‘Margaret Thatcher and the counterculture have so much in common’
The Brute, 2012
My chat with BBC documentary-maker Adam Curtis, on everything from emotional journalism to ‘the ecosystem’ to the rubbishness of New Atheism.
In an era of journalism when broadsheet newspapers employ young women to write tear-drenched pieces about their battle with anorexia, when the entire aim of war reporting is to find a teddy bear in the rubble of a bombed-out house, stand next to it, let your lower lip wobble and then say anything you like so long as it includes the words “senseless” and “me”, and when revealing that people in Bolton are a little bit fatter than people in Berkshire is considered cutting-edge social commentary on a par with Martha Gellhorn, the BBC’s Adam Curtis stands out.
He’s not interested in public emoting. He doesn’t do confession. He won’t ever appear on Dancing On Ice in Donal McIntyre’ sequinned cast-offs. He’s made irritable by the prejudices that pass through the media like faeces through a sewer (obesity timebomb one week, drunken women in high-heel-caused horrors the next) and by hacks who wear their hearts and their livers and their ribcages on their sleeves. In fact he doesn’t want to talk about himself at all, which immediately marks him out from the rest, whether it’s Jon “I Once Considered Shooting Idi Amin” Snow or Fergal “What Rwanda Taught Me About Myself” Keane. “This isn’t a profile, is it?”, he asks. “It’s not going to be about me, right? It’s going to be about ideas.” I assure him that it is, and, as a man of my word, I refuse to tell you, dear reader, where I met him, what beverages we consumed, whether and how animatedly he moved his hands during our conversation, or any other colourful factlet that would normally adorn the opening to an article about the journos-cum-celebrities who populate medialand.
I will, however, report that he was wearing on his lapel a very large pink brooch in the shape of a pig. Why? I have no idea. But then, it’s none of my business, or yours.
It’s hard to know where to start a conversation with Curtis. His award-winning documentary films for the BBC are as far removed from what passes for documentary everywhere else in the TV schedules as it’s possible to get, whether that’s Channel Five’s notorious “The Boy With A Boil The Size Of Japan”-style freakshows or Channel 4’s ceaseless documentaries about the scoffing habits of very, very fat people. Curtis’s films have addressed some of the major themes of our time, from the rise of individualism and consumerism (The Century of the Self, 2002) to the politics of fear and the nonsense notion that a handful of blokes in Tora Bora threaten to topple civilisation as we know it (The Power of Nightmares, 2004) to the parlous state of liberty (The Trap: Whatever Happened to our Dream of Freedom?, 2007). More recently he has made some super-short docs for Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe on BBC 4 (Brooker fancies himself as a new Adam Curtis, which is actually the funniest joke he’s ever told), which have covered news journalism, the rise of “Oh Dear”-ism and moral panics. His last documentary series, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, broadcast in 2011, was about computers and the modern world.
So where to start? There’s really only place. Adam, why is so much of modern TV journalism rubbish? “One important thing has risen up”, he says. “And that is emotionalism. We live in an age in which emotions have been given primacy. They just have. Primacy over reason, primacy over political engagement. We relate to the world around us in a fundamentally emotional way. So what do journalists do? They behave like their audience. They emote.”
The end result is TV news and TV reporting which aims less to inform us – though of course it still does that, though mainly by default – than to make us FEEL SOMETHING, whether sad, scared, worried, weepy, happy or huffy. My favourite exponent of emotionews – and of course when I say “favourite” I mean “least favourite” – is the BBC’s foreign correspondent and all-purpose angel of doom Orla Guerin, who in her thirst to make us feel what she feels, rather than to let us know what she has come to know, has dispensed with verbs. Watch any of her reports from Gaza or flooded Pakistan or wartorn Congo and what is instantly striking is her brazen usurping of that old George Orwell rule about political journalism: “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” There is no active voice in Guerin’s reports. There are no actors full stop. It’s all just: “A bombed-out house. A devastated family. A bewildered community.” Her very verblessness, her passiveness, her implicit refusal to tell us who bombed the house, never mind when they did it or why, speaks volumes about modern TV news journalism: the aim is not to furnish us with such dull things as facts or context, but to give us mood-fuelled impressions of events that tug at our heartstrings.
Curtis nods. “We’ve created a journalism that feeds contemporary emotionalism brilliantly. The Orla Guerins, the poetic Fergal Keanes – they feed it with these cubist blips of description. Dark. Dangerous. The horror. It’s very much of its time, of its emotional time. But by doing this, we are amplifying and increasing people’s emotional sense that everything happens inside their heads. We are contributing to a feeling of being trapped in our heads and our emotions and a feeling of disconnection from a more political, physical world.”
Where does this come from? Why the shift from a journalism that reveals to a journalism that feels? What’s behind the replacement of the mostly objective approach of old-world TV journalism, where a fairly hardnosed woman in a flak jacket would say “This happened today and this is why it happened. Good night”, to a TV journalism populated by angsty, frequently Irish men and women who spend more time advertising their own reaction to events than explaining why those events occurred?
Curtis says it’s because there is no longer any big political or ideological framework into which one might slot or anchor world events and debates and be able to expect an audience to “get it”. “Journalism rose to power and influence, in television especially, in an age when there was a big framework”, he says. “You could disagree with that framework, and lots of liberal-left journalists did disagree with that framework, but they all agreed that a framework existed and that there were goodies and baddies. Then that framework began to collapse in the early 1990s, and you got the rise of consumerist individualism, the sort of thing I traced in The Century of the Self.”
The demise of what Curtis calls “a framework” – but which one might also refer to as the old political ideologies, meaning itself, or, to be a bit crude about it, the left-right divide that governed political and public affairs for at least 100 years before the 1990s – brought about a crisis in journalism. A crisis of context, of situation, of purpose, of objectivity. Because if journalism used to be about reporting political events to an engaged public, what would it be about in a new era of diminished politics and a disengaged public? Good TV news journalism, says Curtis, was once part of a “virtuous circle” – “we journalists would go out and find bad stuff happening in society, and then show it to the masses, and then the masses would think ‘that’s bad’ and would collectively put pressure on politicians to do something about it”. Which means that when politics as we knew it no longer exists, when collective institutions have frayed, and when the masses don’t trust politicians to do anything about anything, least of all something we ask them to do something about, journalism is inevitably elbowed into disarray. Curtis says that the profound political shifts of the past 10 to 15 years have caused TV news journalism to move from being virtuous towards being emotionalist, to go from treating the public as political beings who should be told stuff to engaging with us as fellow emoters who should be made to feel stuff.
One consequence of what we might call this un-anchoring of journalism is that issues come and go at furious speed in the modern media. Hacks desperate to make some kind of connection with the public flit from one issue or panic or crisis to another, constantly looking for the thing that might make us prick up our ears. “It’s like waves of a fever”, says Curtis. “It’s like those descriptions of having malaria in the tropics in those old colonial-era novels – you shiver a lot, some strange hallucination comes to you, and then you come down again.” Literally within the space of week we can be informed by TV journos that there is a genocide in Darfur, an obesity epidemic in Britain and a climate crisis across the entire planet which will kill millions, maybe even billions, and yet by the end of play on Friday all of these quite important sounding apocalypses can have disappeared and been replaced by others. Where did they go? Were they real in the first place? “Well, there’s always bird flu”, says Curtis. “That had relative longevity.” (Cont’d below.)
This “media malaria”, the combined emotionalism and changeability of modern TV journalism, means that someone like Curtis is seen as a curious figure. Firstly, the fact that he spends ages making one of his documentaries – researching the issues, watching hundreds of hours of archive footage in search of revealing or funny material, getting some evocative music together – is looked upon as strange, possibly even OCDish, at a time when journalists tend speedily to swarm around an issue before just as speedily moving on to something else. And secondly, the fact that he deals in Big Ideas – for example tracing the development and cultivation of the politics of fear for his 2004 doc The Power of Nightmares – has led to his being branded a conspiracy theorist. He visibly bristles when I raise this charge.
“Accusing someone of creating a conspiracy theory has become a lazy way of slagging them off simply for saying ‘Have you looked at the world this way?’”, he says. “What I argue is the very opposite of conspiracy theories. I argue that certain ideas emerge and take hold because of various historical forces – because they fit with a mood of the time. I’m analysing political and cultural phenomena, not putting forward a conspiracy theory.”
Indeed. The fact that some journos brand Curtis a conspiracy theorist really reveals their own allergy to grappling with substantial stuff, with the interplay of history and today, with something that goes beyond the immediate and instantaneous. So anyone who says “it doesn’t make sense for us to be so scared of al-Qaeda, and therefore I am going to trace the culture of fear and exaggeration to see where it comes from and why it is so influential” – as Curtis did in The Power of Nightmares – is seen as conspiratorial. The very act of questioning the way things are, the very act of asking why politics and society take the form that they do today, is seen as the work of a fevered, obsessive mind. The hostility that a few hacks feel towards Curtis’s journalistic style – which is slow, measured, quirky – is really a balking at inquisitiveness and a demand for conformism. Why can’t he just accept the world the way it is? Why does he have to find its ROOTS? For some people, the problem with Curtis is that he refuses simply to reflect the modern world back to people through a super-emotional prism – instead he jackhammers at the modern world to try to discover its foundations. His pesky presence reminds the McIntyres of the mediaworld, the Snows too, that it is still possible for TV journalism to do more than titillate and get teary-eyed, and some of them don’t like it.
Curtis says the real muppets in modern journalism are those who believe that everything still springs from Westminster, that old-style politics is still the driver and decider of political and social trends. “The ones who accuse me of conspiracy theories are the ones who desperately cling to the idea that everything flows through Westminster and that everything else is secondary to Westminster and downstream of it”, he says. In reality, he reckons Westminster itself is very often moulded and remoulded by historical and political forces from without – “a lot of the kind of stuff I’m looking into is actually upstream, not downstream, and it shapes Westminster”.
Take the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009. The vast majority of journalists saw that simply as an expression of individual MPs’ duckhouse lust and KitKat greed. But Curtis, in total documentary mode, is far more interested in the political antecedents to a parliamentary quake such as that. “The incredibly funny thing about the MPs’ expenses scandal is that it comes from the kind of anti-elitism that Mrs Thatcher promoted”, he says. “Mrs Thatcher rose up in the late 1970s because there were lots and lots of lower middle-class people who had been highly educated, as a result of reforms brought in by a previous Labour government in the 1960s, but then they left university and found there was nowhere to go. There was a ceiling that stopped them. Mrs Thatcher understood those people. She claimed to speak for them. In essence, her message was: ‘Elites? Fuck ‘em.’ Political elites came to be seen as nothing special, so let’s judge them as if they’re nothing special. If they’re just like us, let’s judge them as we judge ourselves. This is where the MPs’ expenses scandal really comes from - from a kind of historical undermining of the authority and specialness of elites.”
On a roll now, Curtis says that this is something that both the counterculture and Thatcherism, who fancy themselves as mortal enemies, share in common: a suspicion of elites and a belief that it’s down to individuals rather than old-fashioned movements to change the world. “Mrs Thatcher and the counterculture movement are as one on so many things. So many things. As a joke, I once cut together a song by the Sex Pistols called ‘I Wanna Be Me’ with early speeches by Mrs Thatcher and they were identical. Identical.”
Curtis says he’s doing his utmost to do the kind of journalism that keeps history in mind, which seeks to explain the whys and the underpinnings of modern phenomena. “We live in a really, really strange time when we think everything is static and we think MPs are still in charge. Meanwhile, outside in the darkness, the great forces of history rage on and we feel disconnected from them. And none of these journalists - none of them - can connect us to the forces of history [his emphasis]. I, in a tiny little way, try to say: look, it’s all connected to forces out there, which are way beyond lawmakers and things like that. And I get accused of being a conspiracy theorist. Well, excuse me.”
In seeking to reconnect people with the forces of history, Curtis is trying to do something virtuous, and ambitious. In a sense he’s seeking to rediscover the old essence of serious journalism, albeit in a new way. Because while people have always argued that today’s journalism is tomorrow’s greasy cod wrap - and while there has always been an element truth to that - it was also the case that good journalism was at least informed by historical consciousness, by historical thinking, by a sense that what happens today is influenced by what happened yesterday. When that is lost, when historical consciousness is replaced by emotional consciousness, journalism comes to be ram-packed with pointless piffle about everything from My Struggle With Self-Harm to How Reporting On The War In Bosnia Made Me A Real Man.
Of course, Curtis’s interests spread beyond the state of journalism. His argument that some kind of ideological “framework” has disappeared, throwing life as we knew it into a kind of chaos, also makes him curious about how politics itself is changing. He’s currently intrigued by people’s tendency to see the world as a “system”, whether as an ecosystem that we must tiptoe around or as a phantasm of iPhone-tapping, IT-connected nodes. This is new, he says. “Instead of the idea of progress, we now look at the world as a system that has to be managed.” No longer sure of our capacity to “impact on the world for the better”, we become increasingly alienated from the world - “we see it as a something unpredictable, which requires technocratic management”. He’s also intrigued by the rise of new political movements which have little time for the idea of collective pressure to make the world a better place and instead implore us all, as individuals, to do The Right Thing. “What’s really interesting about a lot of the new middle-class movements is that their fundamental idea is not that you join together and be collective. Like a trade union - BAD. Or a political party - BAD. Instead the idea is that you, as an individual, do The Right Thing. And if all of us, as individuals, do The Right Thing, then somehow we can make the system, or some part of the system, better. It’s mad.”
And he’s intrigued by the rise and rise of science as a source of moral and political authority in our post-“framework” world. “My main concern today is that science has become a moral guide and politicians look to it for authority. As the politics of fear begins to decline, science becomes a kind of guide - it says ‘you must do this’.” Indeed, on every issue from climate change to childrearing, the old hectoring interventionism of the priest or the politician seems to have been replaced by the authoritative advice of the factsheet-wielding “expert”. On the topic of science, Curtis has some harsh words to say about today’s New Atheists, the Dawkins-following lobby, whom he refers to as “rationalist-fundamentalists” and “technocratic rationalists”. “They are so unimaginative. They are complete narcissists. They are locked inside their own heads”, he says, more than a little angrily.
Curtis sees this so-called Enlightened strain of New Atheism as a very neat bedfellow of the politics of emotionalism which likewise encourages us to be super-introspective and to “live inside our heads”. “Dawkins says we’re robots basically. His ‘selfish gene’ idea is that we are just computers. I wouldn’t want to live in that world. The thing about both the old religions and the great progressive ideas in politics is that they took you OUT OF YOURSELF. Now, what the rationalist-fundamentalists say is, ‘No, there is only you, you are only biological, you are only genes, and you are alone in the universe’. And because these people are basically rather butch boys who played cricket, they see this as somehow heroic. But actually, wusses like me, who are aware of our feelings of loneliness and separateness from other people and from the world… well, I just think these rationalist-fundamentalists don’t get it.”
The wussy Curtis has hit on something profound, I reckon - which is that today’s supposedly Enlightenment-inspired pseudo-rationalism is frequently the thing that most expects us to bow down and be meek (in the face of The Science rather than God) and which tells us we are nothing special, just genes. It’s an “Enlightenment” which traps us - in our heads, in our biology - rather than frees us and opens our minds. “I don’t want to go back to religion”, says Curtis. “I want a progressive idea that builds a better world and which takes me out of myself and which allows me to do things that might carry on past my own life somehow. That’s not such a bad idea, is it?”
No. No, it isn’t. I’m with the wuss.
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