Black Mirror: The Media and The Mob

Dec 07, 2011

image0(This post contains spoilers. But spoilers are good for you.)

The first installement of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror is, if nothing else, clever. The name of the anthology itself is clever, being both the literal 'dark mirror' that looks back on us from any screen that's turned off and the idea that technology has created a metaphorical dark mirror of society where people are freed to indulge their darker selves.  Brooker clearly knows his stuff and the film plays off media touch-stones like Gillian Duffy and super-injunctions to the storming of Bin Laden's compound and the Norway massacre. As a native to both old and new media he can skewer both sharply, with eerily believable hashtags and barbs aimed at more traditional outlets("The Guardian are running a fucking live blog, and a short think piece on the historical symbolism of the pig") but these understated enough to stay out of the foreground and form the absurd and realistic backdrop to the drama.

I quite liked 'The National Anthem' and thought it did a lot of things well but was a slightly different film to what it was billed as. A common theme in pre-air write-ups was that the film would be an indictment of the mob tendencies of Twitter (partly because that's what Brooker himself kept claiming it was) which is odd really because that was the weakest aspect of the film. Chris Applegate points out the idea for 'The National Anthem' first came up in Brooker's Guardian Screen Burn column ( p191) in 2002:

Before the tragic death of England’s Rose (and that’s Princess Diana I’m talking about, not Roy Kinnear), I’d had an idea for a short story, which went something like this: two demented pranksters kidnap the Princess of Hearts, then contact Scotland Yard anannounce their ‘ransom’. She will be released unharmed, provided Terry Wogan goes on live television and has full sexual intercourse with a sow. The act must be broadcast in blistering close-up on all five terrestrial channels, uninterrupted and entirely unexpurgated. Cue plenty of soul-searching for Wogan as the deadline draws ever nearer. Finally, after much pressure from the tabloids, he gives in.

The horrendous act is broadcast live, the Princess is released, and the nation’s television is never quite the same again: the bar for what’s acceptable onscreen has been raised to unthinkable levels; Wogan’s career has been revitalised – the ratings were so good, he repeats his performance on a weekly basis. At teatime. And everyone’s happy. See, I’ve often thought that if something like that were to actually happen, no one could ever complain about programmes like Tipping the Velvet (BBC2) again.

This is useful for examining 'The National Anthem' as the aims of the film become more apparent by looking at how the story has evolved over time. The most telling change is that he moved the debasement of television from being the conclusion of the story to being the premise - but rather than pig-related antics being the cause instead it was the rise of social media and the ease of access to foreign news forcing domestic news to lower their standards to compete.

In 'The National Anthem', the fictional news network UKN argues that if they don't start covering the story they'll be proving that their model of news is irrelevant in a world where people can get their news uncensored and unrestricted from the internet, but it's actually in covering the story that they demonstrate their irrelevance. Because there were no more facts to be had all they could do is reproduce Twitter in widescreen, producing exactly the same empty speculation and vox-pops that people can do from their own homes. In a very nice touch, the story they're running before they violate the D-Notice is about a controversial artist whose exhibit at the Tate had to be closed early. In the rush to put pointless talking heads on the screen (including an actress from Downton Abbey and two people arguing if the pig aspect made it more or less likely to be Islamic terrorism), they take the report that tells the Who and Where off-air.

UKN going for broke and airing the second video is scarily believable once the idea that anything 'out there' is fair game is taken seriously (real world example, I have trouble believing that if the picture of Gaddafi's body was taken by a BBC photographer rather than being 'out there' it would have been used on the BBC website). The newsroom's belief that it was 'out there' and so their coverage couldn't have any more negative effect shows they underestimate their own significance. While they were observing the D-Notice characters wondered if it was all hoax, showing that their silence retained power - without the media to provide a common space it's doubtful the idea that a majority supported giving in to the demand would have gained much purchase. But UKN in an attempt to prove their relevance and power instead ended up giving it to the mob.

That Wogan is replaced by the Prime Minister and the tabloids by Twitter gives us the second thread of the story, promising to combine focus-group led politicians with the electronic mob in a terrifying combination. As Brooker said in the Radio Times in promotion of Black Mirror:

.. raw:: html
The tabloids used to be adept at whipping the public into an infuriated frenzy: now we do it to ourselves. The results can be startling. An outbreak of Twitter rage helped finish off the News of the World as users bombarded advertisers to demand they take a stand. Many would view that as positive (and fitting, given the paper’s history of playing to the mob). .. raw:: html
.. raw:: html
But consider the case of Rebecca Black, the 13-year-old who recorded an admittedly terrible pop song called Friday and found herself fending off thousands of abusive messages, chiefly from other youngsters trying to out-do each others’ viciousness by hurling missives such as “I hope you die of anorexia” at her personal account. .. raw:: html
.. raw:: html
The media has already started using Twitter as a kind of unofficial focus group; entertainment producers can monitor the reaction to their shows and tweak them accordingly. News organisations use it to publicise stories and gauge public interest. It’s only a matter of time before politicians start pandering to the online hivemind too – and failing. This is what the first episode of my new series, Black Mirror, is about. .. raw:: html

But I found this aspect to be the less cohesive part of the story. While Twitter played a big role in the news focused part of the story, it diminished in the second half and the actual mob was left to be demonstrated by pie charts on the tv rather than twitter flash-mobs, mass e-mailings of Downing Street or the like. The factors that changed peoples mind were again presented to the audience entirely through the conventions of TV news. A longer stretch of narrative time might have solved this, the original story sounds like it may have taken place over days and that might have given space for the mob aspect to evolve in ways that didn't rely on media shorthand. In fairness there's only so much you can do in the running time(and empty streets are much cheaper than mob scenes) but the ultimate weakness of the mob angle is shown in the scene where Callow is convinced to go through with it:

[scrippet]

ALEX CAIRN
To the Public..
MICHAEL CALLOW
Fuck the public!
ALEX CAIRN
-to the Public this would be one man with, to be blunt, questionable popularity putting personal embarrassment over the life of a young girl.
MICHAEL CALLOW
He won't even release her anyway, she's probably already dead!
ALEX CAIRN
And if she isn't he'll kill her and upload the video, everyone will see, the world will see, the mood will border on insurrection and you will be destroyed I guarantee you, utterly destroyed.
TOM
The polling bears that out.
ALEX CAIRN
You'll not only be a disgraced politician, you'll be a despised individual, the public, the palace, and the party insist on compliance.
MICHAEL CALLOW
Fuck the party!
ALEX CAIRN
Refuse, and I've been advised we cannot guarantee your physical safety. Or that of your family.

[/scrippet]

What ultimately convinces Callow isn't the polling, but the threat to his family. While the threat of mob violence is used as a pretext, what that actually comes off as is a threat from the establishment. The old media controls have failed, technology failed to provide a solution and so the old power, not the new, asserts itself in the oldest way with the threat of violence. In this sense it's a film about the broken glass, not the monsters that lurk on the other side. This is perfectly fine subject matter and it still has a point to make, but it's not quite the film Brooker seems to be suggesting it is in the Radio Times piece above.

Brooker's work tends not to be able to stay serious for too long without trying to puncture that seriousness and given 'The National Anthem' certainly takes itself and its premise seriously, I quite liked the hidden attempt to burst its own bubble in the epilogue. I read the idea that the affair was considered by some to be 'the first great work of art of the 21st century' as a comment on the film itself ('Carlton Bloom' shares Brooker's initials and 'Charlton' is the name he uses by on Twitter), self-deprecatingly criticising the idea that the film itself had any artistic merit and asking "Sure some people may say I've made a brilliant film showcasing the dark path our media has taken, but are you sure I didn't just make a film where a man had sex with a pig?"

You pay the licence fee, you decide.

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