`Reality TV' dumbs down democracy


Perhaps the most viscerally emotional image that live television can deliver is the prisoner emerging into freedom from a long captivity. Few moments can quite match the epic simplicity of Nelson Mandela walking through the open gates towards the cameras, a living ghost made flesh before our eyes.

Or of the Birmingham Six spilling from the courtroom out on to the street, Gerry Conlon's eyes blazing with an inferno of pentup outrage as he storms the microphones to denounce his captors. Or of Brian Keenan waking from the nightmare of his kidnapping with his humour, passion and eloquence miraculously undimmed.

These are moments when politics becomes personal, and the whole curve of history is concentrated in a few human steps. They tap into the deepest wells of the human spirit, whose sources go back as long as there have been oppressors and oppressed. At once timeless and precise, they linger in the heads of those who witness them. And because of television, they can be witnessed by many millions.

If you were reduced to watching television last Friday night, you probably became a witness to a vulgar caricature of these epic images, as the last inmates of the Big Brother house were released one by one.

The door opens. The prisoner emerges blinking into the light and moves towards the 120 cameras along a passage lined with sinister-looking guards. The tearful family rushes to embrace the long-lost loved one. The delirious crowd waves its banners and chants its slogans. The triumph of idiocy is complete.

Big Brother is powerful for the same reason that it is deeply depressing. It works with audiences because it goes well beyond mere entertainment. It colonises and exploits some of the key concepts of public life. It is to politics what pornography is to sex: a hollow parody that sucks life out of the real thing.

The caricature of freedom from imprisonment that it enacts is one way it does this. Another is its appropriation of one of the basic tools of democracy, the vote. Though Channel 4 has given no breakdown of the eight million votes cast on Friday night, it is a safe bet that more Irish people voted for Brian Dowling than voted against the Nice Treaty. What's more, they actually paid for the privilege.

Big Brother has conquered two other notions that are essential to a modern democracy: news and reality. The idea that the basic function of news is to alert the public quickly to important developments has been shunted aside by a brilliant use of the Internet and by text-messaging to disseminate instant "news" of every sulk, pout and tiff in the Big Brother house. The concept of reality has been rendered meaningless in the phrase "reality TV" in which an utterly contrived situation is presented and accepted as a slice of life.

The object of all of this is to glorify ignorance and make adults infantile. The show is misnamed, for as presenter Davina McCall suggested with her "Big Mutha" T-shirt, the controlling presence is not Orwell's sinister, authoritarian Big Brother, but a suffocating mother who adores her children so long as they are nothing more than big babies. The triumphant Brian has the personality of a bold but engaging 12-year-old. His nearest rival, Helen, moves and talks and apparently thinks like a girl half that age.

On any subject beyond themselves they could muster between them just enough brightness to outshine an exhausted glow-worm. Forced to discuss moral dilemmas, Helen asked "What's morality?", not in the spirit of a Socrates questioning all assumptions but of a toddler being told she has to have an injection.

Obliged to contemplate politics, Brian suggested: "There shouldn't be all these different political parties, just one." When it was pointed out to him that this party might, for example, outlaw homosexuality, he seemed completely at sea. The real problem, however, is not Brian or Helen or the millions who adore their unthreatening childishness. It is that all of this stupidity is deliberately concocted by very intelligent people.

The man ultimately responsible, the outgoing Channel 4 chief executive, Michael Jackson, is one of the smartest people in Britain. He should be listened to when he declines to justify the whole thing as a cynical ratings booster and proposes instead that a serious political vision lies behind it. He sees it as a lesson in the kind of dumbed-down liberalism in which bland tolerance takes the place of justice.

In the Observer last Sunday, Jackson wrote that the Big Brother house "represents a melting-pot for a broader, more understanding and inclusive society. White, black, Asian, gay and heterosexual contestants entered the house. We have watched them, we have got to know them and we liked or disliked them for who they are, not what they are.

"Tony Blair talked of creating a `classless society'. John Major wished to `create a nation at ease with itself'. Programmes like Big Brother provide an optimistic glimpse at the ease of presence between a group of people with different ethnicity, sexuality, religion, class and education".

This is a vision of a corporate utopia in which being nice is a substitute for structural change, the long walk to freedom is a journey into instant celebrity, bad news is replaced by an endless stream of trivia and democracy is a premium-rate phone poll.