: not necessarily because more people are lying, but because more people are saying things that are being reported more quickly, with less scrutiny and less accountability than ever before.

Coming next – the role of social media: how technology and twitter have made this even more complicated, and how law-makers are struggling to cope.

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When I started this blog in the Spring of 2009, I had it in mind to write about a weighty subject that had bothered me for some time – our ability to trust those in authority.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no flag-waving anarchist – in fact, probably quite the reverse. I come from a comfortable background: my childhood was happy and stable, my parents have lived in the same house since 1974, I went to a small boarding school on a scholarship from 11-18. All very conformist and middle-class.

However, in 1982 I first became really aware of the need to question what we are told, when Diane Gould (the wife of my primary school head-teacher) challenged Margaret Thatcher, then almost unassailable as  the ‘Iron Lady’ Prime Minister of the UK, who had taken on the Trade Unions at home and was now taking on the Argentinian Military Junta following their invasion of The Falkland Islands. This was my first exposure to real scrutiny of our political leaders, and it has stayed with me.

I studied Economics and Politics at university because I had wanted to learn about how the world worked. In fact, I learned more about why it didn’t work according to the fine theories propounded by generations of noble scholars. After 9/11 I was alarmed at the speed and the ways in which civil liberties were eroded in the name of patriotism and national security, and dissent of almost any kind became unacceptable. Just 9 days after those appalling crimes against civilians in Washington and New York, President Bush declared

Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists

All of which is a long preamble to my next few posts, where I hope to cover (at least in brief…)

  1. The Politics of Fear
  2. The role of the media
  3. Social Media
  4. A review of one of my favourite films of all-time, Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)

A few years ago I first saw Adam Curtis’ provocative documentary series  The Power of Nightmares‘, which reawakened a number of questions for me. Curtis’ broader thesis is that Governments, armies (indeed political institutions of many different kinds) need an enemy, need threats (real, potential or perceived) to their people, need uncertainty to build their own position. This has led to negative public debate and reactionary, short-term policy-making. Antagonistic political debates reinforce prejudices rather than explore the depth or complexity of an issue.

The Power of Nightmares is available to watch online, although there are many deleted versions on Youtube. This one still seems to work… I don’t believe it has ever been shown on American network television, which to my mind says quite a bit about the state of fear among TV executives there.

One of the most remarkable sections from Part 1 for me starts at around 25 minutes. During the 1970s Donald Rumsfeld was US Defence Secretary, and gave a series of speeches about The Soviet Union’s imminent new weapons systems. Apparently the fact that he couldn’t provide any evidence for their existence was merely proof that their systems were too advanced for American technology to detect. Scroll forward to 2002, replace the words ‘Soviet Union’ and ‘weapons systems’ with ‘Iraq’ and ‘WMDs’, and it’s the same press conference. He depicted an enemy so cunning we couldn’t even see how cunning they were. This threat was real and immediate. It demanded action.

In October 2010, just days before the UK Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, the media was alive with stories from every department about what services would be cut and how many jobs would be scrapped. Suddenly (at least it seemed sudden to me) defence spokesmen came out of the woodwork citing the threats from cyberterrorism as a reason not to cut back on defence spending (although The Daily Mail used the same story to criticise defence cuts to ‘real’ soldiers  and equipment). Experts were wheeled out into the media talking about hypothetical threats, the terrible impact of what MIGHT happen IF something bad kicked off. This was a threat we couldn’t even begin to contemplate, because its only constraints were our imagination.

Days later, two real bombs were actually found on board real cargo planes from Yemen to the US. A real terrorist plot had been averted. Quietly, without fuss or concern, the cyberterrorism threat seemed to disappear from newspapers and TV news virtually overnight. Now there were real bombs to worry about. This was a real threat posing an immediate danger.

These threats seem to be either personified, literally brought to life by an individual (Fidel Castro, Muammar al-Gadaffi, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il, Osama Bin-Laden), who is real and tangible, or by a more amorphous, intangible conceptual threat (Communism, The Taliban, Radical Political Islam, al-Qaeda). These are less immediate but more profound, as they often represent a threat to our way of life, to everything we hold dear. The crucial thing for Governments is that the threats are seen to exist, to provide a focus, an enemy. If for some reason the threats recede, it seems important that the danger is reignited.

The media has taken up on these conceptual threats and started producing dramas, of which perhaps the biggest was the awful Die Hard 4, whose original title  mirrored Bush’s challenge to Live Free or Die Hard. On television there were 8 series / 192 hours of 24, in which Jack Bauer and the fictional Counter Terrorism Unit battle to overcome conspiracies and terrorist threats of all kinds, using whatever means necessary. In the UK the only-slightly-less-fantastic Spooks portrayed the work of MI5 against any number of foes has run for 80 episodes over 8 years. The fact that these series have seemingly limitless plotlines is testament to the ease with which threats can be made credible and the willingness with which we viewers are prepared to accept them – even for TV entertainment.

Jack Bauer Torture

What did Dr Romano do?!?!

More recently, TV has turned itself to the ‘what if?’ fictional drama, featuring natural disasters, viruses (real and virtual), and other doom-laden scenarios about the breakdown of civil society and life as we know it.  Charlie Brooker is one of my favourite commentators of recent years, and made this terrific spoof for his series How TV Ruined Your Life.

Next, how 24-hour news channels, ‘Flat-Earth‘ reporting and media ‘churnalism’ contributes to a climate of fear and uncertainty, especially when stories go uncorrected and unscrutinised…

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