Friday, 30 September 2011

A lesson for ITV: Just how do you tell the difference between reality and a computer game?

The Golden Latrine still remembers the time he played Grand Theft Auto III solidly for a weekend at university. Finally stepping outside, sun-starved and bow-legged, the real world and the computer game world seemed to have merged.

It appears that the Golden Latrine is not alone though - ITV know exactly how that feels. In the most po-mo development in human history, it emerged that some footage from an ITV documentary of "terrorists" using Libyan weapons to shoot down a plane was, in fact, lifted directly from the video game ArmA II.

Now, anyone with half a brain (or anyone who watched any of Charlie Brooker's Newswipe) knows that the news is a simplified, abbreviated, selectively-edited construction, and not a perfect mirror of current affairs. The joy of documentaries is that they can put some flesh on the basic facts.

But once you know that one piece of the documentary is falsified, it's not a great leap to then ask yourself what else has made its way in there? Consider the case of the recently shamed Independent columnist Johann Hari: once his shall we say "liberal" attitude towards quotation and maliciious Wikipedia editing became public, it cast a shadow of doubt over his entire body of work. I recently re-read his beautifully-written piece on Dubai, and found myself wondering if any of it was real. Knowing what we do now, it just rang false.

ITV's official statement blamed an editing room mix-up for the inclusion of the computer game footage. As they put it:

The events featured in Exposure: Gaddafi and the IRA were genuine but it would appear that during the editing process the correct clip of the 1988 incident was not selected and other footage was mistakenly included in the film by producers. This was an unfortunate case of human error for which we apologise.
Now I don't know about you, but to me that rings some fairly shrill alarm bells. If it truly was, as ITV claimed, "human error", then they're guilty of rank amateurism (and precisely how did the ArmA II footage end up there?). And if it was inserted intentionally then...well, those of us in what a George Bush aide once called "the reality community" might as well hang up our coats and surrender. How did they think no-one would notice?

That said, perhaps the "human error" alibi isn't as ridiculous as it sounds. In his wonderful critique of the news industry, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies tells of trainees at ITV's newsrooms left to cut pictures and write underlays (the words to be spoken over the pictures) despite having no experience of either. As Davies reports of one such trainee:

She said she had cut pictures too short for their slot with the result that the screen went to black for several seconds, as well as writing underlays that were too long for their pictures so the item ended in mid-sentence.

The perfect metaphor

However the game footage made it into the IRA documentary, it nevertheless seems the perfect metaphor for our times. In 1991, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard published three essays before, during and after the first Gulf War: "The Gulf War will not take place", "The Gulf War is not really taking place" and "The Gulf War did not take place". Baudrillard's thesis was not that the conflicts had not physically taken place, but that the way both the soldiers and viewers at home experienced these conflicts had changed massively. The "war" was conducted like a computer game, a remote-controlled war, with a minimum of casualities on the American side. The daily news showed on-board recordings of the bombers hitting their targets.

Back to the IRA documentary though, and Marek Spanel, chief executive of the game's developer Bohemia Interactive Studio, professed himself bewildered but told Spong he took it as a compliment of sorts, calling it "a bizarre appreciation of the level of realism incorporated into our games." And in a perverse way, he's right.

Computer games are becoming graphically ever-more lifelike, and incorporating an increasingly cinematic level of narrative (take something like L.A. Noire), but let's not start using them as a substitute for reality in weighy documentaries just yet. Thanks ITV.

Edit: The Guardian's Ben Goldacre posted a link on Twitter to this brilliant spoof of the story discussed in this blog. Recommended viewing!

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Did Sarah Palin take drugs? And does it matter? After all, Obama took the White House despite admitting he inhaled

The Golden Latrine once snorted a sherbet fountain on the school bus in the mistaken belief that he would experience profound spiritual insight and euphoria. What actually resulted was a profound sneezing fit and a week's worth of blocked sinuses.

Seriously though, drugs are no laughing matter (well, except for nitrous oxide). While our elected representatives may, on occasion, take cash in brown-paper envelopes or conduct steamy affairs with high-class vice girls, surely none of them have stooped so low to dabble in controlled substances? Wasn't the message on Grange Hill clear enough? Just say no.

Imagine my shock then on reading that US presidential hopeful Sarah Palin has been accused of using cocaine and marijuana in a new "tell-all" biography. While the image of Palin hoofing coke off the side of a snowmobile and getting stoned with a groovy college professor is undoubtedly an enticing one, the evidence for the accusations seems pretty sketchy.

But if it was true, the model for responding to these kind of allegations has to be Conservative MP, chick-lit author and walking self-advert Louise Mensch. After speaking eloquently as a member of the Select Committee responsible for grilling Murdoch senior and junior, she was (entirely coincidentally, I might add) contacted by a journalist who said they had information that she had taken drugs in a nightclub with violinist Nigel Kennedy while working in the music industry.

Her tactic for dealing with this accusation? Outright denial? Cowering in fear? Getting straight on the blower to Max Clifford for some hasty "image management"? None of the above. She simply admitted it sounded likely, but her memory of the particular night was unclear (presumably because her head was clouded with said substances).

What a breath of fresh air! And what a change it made to the parade of New Labour politicians coming out to mumble and sheepishly admit to smoking cannabis, once or twice, when they were students. Alistair Darling even felt obliged to state that didn't like the taste (echoes of Clinton's "I did not inhale").

Before we jump on the bandwagon and condemn politicians for being elusive and mealy-mouthed, we should ask ourselves why they are so cagey about revealing details of past indiscretions. The truth is, our culture expects our elected representatives to be whiter-than-white - take instance, the outpouring of public anger at the expenses scandal (despite the fact fiddling your expenses is almost a national sport). Who among us hasn't got past experiences we aren't proud of? A person with no regrets would be a very boring person indeed.

But does the Louise Mensch drug-use story perhaps indicate that we are moving beyond such retrospective moral hand-wringing? Lurid stories of Chancellor George Osborne's alleged drug use have hit the news again this week, but let's remember that evidence of past use hasn't been an impediment to either of the last two US Presidents: George W Bush was a recovering alcoholic and Obama openly discussed using marajuana and cocaine in his memoir, Dreams from My Father . Obama even went on record to confirm that he inhaled , adding: "That was the point".

The truth is that both Brits and Americans love the idea of redemption - hence the phenonemal success of the X-Factor with its sob stories and "this is my last shot" narrative arcs. What the public demand is not that our politicians are squeaky clean, but that they are simply honest enough to come clean about their pasts.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

David Cameron is wrong - Britain isn't broken, just slightly chipped

The Golden Latrine is old enough to remember those glorious days, way back when, when life was all rosy-cheeked children playing football in the street and fry-ups and chatting to Nora from the lauderette down the labour exchange.

But how different life is now compared to that golden past - at least according to PM David Cameron, who is adamant that the nation is in the grips of a full-blown moral crisis.

In case you missed it, Tony Blair recently penned a piece on the UK riots in The Observer, in which he argued that the riots were down to a relatively small number of highly dysfunctional, asocial households which are atypical of Britain as a whole. As Blair put it:

The left says they're victims of social deprivation, the right says they need to take personal responsibility for their actions; both just miss the point. A conventional social programme won't help them; neither – on its own – will tougher penalties. The key is to understand that they aren't symptomatic of society at large.
This seems to me an eminently sensible analysis. Study after study has shown that prison doesn't work, but neither does sending in a single social worker once a week. Wholesale 'family intervention' is required. And to be fair to Cameron, he seems to agree, vowing to turn round the lives of 120,000 troubled families by 2015.

But there was a very definite disagreement about what the riots meant. Blair concluded his Observer piece:
Elevate this into a highfalutin wail about a Britain that has lost its way morally and we will depress ourselves unnecessarily, trash our own reputation abroad, and worst of all, miss the chance to deal with the problem in the only way that will work.[my emphasis]
However, David Cameron remained unconvinced. Responding to Blair in an interview on the Today programme, Cameron insisted that Blair was wrong, and that the moral malaise was far more widespread:

In the riots there was clearly a hardcore of people who were just breaking the law and had no sense of right and wrong or moral boundaries. But, tragically, we also saw people who were drawn into it, who passed the broken shop window and popped in and nicked a telly.

And that is a sign of actual moral collapse, of failing to recognise the difference between right and wrong. So I don't think you can simply say this is just a criminal underclass and no other problem at all. I think it does go broader than that.
The mistake Cameron makes, it seems to me, is in treating rioting and looting as the same thing. While the hardcore rioters may well have been the troubled families Blair (and Cameron, for that matter) believes we need to target - aided and abetted by the odd bored student - plenty of people helped themselves to a free t-shirt or widescreen television. Evidence of a far-reaching moral malaise? Or just a reminder of a basic article of human nature: if we can get something for free, we will?

Remember the cases of the cash machines malfunctioning and giving out free money? There's been numerous cases of queues of well-balanced, middle-class people queuing round the block with their children for their handout.

In many ways Cameron's Today interview was just a reprisal of this speech made in August, in which he talked about the coalition tackling "the slow-motion moral collapse that has taken place in parts of our country these past few generations". Buying into the myth of moral decline seems to be an occupational hazard for Tory PMs - Thatcher frequently pined for "Victorian values", seemingly oblivious to the fact her allegiance to free market economics was dissolving those very community values.

So whenever we feel tempted to start seeing the riots as omens of the forthcoming apocalypse, let's just remember: none of this is new. 2000 people helping themselves to some free trainers is not the end days. The fear of feral youths and teenage gangs is a phenomenon that is centuries old. Let's try and keep some perspective, yes?