On the BBC’S Mind The Gap: London VS The Rest and a general criticism of the BBC
During a recent relatively-passionate conversation about the rest of country suffering at the expense of London (a subject justifiably broached often in the former industrial heartland of Yorkshire, and no doubt I suspect elsewhere in the UK), somebody, I can’t remember who, said, “well they’re actually doing a documentary on this on the BBC this coming week”, to which there was a shared sentiment of “well, OK, at least it’s finally being talked about in the mainstream media”. However, when I finally stumbled upon the first edition of Mind The Gap: London VS The Rest on the BBC’s Iplayer service, I found myself initially disappointed, and eventually very frustrated with the ‘documentary’.
First of all, it felt like I was being subjected to a montage of soundbites that I have heard mouthpieces for businesses, hyped-up London-based events, the global market, and all things promoting the capital, utter on news stations throughout the past 10-15 years. I was certainly not hearing anything I hadn’t heard before, yet I was hearing it all again when I’d mistakingly sat in front of a screen hoping also for the other side(s) of this story; meaning, the side of the story that I see daily, not just outside London, but also when I visit London, but that which rarely reaches consciousness in the mainstream discourse; the scattered army of those people and places abandoned underneath the ‘photogenic’ world shown in this ‘documentary’.
This infuriation was stoked by the way dramatic, ‘film-scape’ muzak was layered over the footage. With very little in terms of gaps between the music and soundbite montage, I felt that this documentary was unfortunately quickly sliding into the tragic category of ‘info-tainment’, where so many documentaries languish, completely forgotten in a few months, but not after leaving their sensationalist stains in the collective psyche. It is a sad state of affairs for so many documentaries, which maybe, at some initial idea-forming-point, had integrity behind them, only to have it squeezed out as television producers feel pressured to compete for viewer numbers with mindless entertainment shows, that even when not on at the same time, pressure them into making documentaries as close to seamless titillation as possible (which usually means making people and things into larger than life characters, with either a ‘admirable’ or ‘hateable’ end in sight). When something aiming to be factual is so heavily saturated with the demand to be endlessly entertaining, can it be classed as a documentary? Mind The Gap is by no means the worst offender here, but it still is an offender on these terms.
The tiny space left to debate the negative consequences of this “phenomenal miracle that is London” (snippets that only appeared three quarters way through) was bad enough, after a 30+ minute championing of the “entrepreneurialist spirit” within the city (at least they did elude to the issue of social exclusion with the ‘redevelopment’ of the Elephant and Castle area just south of the centre – which, I suppose is better than nothing). For me, what was more worry-some, wasn’t the unbalanced representation of the antagonism between London and the rest of the UK (including left-behind-London), but the utter lack, in fact blind ignorance to there being antagonisms against this whole ‘design for life’ full stop. Mind The Gap presented the world as if it was a mostly glitch-less capitalist utopia.
I hope that, like myself, lots of people tuned into this documentary expecting something that opened up serious debate. What we got instead was a self-acclaiming dosage of ‘capitalist realism’ (Mark Fisher, 2009), perhaps most-infuriatingly summed up with Boris Johnson’s trickle-down pseudo-theory soundbite: “that if London keeps getting all the jam, then that jam will spread itself out [naturally] to everywhere else”. The message I received from the program was that “it’s all about competition, entrepreneurialism, market dynamics [god forbid any human activities been motivated by anything else], and we’re doing pretty bloody fine out of it, thank you very much!”.
It doesn’t help that most contemporary documentaries tend to be fronted by narrators who come across more like a ‘star of the show’. Mind The Gap’s narrator, Evan Davis, may be a decent bloke, but here he came across as smug, overconfident – that ‘untouched by the trials of contemporary life’ look so many on the BBC have these days. But this is because the problem here doesn’t lay with the documentary, but the BBC itself, or more than this, the hegemonic culture in the UK that always manages to land the institution back into a neutral position, devoid of agenda/opinion – as if “it’s the BBC -you’re safe with us”.
I certainly grew up believing this, and I suppose I was fortunate enough to see some of the last of the factual-programs that helped the institution become so highly-regarded, before the onslaught of CGI, muzak, soundbites and all other ‘keep-me-stimulated’ stunts became the norm. Documentaries such as the famous David Attenborough trilogy (Life on Earth, The Living Planet, The Trials of Life, ) helped imprint a belief that the BBC was trustworthy in my mind. Yet, by the 1990’s, I was already watching repeats of these shows, and if in hindsight I dissected the channel, program for program, it would find another story to one that grew in my mind. And by then the emphasis on challenging and critical thinking was on the wane; “Thatcher launched her coup against the BBC … sacked the Director-General Alasdair Milne, replaced him with an accountant and made it clear that the age of rocking the boat was over. Everyone lost their nerve and the message was passed down from on high that you weren’t to do difficult and challenging stuff anymore. My boss called me up one morning and just said “end of show, it’s over…” (George Monbiot, Now Then Magazine, issue 35).
Also before the 1990’s, an incident that had a major impact in my local area had occurred regarding the BBC. The BBC purposely misrepresented the major conflict between the police force and striking miners at Orgreave during the 1984 Miners’ strike, by reversing the footage of the event to show the miners’ starting the violence, when it was in fact the police. The BBC later apologised for this, but the impact of a institution highly held as impartial showing such footage during the heat of the moment meant that there was irredeemable damage done to the case for justice on behalf of the miners. But, perhaps highlighting how strong the belief of BBC impartiality is in UK culture, I keep forgetting they did this; even though I have read, or been told about it time again, it repeatedly slips from mind.
Thus, although my trust in the BBC has been waning for some time now, it has been waning very slowly. I am within this culture, and the established powers within a culture have a lot of investment in letting some things fall from memory. What is repeated on a daily basis becomes as invisible and as naturalised as the air we breath. The UK seems to be especially adept at this. As George Monbiot wrote, regarding the most monstrous but largely forgotten crimes of Britain’s imperial past, whilst Holocaust deniers [for example] “…must engage in strenuous falsification. To dismiss Britain’s colonial atrocities, no such effort is required. Most people appear to be unaware that anything needs to be denied…[that] we British have a peculiar ability to blot out…” our not so rosy history” (Dark hearts, George Monbiot). This has major consequences. And what is shown to us as factual via a broadcasting institution that is instilled into memory as ‘trustworthy’ also has huge consequences. For this reason, if we feel wrongdoing with what the BBC shows, it cannot just be ignored. Its misrepresentations, or ignorance to certain truths on behalf of others (as was the case with this first episode of Mind the Gap) has potentially long-standing consequences for those on the receiving end, or those being ignored all-together. If we see injustices and want things to change, we cannot leave the mainstream to voices that help support these injustices.