Monday, 2 May 2011

The War On Television


So Osama bin Laden is dead and William married Kate. Following a long period of social and political turmoil, for a while at least both the States and the Kingdom are United again. Although I'll now have done some sort of coverage on both events, this isn't a blog about politics, but the visual media and the stories they tell us. How often they feel like one and the same.

Since the cinématographe was invented in the 1890s - whether by the Lumière Brothers or Léon Bouly, depending on who you believe - the transmitted image has expanded our perception and understanding of the world beyond our reach in ways that, even even over a century later, we are still coming to terms with. Radio and newspapers offered second-hand reports long beforehand, but being able to see something for ourselves, even by proxy, has a tangible authenticity about it.

The camera, though, does not produce a neutral image. It is always somebody else's choice of which part of the world to include in the frame and as we interpret what has been captured, the reality of that image is being broken down between two filters. The photographer's selection of what will make the best and most important shot (not the same thing), and our subsequent reading of what the photographer has chosen for us to see. In a twist to make Baudrillard do his happy dance, our vision of reality becomes more defined by the story than the story is by the (edited) reality.

You might well be asking yourself what the point of this pseudo-philosophical rambling is, or why I've brought up that guy who inspired The Matrix. (A hint of irony in the last half of that sentence). I was inspired to write this piece because, after sharing in the satisfaction that millions across the Western world will be feeling at the demise of a man responsible for the deaths of thousands and propagating wars that resulted in the deaths of thousands more on both sides, I was also struck by a sense of irony that this moment of closure for many, along with the Royal Wedding marking a point at which the Royal Family finally appear able to walk out from the shadow of Diana's death, should be happening at the same time as the television season wraps up for the summer.


It's a ridiculous sentiment, but one that says something about how we digest global events through images and storytelling. Propaganda, of course, existed during both World Wars and long before, but since the Cold War, propaganda has become the war. Though we have figureheads, of which Osama was the biggest of this latest conflict, the 'enemy' - if you'll forgive the moralising tone - in these wars is becoming increasingly difficult to define. No Nazi uniforms with swastika arm patches this time. Instead it is a battle of storytellers and sympathies, of images shaped to fit a narrative and capture an audience's interest. The religious extremists preach a holy word, that all those who don't follow their way will suffer the consequences. The news channels preach with no less bias - if you're going to give Glenn Beck credit for anything, he's a master at fitting pieces of 'reality' into a jigsaw whose picture he's already decided.

So Osama bin Laden is dead. In real-life terms, not much will have changed. Extremists are still out there,  viewing us with the same reprehension as we see them. That's to say nothing of the blurriness in between, questions of what moral boundaries should or should not be crossed, whether they already have, or if these battles are turning us into the thing we're fighting against. Already comparisons are being made online between images of Americans cheering Osama's death, and the extremist gatherings who celebrate the death of every infidel. I can say for myself that there's a big difference between  those celebrating the demise of a man who caused the deaths of innocent civilians and those who celebrate the deaths of the civilians themselves, but again, it depends whose story you're following. 

It's in the context of the story that the impact of bin Laden's death will be felt. It was the moment that the Americans shattered the extremist line that their (symbolic) leader could never be found. For every person who celebrates the sight of bin Laden's body, there will be countless others questioning its validity and wondering whether it is another story built on deceit.

What we call the truth is what we are able to read into the images we are offered, while we wait and speculate on the word of those who transmit them in the same way we analyse every frame of Doctor Who for hints of meaning behind Steven Moffat's latest grand plan. Can we say with any authority where the border lies between story and reality? Bin Laden's death brings closure to a part of the 9/11 story, but there are still enemies lying in wait, possibly galvanised into action by this latest twist. Cliffhanger, much?  Consider how much of the reporting on bin Laden's death has focused on the history leading up to this point, the story now at an end. As I said, this is a blog which primarily covers the narratives that enthrall us through the visual media. Nothing in this article, written off the cuff after running through the morning's news, is intended as political commentary. But every now and then, it's worth considering how close the two might be.

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