On Thursday, Britain became the world’s largest reality TV programme. ‘Housemates’ were asked to do the equivalent of calculate Pi to 140 decimal places using mental arithmetic.
The night before the vote I’d watched Bruce Willis in Die Hard 7 walk away unharmed from a car that had spun 27 times in the air and crashed into a wall.
The next morning I drove to the polling booth to place my vote.
The only parking space I could find had a three foot wide puddle to hurdle from the driver’s door. With Bruce’s invulnerability in mind, I made the modest jump with my ageing frame and felt my ankle give way beneath me. Telly and films do this to us. They imbue us with the idea that we’re superheroes.
We play god with votes from the sofa most Saturday nights. Entertainment has distorted our belief in our capabilities and trivialised choices. “Lines are open now. To vote for Jayden, dial 010 00001000.” “Who stays? Who goes? You decide.” In a way democracy has become a ‘dimocracy’.
Reality TV was created in the 1950s by Allen Funt. Funt created Candid Camera, a hit American TV programme that put ordinary people into unwitting situations while all of us watched and laughed and squirmed.
On February 3, 1969, Funt, his then wife, and his two youngest children boarded Eastern Airlines Flight 7 in Newark to Miami.
The plane never made it to Miami because two men hijacked the plane and demanded passage to Cuba. Some of the passengers, having spotted Funt, took the whole thing to be a Candid Camera stunt. Funt repeatedly attempted to persuade his fellow passengers that the crisis was real, to no avail. The plane later landed in Cuba, finally convincing the passengers that this was no laughing matter.
The lines between fiction and dangerous reality were blurred for what would not be the last time.
Fast forward to today. When Hillary Clinton gave a speech to veterans in California a few weeks ago, dismantling Donald Trump (he of the wall, the immediate ban, the ‘so be it’ approach to nuclear proliferation), she used the line “this is not reality television; this is reality.” The audience rose to its feet and applauded. In that short statement, Clinton encapsulated the profound danger at the heart of contemporary politics – the rise of the cocky amateur outsider.
Whether it’s in the United States presidential campaign or in the leadership of the Brexit campaign, we see the rise of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along Maverick, carefully structuring his or her provocative pronouncements to carry their message that the old guard is defunct and that it is time to “get our country back” or “to make our country great again.”
These dangerous Mavericks, with their amber tinted Blytonian world view, have been gifted their platform by a combination of the creation and mass market appeal of reality television and the rise of social media. One creates a distorted vision of capability; the other gives their provocative messages a free ride in the hands of an enthralled audience.
In our lives and in the lives of the people we see in acres of implausible situations in screen, we see disintermediation. Reality TV makes us feel as if any of us could do the impossible. We see amateurs cook Michelin quality meals for hundreds in what seems like an hour. We see unfit people abseiling dangerous gorges. We see people surviving on islands with nothing. We see kids who can hold a tune go from sitting on their Star Wars duvets to a record deal in 12 weeks. We see people that don’t seem very bright being handed a truckload of cash at the end of a programme designed to find an entrepreneur. Suddenly, people ‘a bit like us’ are propelled into contexts that hitherto they would never have been in. On reality TV shows, in the delicacy of the edit, the angle of the lens and the beat of the music, they are at once superhuman and human. Suddenly every task in the world is achievable by you or me. They are proxies for us. Anything can be achieved! We are all superheroes!
All of these programmes are designed as confection and entertainment rather than as an exposé, and yet we are left with sense that everything is easy and simply an extrapolation of average ‘common sense’. The truth is that hours of film is reviewed and the shots that are selected are those that tell an emotionally resonant and plausible story of super-achievement. The prosaic and the incompetent are fed through a ‘beat sheet’ – the structure of a plot – to deliver what the audience yearns for: a beginning, middle and end which has us rooting for the underdog and celebrating his or her incredible success.
This is, of course, actually ‘unreality TV’ because it concocts the sense that everything is achievable – that we can step onto a stage and perform just as well, if not better, than the experienced professionals who have spent years perfecting their craft. The starting point is also a fiction. The ‘candidates’ on these programmes are chosen by researchers. They are examined and selected for how they look and for the entertainment value rather than for any real intrinsic merit. When the putative apprentices step into the boardroom to receive the benefit of Sugar’s wisdom, they’re not there as the Créme de la Créme of British entrepreneurial talent. They’re there for ratings.
The illusion is that everything is risk-free. No one has yet died on reality TV. We have though become infected with a sense of invulnerability and the idea that anything we try our hand at will turn out OK. We see echoes of this in bizarre behaviours in which people seek to contextualise themselves in the face of great danger. Remember the passenger that took a selfie of himself with the hijacker? Remember the football fans that took photos of themselves with tear gas canisters exploding behind them? Remember the man who set his camera to record before he went to the aid of a victim of a car accident? This is the context in which we are voting in the UK and the US. But it isn’t a movie with a safety net and stunt doubles. This is real life. There are no lifejackets on this vessel.
Nigel Farage is a product of the ratings chase as well. He is probably the first reality TV politician – a sort of proto-Trump. He has never been elected to Westminster. He has been an MEP, but in that context he is a refusenik whose only desire is to lance the UK from the continent and return us to the days of Love Thy Neighbour, the sound of leather on willow and Knickerbocker Glories. He has acquired no experience of the responsibility of office. His reductive utterances are beguilingly reassuring to some, but what does a man whose whole mission is separation know about the politics of interdependence, negotiation, difficult choices.
Farage is a construct of the media. His voice, which could warn ships off rocks, his cartoon-like face, his ability to play the outsider’s bat and speak as a cheery provocateur, have gifted him more airtime on talk shows, news programmes and Question Time (countless appearances in the last 12 months) than any properly elected official. He makes ‘good TV’, makes ‘good headlines’, drives traffic – and yet, he is unelected. He is the archetypal reality TV star, with no experience (through obstinate choice) of elected office. He is a refusenik with a set of flimsy ideals masking a deep ignorance.
But what happens when we see Nigel is that we assume that he is better than he is, because all of the apparatus of validation urges us to imbue him with substance. He is on the 10 O’Clock News; ergo, he is substantial. In truth, he is no more substantial than a reel of black and white Pathé film. The EU referendum is not Remain versus Brexit. It is Remain versus Remnant. It is a choice between Britain being a participant on the European and World stage or a dissolving lozenge in the North Sea.
In parallel to this skewed sense of who we are, fed by our sofa diets, we have the influence of social media. On Twitter, we get the proximity buzz from engagement with famous people. We feel closer to the heart of things. ‘William Shatner retweeted me!’, ‘Piers Morgan corrected my spelling!’, ‘Trump blocked me!’. We are Pavlov’s Dogs.
This false validation is everywhere today. Katy Hopkins, Milo Yiannopoulos and countless others have platforms solely because they have opted to be notorious, provocative and eye-catching. Notoriety, to our cost, has become a driving force in communication.
Step back a decade or more and it was rare for us to experience this proximity to leadership. There was a space between us and them and we trusted our leaders to manage things for us. Now we have no space. Six degrees of separation have gone. Now there are one or two. We see our leaders, warts and all.
Little wonder then, as we examine the warts, that we think that we (or those close to us) could do it. But the truth is we can’t. Votes and ratings are not the same thing. Politics is a difficult and sophisticated craft. There is more that is unseen than there is seen.
Donald Trump is taking this terrible phenomenon to the next level. His braggadocio, his bluster, his sexism, racism – all are driving ratings, again as an uncomfortable proxy for voting. And yet they are fundamentally and viscerally different things. Ratings are about entertainment and confection. Votes are about our lives. The voyeuristic thrill that an audience might get from Trump being an oaf will never be a sop for the consequences of him moving into the White House. Trump has said that he needs no advertising budget. His off-the-cuff nastiness is all the oxygen his publicity machine needs. His symbiotic relationship with a few reporters give them the Tweets and clicks that they need to please their proprietors looking for advertising pounds or dollars elsewhere.
We used to make decisions with the help of mediating influences. Any one of the myriad of lies and gaffes that are brought to the fore every day in politics would have downed a politician like Icarus in minutes in the past. Now we joke about them, use a bit of photoshop and move on. This stuff is REAL. It isn’t light entertainment.
Reality TV is mostly prerecorded. Directors will say, “let’s do that again”, if it doesn’t fit the predefined story arc. In the real world, there is no “let’s do that again.” If you seriously think that two of the great economic and cultural superpowers of the world should have their agenda shaped by Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, bear in mind that there is no director to say “let’s do it again.” At best there’ll be Nigel and Donald, in shades of amber, peddling their retrograde fiction, gurning at the dying lens and saying “you’ve been framed”.