Finally, a reason for a monarchy

While it may seem choosy to pick specific aspects of the so-called ‘Crowngate’ affair as being more bizarre than others, here are a few:

  • BBC1 Controller Peter Fincham has, eventually, resigned over the matter. More junior staff involved in other examples of ‘deception’ (sic) are likely to be sacked. Spot the difference.
  • The BBC’s moratorium on working with production company RDF extends, so far as I’m aware, to all RDF group companies, of which there are several. Yet Children’s BBC is still happily commissioning from within itself, despite multiple slapped-wrists for Blue Peter. Huh, fancy that.

But really, I want to write about fakery in television, because there’s something odd going on. None of these ‘scandals’, from naming Socks the cat to having someone stand in for competition winners when the phone line goes dead in the full glare of live transmission, is particularly shocking to anyone who’s made videos. Not worked in broadcast, note — made videos. When I get a bunch of 14 year-olds to make their first short film, they’ll frequently assume they can fake stuff, cheat, and generally bend the resulting video to their will.

Now, all it takes is for me to stare at them for a few moments. The light will go off in their heads and they’ll say ‘Oh, right. OK, yes. Fine. We’ll do it for real.’ But the natural human affiliation with cheating is sufficiently powerful, it’s often the first assumption.

Later in the day, when the same group is putting together their sequence, they’ll find me and say ‘If we change the order like this, the film makes more sense. But… that’s faking, isn’t it?’

…which is, of course, the crux of the matter, because all video is faked to some extent or other. Everything you do up to the point where you start editing is just collecting raw material — your film is made, crafted, shaped, in the edit suite, not in front of the camera.

It has to be this way, because real life plays out excruciatingly slowly. The responsibility and skill in making films, then, lies in telling stories more quickly, and more engagingly, than real time. Which requires that you leave bits out, which in turn requires judgement about which parts are important.

Telling stories honestly is an aspiration, but not a requirement — the temptation to cheat and edit the material in order to tell an even better story even more quickly is always there. If the story’s better, and more people watch, that’s a success, right? If teenagers hacking away in iMovie in a school lab face these sorts of dilemmas and compromises, you can imagine the discussions that happen in chic Avid suites in Soho.

Which brings us to the Queen, because the real mistake made by the RDF chain of command up to Stephen Lambert, and the BBC up to Jana Bennett Peter Fincham, was failing to spot that you don’t produce the Monarch’s storylines. To be fair, this is a bit of a shock, because off the top of my head I can’t think of any other exceptions. Yet it takes only a moment’s thought to realise that no, you really don’t. You don’t put words in her mouth, and you don’t bend what happened into something completely different in order to sell your programme.

One of the quirks I find rather admirable about American society is the respect granted to the office of the President. Not to the man in the chair, but to the rôle itself. In the UK we show no similar deference to the Prime Minister — we see only the current incumbent, and usually their weaknesses at that. We don’t have to defer to the office, because that’s what the Queen’s for. It’s a rather nice separation, because we can be loyal to the concept of national authority without it affecting our daily lives one jot.

So it’s right that heads should roll over the matter, because there were critical errors of judgement. Which heads and how they should roll I’m not qualified to say, and frankly I don’t care because it’s all the low-level cat-naming nonsense that’s more insidious.

We’re whipping ourselves up into a frenzy of ‘television is lying to us all the time’ hysteria. Yes, it is. Yes, it always has. Deal with it. That’s how video works, and if you ever thought the media, of any form, presented anything other than one impression of some ephemeral ‘truth’ then the person you should be criticising is yourself.

Books, magazines, newspapers, radio, television, films, blogs, wikis — all bend ‘truth’ to tell stories. They have to, and your failure to understand that is what’s at fault.

Has our understanding of rhetoric sunk so low?


  1. I’ve just been asked to run 3-hour “ethics” sessions for a major broadcaster’s staff producers. In the first session it was amazing how easily they could be drawn into cheating “for the good of the programme…” I’ve also seen Channel 4’s new “Producer Guidelines” which contains an hilarious paragraph (I paraphrae, but it means exactly this):
    It’s important that no-one on the production feels under any pressure to deliver “results”.

  2. Can’t comment on the film making (hey, I’m a scientist; we can’t (or shouldn’t, at least) spin the message) but your point about the monarchy vs the premiership is well-made.
    Yes, the monarch is a figure-head, and that’s exactly as it should be. Coming from a military background I understand the difference between swearing loyalty to the monarch (== the country) and to the current government.
    *Yes*, the government is the executive arm of the monarchy, but there’s a crucial and useful disconnect there.

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