Religion and Boris

A few days’ ago, in the wake of the wedding to Carrie Symmonds in Westminster Cathedral, someone asked me whether Boris was the first Catholic in number 10.

It is an interesting question and there is not a simple answer as, indeed, is the canon law that does not recognise his earlier marriages as sacramental because they did not take place in a catholic church and, so, permits a twice married and twice divorced man to marry a third time in a church while other catholics are denied.

Boris is not alone, however, in being a world leader to marry in a catholic church after a speedy divorce but the optics are not great. The Emperor Napoleon, after all, did this when he married Princess Marie-Louise and dumped Josephine. More recently, Newt Gingrich -not quite a world leader but- married his third wife Callista (Greek= most beautiful or best) who was later appointed as US ambassador to the Vatican.

Firstly, Boris’s religious background is complex. His maternal Great grandfather, Elias Avery Lowe, was Jewish and, to his credit, this has led him to give short-shrift to anti-semitism in any form. In 2007, Boris said this, “I feel Jewish when I feel the Jewish people are threatened or under attack, that’s when it sort of comes out,” Johnson said. “When I suddenly get a whiff of anti-Semitism, it’s then that you feel angry and protective.”

Secondly, however, if on the one hand, his maternal line is jewish, his paternal line, on the other hand, is muslim. His father’s grandfather, Ali Kemal, was a minister in the Ottoman empire and was murdered by a mob during the Turkish war of independence in 1922. As a result of the assassination, Osman Ali Wilfred (Stanley Johnson’s father) was educated and raised in the UK by his english grandmother Margaret and took her maiden-name. I wonder at what point, if ever, he abandoned Islam?

Boris’s mother, however, is catholic as is his wife and his godmother is Lady Rachel Billington, the daughter of Lord Longford, a formidable catholic matriarch.

He will, therefore, be able to greet Pope Francis who is attending the Glasgow UN Climate change summit as the nation’s first baptised catholic leader since the reformation.

Of course, Michael Gove claimed that Theresa May was actually the first catholic to inhabit number 10: he was wrong, of course- she was an anglo- catholic and the daughter of Hubert Brasier, a vicar. Gove might as well have pointed out – with more justification- that Tony Blair was a communicant in Westminster cathedral (a catholic, in other words in all but name) before, on quitting office, he was formally recieved into the Catholic church in 2007. Blair’s casual inter-communion caused some trouble and, despite receiving communion directly from Pope John Paul II in the pontiff’s private chapel, the then Cardinal Hume was obliged to (publicly) tell Blair to stop. Communion is a sign of belonging which is why inter-communion is seen to be such an issue in the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Indeed, the pope’s private secretray, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, said, at the time, that the Pope understood Blair was a Catholic in his heart.

The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 allowed catholics (but not priests- until the law was ammended in 2001) to sit in the commons and Rees Mogg is a good example of this as was Norman St John Stevas, both entertaining leaders of the house and the latter responsible for introducing the committee system. But Section 18 of the same act made it impossible for a Catholic or, indeed, a Jew (like Disraeli who was baptised into the Anglican church at the age of 12) to advise the monarch on appointments to the established church. In principle, this prohibition about advising the Queen on new bishops – a matter on which she is formally responsible but since the 18th Century, has seen her powers to appoint bishops transferred to the Prime minister, has not been repealed and is, therefore, still in force so Boris should take care. The current practice, a custom and not a law, allows the Crown Nominations Commission to nominate a bishop who is then nodded through by the PM and recommended to the Queen, but there is nothing, in principle, and in law to stop Mr Johnson interferring in the process of episcopal appointment should he wish to do so. It could cause a constitutional crisis!

This is the text of section 18:

It shall not be lawful for any person professing the Roman Catholic religion directly or indirectly to advise his Majesty, or any person or persons holding or exercising the office of guardians of the United Kingdom, or of regent of the United Kingdom, under whatever name, style, or title such office may be constituted, or the lord lieutenant of Ireland, touching or concerning the appointment to or disposal of any office or preferment in the Church of England, or in the Church of Scotland; and if any such person shall offend in the premises he shall, being thereof convicted by due course of law, be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, and disabled for ever from holding any office, civil or military, under the Crown.

There is a getout option which would require legislation but the principle of that getout option is already on the statute books in the form of the Lord Chancellor (Tenure of Office and Discharge of Ecclesiastical Functions) Act of 1974 which allows “another Minister of the Crown” to carry out the Lord Chancellor’s ecclesiastical functions if the Lord Chancellor’s office is held by a Roman Catholic.

What makes it a bit more complex is that, while he was at Eton, Boris was confirmed into the Anglican church. So he is also, by virtue of the Anglican sacrament, a communicant member of the Anglican church unless he has been since chrismated in Westminster cathedral in preparation for his wedding.

Had Ed (Ted) Miliband won his election in 2015 , then he might have been caught by another comparable law drawn up in 1858 which, after a ten-year struggle, allowed Jewish MPs (and specifically Lionel de Rothschild) to take their seats in the commons but, as with the catholic emancipation laws, also banned Jewish Prime ministers from advising the crown on matters linked to the appointment of bishops:

Rights of Presentation to any Ecclesiastical Benefice possessed by Persons professing the Jewish Religion to devolve upon the Archbishop of Canterbury for the Time being.

Where any right of presentation to any ecclesiastical benefice shall belong to any office in the gift or appointment of Her Majesty, and such office shall be held by a person professing the Jewish religion, the right of presentation shall devolve upon and be exercised by the Archbishop of Canterbury for the time being; and] it shall not be lawful for any person professing the Jewish religion, directly or indirectly, to advise Her Majesty, or any person or persons holding or exercising the office of guardians of the United Kingdom, or of Regent of the United Kingdom, under whatever name, style, or title such office may be constituted, or the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland], touching or concerning the appointment to or disposal of any office or preferment in the Church of England or in the Church of Scotland; and if such person shall offend in the premises, he shall, being thereof convicted by due course of law, be deemed guilty of a high misdemeanor, and disabled for ever from holding any office, civil or military, under the Crown.

Finally, while it is only Jews and Catholics who are specifically banned from advising about these appointments, the Appointments’ Secretary must, by law, be an Anglican.

Inconsistency

While libertarian principles might be laudable, they come at a price and they come in a package. One is either fully committed to libertarian views or one is not- it cannot be a pick and mix deal. Woolworths is a thing of the past!

This is why the present government is in a mess. We cannot have an imposed lockdown and then go on and offer a vaccine as a choice. It makes no sense at all and it is inconsistent. Our liberties were compromised by the lockdown and when we need universal take-up of the vaccine to ensure that it is fully efficacious, we should not be pussy-footing around and thinking of our what others will say about us.

In this respect, though in probably no other, Dominic Cummings’ instinct towards dictatorship is right, albeit utterly repulsive. These half measures we have embraced as a nation, and indeed globally, are nonsensical. We went into lockdown late (and without a proper shut-down of our borders) and suffered as a result. Our economy has been hit badly by the double-whammy of brexit and covid, but also by the indicision and arrogance of those in power. We are now bizarrely over-zealous about the “rights of individuals” to refuse the vaccine and this pandering will also be calamitous. We will all suffer as a consequence. At its worst, a new variant may emerge, incubated by those taking a stand against vaccination, and any further boosters will prove useless against it. We need to wipe this disease out once and for all and we need to set upo a solid response about pandemics in the future. Much of our stupidity over the last 18 months can be put down to a lack of preparation. That must not happen again.

My instinct, however, is with Lord Sumption and libertarianism, but once the rubicon is crossed, it seems to me that we cannot mess around worrying about our reputation (as he alleges the Prime Minister does). Boris needs to wake up and take the responsibility he has been given.

We must be mindful of others. That is the purpose both of lockdown and of vaccination. Government must recognise its duty is not to itself or its own srvival but to the others it serves.

Should the vaccine be mandatory?

In an ideal world, any vaccine should be a matter of choice (our “inalienable rights”), but this is about checking the spread of a potentially dangerous disease and one that oddly seems to become worse with each new variant. The vaccine may not be mandatory at the moment but maybe that was a bad call by the Government- if lockdown was mandatory, and if social distancing is mandatory, than the vaccine should be too- it makes no sense otherwise, and yes, I know about “informed choice” and our “inalienable rights” but we cannot pick and choose where we exercise those rights- these rights were suspended in lockdown and it seems absurd to worry now about allowing those rights to be exercised over vaccination. The rule has already been broken and pussy-footing about the vaccination is crying over spilt milk.

What about young people and children?

Lord Sumption points out as do others that the disease affects very few healthy children and that, because of that, there is no reason to close schools. This misses the point that schools are run by adults who are certainly susceptible to the disease and seem also to be able to catch it from children who act as unwitting carriers. Again, the language is at fault.

There are educational systems on offer that might work well in any future pandemic but to assume teachers trained in classroom technique can automatically adjust to teaching on line is to live in cloud cookoo-land. I have been working for the past 5 years, on a system where information can be generated on line and used as a resource in classrooms and for home-schooling. Essentially, lessons can be stored and used much as library books and text books are used. Versions of this are certainly being trialled in universities but the project, as we imagined it, was really planned for schools. As a result, we have seen many schools and children struggling with courses and with basic education while some teachers have found themselves teaching live lessons to a handful of children and being filmed for others stuck at home- once again, a half-way solution that fails absolutely for want of preparation. We have the resources and the ground-work/preparation has been done but a good deal of chaos in education, I believe, generated by the Secretary of state and his team, has left students of all ages -and their parents- without proper support.

Trials and legal issues

The various vaccines on offer are enswamped in chaos – some of it genuine and some fake news. The variety of vaccines on offer do not generate confidence. The Russian and Chinese vaccines seem to be of limited value while other vaccines seem more robust. I was disturbed by the side effects I experienced after the first vaccine, but, at this stage, it is the only route forward that I can see.

The future

I have now had 2 vaccines: I hope this means that I shall be able to interact with others, even those who have spurned the vaccine. I do not intend to take the same draconian steps as Ryan Mark Parsons, but I think that, as a society, we need more commitment to this vaccine innovation – we can think of Napoleon’s efforts to vaccinate his troops against smallpox: there was initially a choice but it led to a limited rollout and vaccination became mandatory in all public spaces by 1812, guanteeing success and the elimination of a disease that killed 90% of all the children it infected. By 1958, the smallpox vaccine was routune across the world and by 1980 the disease was eradicated.

Cost

A third or fourth lockdown will be catastrophic to our economy. In contrast, a proper vaccination rollout is cheaper and its benefits longer-lasting. The lockdown is something out of the middle ages- venice was saved by quarantine but at a cost (think of the work of the wonderful Veronika Franco!). The vaccine is a modern and much more targeted solution. We would be silly to spurn the modern for the older solution, but be in no doubt, if the vaccine is not taken up or remains voluntary and is often rejected, our only other line of defence is a speedy and efficient lockdown. Every time lockdown is invoked, it gets more aggressive because we are learning how to best implement it and quickly enforce it. It can only get worse, and our hard-won liberties will be lost, if this is the solution we eventually favour and this is, as far as I can judge, the only solution available if we reject the vaccine.

We may still achieve the elusive “herd immunity” if most people take up the vaccine. But Kant’s categorical imperative lurks by the door- if I benefit from the selfless actions of others who have the vaccine, why should I decide that it is not right for me?

The problem with mandatory vaccination programmes, of course, to the Goivernment’s credit, is that they do not actually work. (and there are still people who defy the smoking bans indoors as well as the phoning and seatbelt laws currently in force in cars). There is, for instance, some evidence of past vaccination programmes particularly in the Baltics that have found as many people evaded the jab as would have done so had it been a voluntary affair. So there is some purpose to giving out information and presenting the vaccine as voluntary- just as we could have made the lockdown voluntary. Information and encouragement is reasonable but perhaps the illusion of freedom and choice sends out the wrong message.Living in a world where we are only ever guarenteed the ILLUSION of choice is rather like living in a world ruled by Virgin media. We can do better than that.

Asylum mess

The Queen’s speech signalled a new bill that will make it much harder to gain realistic asylum in the UK while at the same time, because of inadequate international agreements, applicants could easily find that they cannot go back. They cannot go forward and cannot go back. Priti Patel has just revived the concept of Limbo that was itself jettisoned by the Catholic Church during Vatican II in 1962.

And Vatican II is an important link given that the whole Brexit enterprise might best be traced back to a coffee shop pact by the wondrous Jacob Rees-Mogg, as well as the now derailed Mark Reckless and Daniel Hannan back in 1990 in Oxford. Dear Jacob! But he, at least, is a man with imagination and humour- he might even manage some maths. None of this is in evidence when we look at the present Home Secretary.

Priti Patel joins a list of British politicians, instead, who think it is clever to promote and rely on mindless bureaucracy: it is this reliance that has seen the endless rise of the Jon Stone tag “abolish the Home office”. But if that ever happened, it would simply replace one bunch of papers with another! Simply because something is on a bit of paper, Priti Patel supposes like Theresa May, before her, that it has meaning. Ideology and prejudice comes before reason, even history and personal history as well- Her parents, for instance fled Uganda a few years’ before Idi Amin stripped Asian citizens of their rights and expelled them. Her parents, Gujarati immigrants, had seen the writing on the wall and came here where they were welcomed into Britain. We have to ask what their chances would be if they were to be faced with the same threats today, particularly if their daughter passes the legislation she intends. Sadly, as we shall discover, if this legislation goes through, people with just as good a reason to start a new life here will be denied that opportunity and we shall be denied their new vision and courage. More than that, we shall be setting an example to other countries – maybe we are doing so already if Mr Barnier’s nonsensical bid to be the next French President is given a chance.

The preamble to Patel’s draft law talks about “faster and fairer” means to process migrants, and about “better support for the vulnerable”. It also decries the deaths at sea as migrants are abused at the hands of smugglers and piled into boats ill-equipped for the voyage and the numbers -so, she promises to deal swiftly and firmly with people smugglers- all well and good. Then, it takes a sharp right turn, because it blames the migrants or refugees or asylum seekers- the nomenclature is fairly nebulous at this stage- for choosing to come to Britain by the wrong route.

This language probably calls to mind the Robert Frost poem, a much maligned piece of writing that many people believe they know and that has been bandied about by advertising execs – even to pitch Ford cars in New Zealand- as a statement of self-assertion. It is, however a deceptive piece of writing, as indeed, is this draft law by Priti Patel. “I took the one less traveled by” may be what the poet eventually says he did but if you look more closely, both roads “equally lay / In leaves”, the way was unclear and “the passing there / Had worn them really about the same.” In other words, it was not choice but chance that led the poet to take the road “less traveled by”. And that chance is tinged with some regret.

This distinction between choice and chance lies at the heart of what is wrong with Priti Patel’s legislation. A migrant fleeing a rogue state is often in no place to note where help comes and who is offering passage to a better life. We should not blame people who have already suffered for the people and route they trusted as they escaped although I concede there may still be a small number of people who have been trying to play the system.

Priti Patel, however, is turning us back into Victorian prudes who look down on the dispossesed and brand them “deserving or undeserving”. The criterion she offers for this distinction is simply the road they travelled to get here. Patel’s bill is a law drawn up in an ivory tower that ignores circumstances- that does not care whether someone was coerced into taking one route rather than another or did not have the knowledge or the paperwork to detect the difference. It also plans to penalise people with a criminal record- but one wonders which criminal record will be recognised- will someone be further punished by Britain for being wrongly accused and convicted of a potentially spurious offence in a rogue state? The language would need to be very carefully thrashed out. At the moment, I fear Rhetoric and posturing are more important in this bill than common-sense and I worry that it will descend into a box-ticking piece of bureaucracy that will simply fail to help those we should be supporting. And those who know how to handle the system- not necessarily those we should be supporting- will have the means to steer through the hurdles miss Patel has erected. This is not compassion for the victim.

What is most worrying is that we look set to turn our back on legislation we helped to define- the UN Refugee Convention of 1951 talks about giving refuge to the needy and talks specifically of helping those with a “good cause”. This is quite a different matter to asking for migrants to be penalised for the route they took and I worry that it will get overlooked in the enthusasm for trimming back migration. This, in any case, is a paper tiger as we already take far fewer refugees than France and Germany.

Instead of thinking of ways to tie up applicants in endless red tape and leave them to the mercy of the authorities for years on end, we should be thinking of the contribution and committment that generations of refugees have already made to our country not least the the NHS and public transport, both still crying out for applicants- and not all of these former refugees are on the socialist left. We have a tradition of hospitality and a tradition of welcoming and embracing the needy traveller. This is not about discouraging greedy migrants, or those who come here to batten on our services. This is about our response to the genuinely desperate who will transform our society with their enthusiasm, passion and appreciation. Instead, we are potentially setting up a 5th column of trapped and failed asylum seekers who cannot be sent back to Europe because we quit the Dublin regulation when we effected Brexit. We will be in a stalemate with hundreds or more people trapped- because they cannot go back and take another route- what they did in the past, for whatever reason will have defined their present predicament.

“Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”

These sorry people will eat up our resources- they themselves will be unable to work, but they will need to be constantly monitored and fed, they will need to draw on legal and social support which might otherwise be better servicing others. We will, in one stroke of Priti Patel’s poisoned pen, be creating a community of the dispossessed, despised and rejected whose numbers can only increase and who cannot go anywhere else. And, even if we can finally be rid of a handful of them, we will be sending back those few individuals who have learnt to hate us and to hate our unfair, selfish and egregiously dishonest system.

We can already see the fruits of this proposal in M Barnier’s comments today. We have dared to suggest the unspeakable and rip out the ethical bedrock that supports our society and literally repairs the world in Chasidic thought (תיקון עולם), the principle of hesed (חֶסֶד) or “loving kindness”, the principle that allows a person to speak and plead their case, however they came to be here. Suddenly, our unprincipled proposals make it reasonable for Euope to revise the very rule book that caused such a delay in Brexit, and to be done by the man responsible for that delay. I am flabberghasted, therefore, perhaps more by Barnier’s Chutzpah than by Priti Patel’s contempt for the history and for the traditions of hospitality that we have nursed as a civilized country for centuries.

Barnier started with the reasonable proposition that “There are links between immigration flows and terrorist networks which try to infiltrate them,” but he went on to parallel Patel and identify immigration as a “threat to French society”. His solution is not so different to Patel’s- his pause of 3-5 years simply makes the stranded and dispossessed wait on the french border. Patel at least locks them down in middle england. But it is essentially the same message and it is horrifying: whole communities in stagnation -waiting for help that may never come.

Barnier says, “We need to introduce a moratorium on immigration. We need to take time to evaluate, check and if necessary, change our immigration policies.” The language might to be one of caution while Patel’s is one of contempt but it is the same message.

The FT rightly judges Barnier’s rhetoric to be the sort of stuff that came too late- had he been saying this only a few years’ ago, Brexit may never have happened. It makes Britain’s decision to leave Europe look prescient at best.

But it is on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of civilization. We need to change the home office culture of mistrust or even distrust, of open hostility and of quotas. People are not figures in a spreadsheet. People are our potential and our hope for a better tomorrow. They must tell their own story and we must recognise that most stories do not have a neat beginning, middle and end. Most stories, bluntly, are not written for the Home office bureaucrats.

Cruel and Time-wasting

Both the positions adopted by Patel and by Barner are insensitive and possibly hypocritcal but most importantly, they are are cruel and timewasting-and I think the message of Patel’s law in the Queen’s speech is the harder of the two to swallow- for it has already set an example. Patel is the parent to Barnier’s child- her law is both timewasting and dishonest because she proposes something that can never work in practice; it is dishonest, moreover, because it ignores rules we helped to write and cruel because it ignores the circumstances of the individual and shows contempt for human dignity. Both will inevitably create a backlog of misery that future generations will have to sort out. We should not be leaving our children an asylum mess.

What the Bloody!

Today it was announced that the Circle was not being re-commissioned by Channel 4.

I was telephoned by the PR firm that manages the Circle in the UK shortly before the news was made public. I was a little surprised for a number of reasons- firstly, I had just made a request of the PR firm for the third week running to interview some of the cast from season 2 USA which seems to have drawn a blank and, secondly, because I had learnt that Channel 4 had actually recommissoned the show nearly 4 weeks ago. Maybe, that claim about recommissioning was a ruse, as I was due the following day, to have a lengthy chat with the Circle executive producers – and one of the things that turned out to be for discussion was a proposal that I might be involved in “production development” for future seasons. This was after I have been fairly outspoken about my disliking the darker tone of season 3 and the twists and tricks employed by production. I was also dismayed by the level of nastiness voiced on social media and continue to have concerns about the wider issue of the treatment and care of Reality TV participants, an issue that I feel needs to be addressed by the Secretary of state for Digital, Cultural media and Sport, Oliver Dowden. Accordingly, I asked the studio Execs to join me in approaching the Secretary of State.

The message today suggests, therefore, that Channel 4 have either changed their mind or that I was misled. There is another message tucked away too- which is that the studio are in negotiations to take the whole show over to Netflix.

Netflix already screen the international versions of the Circle that are filming at 1 Adephi warf, Salford. But I hear the big circle sign that has hitherto adorned the building, has now been removed and the flats have been put up for sale.

The Circle has been a huge hit for young audiences and has grown successively over three seasons on Channel 4, consistently outperforming slot averages,” a statement read, describing the show as “innovative”.

“In much the same way as when we originally commissioned The Circle, Channel 4 has a responsibility to continually look at how we reinvent and create space for new ideas, and so we have decided not to commission the show for a fourth season. We’d like to thank Studio Lambert, Motion and all those involved for The Circle’s huge success over the last three series.”

The events that led to the statement from Channel 4 may remain confused. It is, after all, in no one’s interest that the exact chronology or the reasoning is made public. However, it is worth examining what Channel 4 are claiming- that they must “continually look at how we reinvent and create space for new ideas”, and yet, at the same point, they have just broadcast seson 8 of “Naked attraction” and are on God-knows what season of “Gogglebox” and “three/Four in a bed”, all series made by Studio Lambert. So, to cancel the Circle after only 3 seasons because Channel 4 wants to “encourage greater innovation” makes very little sense.

As Hashu might say, “What the Bloody!”

Something else is clearly going on.

Where does Reality TV lie?

Others have already asked whether Reality TV is deceitful. The assumption is clear, that most viewers who watch this stuff know it to be staged, heavily edited, probably scripted in some form and certainly contrived. However, we have been trained by years of cinema and TV production to “willingly suspend disbelief” and what fascinates me is the range and scope of that suspension and how production companies have taken advantage of that. Indeed, whether there is danger in that.

While we know that “Star Wars”, for example, is fiction and wholly contrived, yet we can trick ourselves, for the duration of the show, into believing it is real, Reality TV is purporting to be real, and claims to use Real people in its presentation. It is harder for the audience to say “enough is enough”. It is harder to define what is true and what is not. This might be a special effect that goes completely unnoticed and unchallenged because we are told that the real “deceit” lies elsewhere. Because we are bewitched, charmed, dazzled by the words we are given to describe what it is we are watching, what it is we are welcoming into our home when we switch on the TV.

Reality TV might be such a spectacular “magic show”, such a superb sleight of hand that we are not even sure we have been tricked. The smoke and mirrors is utterly convincing. If we were in the 17th century, we would say we were mesmerized. It is, as was said of Mesmer, our own choice (“nothing comes from the magnetizer; everything comes from the subject and takes place in his imagination”), but the effect is remarkable. We are willing participants in a global deception. We are as “mesmerised” as were the prisoners in the cave and as reluctant as they were to identify what the deceit may be- but we will get to that and to the issue that accompanies it- Plato’s recommendation that a good city practices censorship.

First, we need to break down the trick and locate the artifice. This may take some time and I hope you will allow me a few attempts in the process. (I welcome feedback)

With Reality TV, much of the trick lies in setting up the conceit. The way the show is described is such a distraction in itself that maybe we never see where the real magic is taking place. I find the whole thing frustrating because, just as there is in the magic of David Copperfield or of Penn and Teller, David Blaine and Derren Brown, there is genuine art at work in the construction of these Reality TV shows, but the level of “promotion” and secrecy means that much of what is constructed goes without applause and the people who put in the hard work are never congratulated or praised for what they have achieved.

The language that is used is my starting point to try to untangle this web.

When considering what Reality Tv may be, there are a number of expressions, for example, that defiantly recur. Some of these are peddled by self-serving institutions- the production companies, agents and managers as well as the performers’ union, Equity. I will instace a few of these and suggest what they might actually mean.

  1. Reality Tv shows are a “game show”. This is a repeated claim that is demonstrably untrue. A “game show” would be independently monitored and properly regulated. It would be fair and transparent. Many Reality TV shows are blatantly unfair and few admit any independent scrutiny.
  2. Reality Tv casts are “contestants”. This develops the game show theme but also establishes that the cast as “ordinary people”, not professionals and certainly not performers. While this compounds the illusion that what we see is “real, it also means that they do not need to be represented by Equity, and that any of the rules pertaining to usual TV performance do not apply. This allows for insane and extended hours of filming, often at night.
  3. Reality TV participants are “enjoying” themselves. This is a sort of “holiday”. This claim, often peddled, allows producers to claim that the participants were not working and therefore do not need to be paid. They might receive a “displacement fee” or prize money, but they do not get paid a recognised fee. the fee goes to the presenter who might command a massive payout for what appears realitively little input. The presenter, a recognised face, validates the show and ensures that it is the show and not individual participants the audience remembers.
  4. Dealing with fame and disappointment: this is a routine discussion- that those who complain have a problem with fame. In my personal observation, it is not fame but manipulation by the producer’s agents before, during and after the show that causes the bigger problems. That manipulation can take many forms but boils down to continued, often unreasonable but certainly unforeseen control. As most participants have not got professional support or representation, it is little wonder they are open to protracted manipulation in this way.
  5. Participants “knew what they were signing up to”. Often, this is not the case, but, equally, many participants did not apply as the production publicity claims, but were recruited. In my own case, this happened very fast. I was sworn to secrecy and, therefore, was unable to seek real advice from anyone who knew what these shows were about before I went on the Circle.

Reality TV is often disingenuous about facts- eventually, the truth comes out but it takes time. As in the secret service- there are actually few genuine secrets so it is a matter of finding the magazines and the articles that spill the beans- and putting them together. In the case of “the Circle”, most of the “secrets of the show” have been shared by the producers in a series of articles each targeted at a different audience. There are also a number of podcasts and broadcasts by former participants who feel it is in the public interest to come clean. Put together, therefore, there is little that is genuinely hidden.

However, there is a bigger issue about whether the show itself and its sister shows across the Reality TV genre are promoting a wider lie. I believe, for instance, that “the Circle” was a magnificent Gettier problem– in other words, an example of a “justified true belief” that is, nevertheless, based on a deception. We are also touching on what Plato dealt with when he discussed the allegory of the cave in “the Republic”- the perception of an illusion which we mistake for reality. In the cave, there are puppeteers who control the deception just as producers and the “Voice of God” manage the activities of the performers on Reality TV. But, in the case of Reality TV, there is a second level of deception because it is not just the performers who are deceived- it is also the audience at home that are now the prisoners locked into a madness- or better still a magic because they are bewitched by the shadows on the wall and insist that what they are witnessing is demonstrably real. It is engaging. It is enjoyable. The characters on screen are making genuine decisions. They must be held responsible for their actions. Hence the social media hate mail and all the nonsense that follows.

It is apparently real, people appear to be making genuine decisions on screen over a period of a month or so, but if it were genuinely real it would be dull. We willingly suspend disbelief, we willingly accept the artifice and the management in order to be amused or distracted.

This would be good enough if that is as far as it went, but it has the power, the potential and, recently, has demonstrated that it has the will to undermine our moral values- think of the trailer for teh most recent series of “the Circle” –what would you loose to win.

It is promoting values that were once vilified as sinful. It promotes egotism and hedonism as postive, it rewards deceit. It salutes greed and assumes this is a norm.

Is this in itself wrong?

There are a variety of falsehoods. The first is the outright and constructed lie. The second is the unintentional mistake – an untruth at best, and the third is fantasy. But there is another way of looking at the problem and that is to ask about the degree of damage or harm caused.

We live in a society predicated on deceit. Accepting a constructed hierarchy is a form of deceit as, indeed, are the fables of Santa Clause. Even a game like chess is deceitful. Poker even more so. The legal system works on a from of deceit where one party stands against another and both construct arguments that may be riddled with known lacunae- it is for a jury to judge which account is accepted as truth. There is also the thorny issues of fiction and religious belief. All of this is discussed in Plato, particularly the error of “the poets” who present as truth something they know to be scurrilous and vapid. They present corruption or fake values as laudable because it is the behaviour of the gods, those we revere as famous, those we have set up as icons around our temples.

What Plato wishes to censor might be the very stuff we celebrate at the Oscars and the Olivier awards- the theatre of performance, but I think that is not his target. We have to remember that one of Plato’s greatest dialogues takes place at a dinner party following a drama festival and one of his companions is the comedy writer, Aristophanes. I cannot imagine, therefore, from what happens in “the Symposium” that Plato really intends to outlaw theatre. Equally, knowing what happened to his hero, Socrates, I cannot imagine that Plato has genuine religion in his sights. I think he is thinking of some other, more subtle deceit and I believe that Reality TV, in its present form, fits the bill very well. Reality TV, in its present form is something Plato would have judged pernicious.

If Plato were to be alive today, I imagine he would have identified fake news or fake advertising as a credible target as well. These go out to deceive- to suggest that something is true or beneficial when the film-maker knows very well that is not the case. Paid endorsements for something that is worthless – this is about misleading the public in a way, for instance, that political broadcasts are not. We may not agree, after all, with what Mr Farage says, but we cannot doubt that he and his followers sincerely believe it. There may be a case for denying him airtime, but it is not, I think, the same case that Plato is making. Mr Farage is not peddling deceit. And that is the issue at the heart of the debate both about Reality TV and about fake News. It is central to Plato’s plans for censorship. Plato is talking about stopping wilful deceit and stopping those who take advantage of the public. I wonder if the same issue lies at the centre of what I find worrying about Reality TV. Presenting something as true when it is not- feigning values that we do not have, displaying the sort of fake sentiments that would merit awards for an actor, but pretending this to be real, promoting a life-style that is wholly unattainable and fairly corrosive. And calling it all genuine or “Reality”.

This comes very close to the charge that Plato has against the poets- that we promote a “hero” in Achilles, a man who is flawed and whose behaviour falls short of the noble standards to which we should aspire. The problem is not that Achilles’ story is the wrong one or that it would be out of place on the stage, but that it is now used as a quasi-religion and presented as truth, or as “Reality”. The problem, I suggest, is that we cannot see that it is just a piece of Theatre. Achilles actions may influence others because those actions are presented as “real”. Achilles, in other words, is the first “influencer” and Plato thinks he should never have been awarded a blue tick.

I am inclined to agree.

I think that the values that have emerged in “Survivor” and the latest series of the UK “Circle” are detestable- I think that the message these shows now put out – that we are permitted to do all manner of wickedness in order to win- is wholly wrong. I also think that, as the Persian poet Rumi says, ماهی از سر گنده باشد نه ز دم “the fish rots from the head down”. It is a well-attested proverb in modern Turkish (Balik bashtan kokar) and Greek (Το ψάρι βρωμάει από το κεφάλι); it is also a sentiment Plato would have accepted-and it divides into two concepts: 1) that wickedness is linked to power and 2) that a good person does good deeds and conversely a bad person does and encourages bad deeds… We can judge people by what they do and we can trace the source of their actions. A bad leader not only leads badly but also behaves badly. That is the lesson we can learn from the histpory books in the bible and from the great plays of Shakespeare- In this case, we know the message is wrong (“what would you loose to win”) because the production companies also mistreat the performers. Wrong-doing, in other words, is literally woven into the narrative by wrong-doers. Wrong-doing is encouraged by production. And we, the audience, are also are caught in a spider’s web of deceit and nastiness and may be encouraged ourselves to imitate the show and participate in the spirit of wrong-doing. So, when a participant on at TV Reality programme says or does something suspect, we should look to the production company and hold it accountable. We should certainly not assume that what is said are the words of the character we see on the screen.

Of course, all this grim analysis does not mean that good cannot come from bad. It can. And equally, just bcause a performer on a TV show says something nasty does not mean they are bad, or even that the production company is wholly corrupt. It simply means the values that are being promoted are deeply worrying and have the potential to cause harm. More than that, we do not know how these seeds of wickedness will manifest. Certainly, they lead to misery and self-destruction – this can take years to arise but I would certainly hold that the recent death of Nikki Grahame is linked to her first appearance on “Big Brother” and to the way that particular show exploited her anorexia. But equally, at this stage, it is difficult to predict the impact that shows like “Survivor” and “Circle 3” might now have on the wider public. They send out a signal that greed is acceptable and that makes me anxious not just for today but for the future.

So much for the negative.

At the same time, these shows hold a mirror to the values we ouselves promote and they seem to me to be a way to record some of the things we consider important in our lives today. Reality TV has taken on the role that was played by soap opera in the 1980s and 1990s but with this caveat- that Reality TV, by the way it is promoted today, has the chance to stimulate more of the worse behaviour it both portrays and encourages. It recalls the language of Homer- this is how the gods behave, this is how heroes act- and why Plato felt that the poets legitimised corruption and so should be banned in a perfect society. But it goes further: Reality TV sanctions that behaviour by telling us that it is acceptable, it demonstrates it has benefits- all the way to the bank but it paints an unfiltered view of how ordinary people behave. This, it says, is normal. This is Reality! This is acceptable.

This is the lie, and it must be firmly challenged. If Reality TV cannot clean up its act or if our Governments continue to turn a blind eye because of the revenue these powerful companies bring in, then we must consider other options and we must also hold those who support them to account for the misery and death that Reality TV brings with it.

Responses:

In response to Jack below, there are various forms of scripted show. I certainly was unaware of any script while I was on “the Circle”, but it seems to me, particularly from looking at some of the language used on recent shows that there is vocabulary and story arcs that seem to be comon and suggest a format if not a script. As we can be prompted, encouraged and on occasion, I am assured (though I do not believe I was ever fed lines to say), fed lines to say by the “Voice of God”, I think it is probable that various scripts lay underneath each day’s filming. A good example of this sort of scructire might be a page from an MTV show called “Geordie Shore” which certainly suggests that any spontanety is “structured”. The union Equity makes a distinction between what it calls “scripted reality production” and “a game show”- it apparently represents performers from the former though not the latter. It is difficult, of course, to ascertain which shows qualify.

There are also, certainly scenes that are reshot. I am not sure whether this qualifies as performance or reality. Equity was clear in a recent letter that this is no element of “performace” in a “game show”. I wonder in that case whether scenes of me doing Greek dancing in the kitchen qualify as part of the said “Game Show”. I am inclined to think not though arguably scenes of all cast memners dancing during the Oktobest fest may well qualify as a part of teh “Game Show”. It is very debateable and it is disturbing that unions, management and production pick up such charged and dismissive language.

In response to SamB, I agree wholeheartedly and it is shameful both of the TUC and of (British) Equity with whom I have been discussing this matter for a year, that no proposals have been forthcoming. If someone is working, they are entitled in principle to union representation but in this case, none is possible, though many of the runners, and production staff are represented by BECTU as was clear when the Guardian/ BBC reported about incidents of bullying in Studio Lambert over “Gogglebox” and “the Circle”.

This is the Statement BECTU put out in response at the time:

It is also signifiant regarding union representation that the General secretary of Equity, Paul Fleming, insists on using the terms “Game show”and “contestant” as well as isolating the term “performance”. This is what he apparently said on 27/04/21, ‘he received no money for a professional “performance”, and contestants were selected from members of the public, not from professional talent.’ I would dispute his inverted commas as well as his Oxford/Harvard comma.

#ThinkB4UPost

A new campaign has begun – #ThinkB4UPost

It is a thoughtful idea put forward by Shabaz and some of the cast members of Circle 3. I am very happy to endorse, participate in and champion the positive and valuable message it sends- specifically, that anonymous nastiness on the internet is shameful and worrying and needs to end. We all have a role to play in calling for better behaviour.

I think, incidentally, that this campaign, and others like it, needs to be buttressed by legislation that ensures the culture of internet anonymity, which permits both trolling and cloning, becomes unacceptable. This, I am afraid is a much bigger job, and needs to be addressed globally. But #ThinkB4UPost is a very valued step in the right direction and ideas like this need to be encouraged and promoted with enthusiasm.

I was therefore pleased to see the BBC taking up the story.

The BBC posted a piece about the Campaign and particularly focused on hate-mail that Manrika received during the show. The article, however, proves to be a curious piece that mixes what is a very reasonable campaign with some disturbing hints and I thought it might be worth pointing these out.

The two issues that worry me are, firstly, the idea that this campaign alone will be sufficient to turn round the problem at the heart of Reality TV and secondly, that Manrika, like some other past cast members (who must have participated in a quite different production to the one I knew), talks about the 24 hour access that has been given to psychiatric care.

I am afraid this level of care was certainly not the experience I had and was not an experience I know many others from both my series (2) and the earlier series 1 had received, even if this might have been what was intended. Indeed, I can cite 2 people who attempted to access care, and they were kept waiting for up to 10 days without a response because the care team that we had been assigned to did not recognise that we were part of their remit, so I am frankly flabberghasted by some of these over optimistic statements.

There is a big difference between what is intended and what was delivered.

When I brought this issue about a serious failure in the duty of care to the attention of production a year ago, I was assured that the question of aftercare would be addressed and would be put in place. My concerns, and the specific cases I cited, were acknowledged and accepted by senior execs in production. I am, therefore, hopeful and I assume that better care is now available. However, the article that has been printed by the BBC gives a very strange impression when it juxtaposes Manrika’s positive comments about aftercare with mine, and provides no explanation. That may be the result of over-hasty editing, but it suggests that Manrika and I refer to the same experience- we do not.

The passage of time can make things better and companies can learn from their failings. I note, for example, that the production company is today no longer relying on the company they used last year to provide psychological support. That is some progress!

I am, therefore, delighted that Manrika’s experience is more positive than the one I witnessed and experienced, and, equally, I salute the efforts of the current cast to call for a kinder internet, but that is not enough in itself. We need to ensure that those who participate in these shows can leave them having had a fully positive experience, that they receive independent professional and responsible support that assists production and enables production to get on with the job it does best. The people who participate in these shows should have such a positive experience that they act as ambassadors for the show- instead, there is a host of people carefully measuring their language against their contractual obligations.

I would hate to think the #ThinkB4Upost campaign ends up in the same bag as the Caroline Flack #BeKind campaign, both well-meaning and positive messages but open to being appropriated by TV Companies that might be seen as complicit in nastiness. These campaigns should not become the sticking plaster for the industry. they should not become another version of the OFCOM “rules”. These campaigns are thoroughly worthy and they help us to remember basic good nature but they cannot eclipse the need for wholesale change.

And also, when I look at what reality TV has become, I would not like people to think that the real problem is the audience!

It is barely a week since the death of Nikki Grahame: she was just one in a long list of casualties that have grown from the Reality TV phenomenon. It is perhaps glib to say, as journalists have done, that she could not deal with fame- she was vulnerable from the day she was cast and I think the show and the industry should take greater responsibility for the continued health and wellbeing of those they use. I can think of no other form of entertainment that is so measured in death.

The Secretary of state needs to reconvene the committee that began taking evidence after the Jeremy Kyle show, it needs to recognise that the current OFCOM “regulations” are neither new nor efficacious and at the same time, it needs to encourage organisations like EQUITY and established theatrical agencies to provide the independent support that is so evidently lacking.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-56747017

Inadequate OFCOM

I am astonished that for the third time, I think, OFCOM are peddling a completely vacuous document as something significant and indeed once again claiming it is a new “publication”.

Very little has been added since it first appeared as a draft document in 2019, and even then, it simply puts into writing current practice alreday used on reality TV shows. It was the result of a hastily convened and then equally hastily disbanded committee meeting of the Digital, Culture, media and sports committee- this is hardly the “wide-ranging” investigation that Adam Baxter claims. To be more precise, the committee heard testimony from 4 “contestants” or participants who came from 2 reality tv shows. That is hardly what I would term “wide-ranging”.

It fails absolutely to define what Reality TV might be and indeed also what might constitute “vulnerable”, the two major planks of the text and of the recent publicity. I will add more details tomorrow.

Meanwhile, here is the text of an interview I did for “the Independent” today which will be printed in tomorrow’s edition (6th April):

https://inews.co.uk/news/media/ofcom-rules-broadcasters-due-care-mental-health-insufficient-former-contestants-943036

Ofcom rules for broadcasters to take ‘due care’ over mental health are insufficient, say contestants

Exclusive

There is a lot of concern after the deaths of Love Island stars Mike Thalassitis, Sophie Gradon and Caroline Flack

EMBARGOED TO 0001 FRIDAY MARCH 12 File photo dated 22/1/2019 of Caroline Flack whose mother has said social media companies "fail to protect" people from abuse and comments on the platforms had a big impact on her daughter. Issue date: Friday March 12, 2021. PA Photo. The Love Island presenter took her own life at the age of 40, on February 15 2020. A new Channel 4 documentary is to tell the story of her life and death, as well as her experience of having issues with her mental health. See PA story SHOWBIZ Flack. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/PA Wire
Caroline Flack, whose mother has said social media companies ‘fail to protect’ people from abuse (Photo: PA)
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By Benjamin ButterworthLate Editor and Senior ReporterApril 5, 2021 9:17 pm(Updated 9:18 pm)

Former reality TV contestants have warned Ofcom that new rules designed to protect their wellbeing do not go far enough.

The guidance introduced on Monday requires the makers of some of TV’s biggest show to take “due care” over the welfare of people who “might be at risk of significant harm as a result of taking part in a programme”.

The change comes amid heightened concern after the deaths of Love Island stars Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon, and the show’s presenter Caroline Flack.

But contestants of some of TV’s most successful reality shows say the change in rules will do little to help.

Tim Wilson, who appeared on Channel 4’s The Circle in 2019, told i: “Production has got used to controlling its participants and continued to do so long after the show is over.

Tim on The Circle
Tim Wilson was voted the People’s Champion (Photo: Channel 4)

“Indeed, the Ofcom legislation gives them further licence to do this. It is absurd to think that the same team of psychologists who are used in casting should be offering support afterwards.”

The Oxford-educated professor is now calling on Studio Lambert, the production company behind his series, to ask the Culture Secretary to “rethink of the Ofcom rules and recognise that what is now trumpeted is not fit for purpose”.

He added: “We have to buy into the illusion, which means we must rely on another body to protect us from genuine exploitation.”

Luke Marsden, who shot to fame on Big Brother, aged 20, now speaks regularly with reality TV stars who have struggled with their post-reality TV lives.

Davina McCall leads Big Brother evictee Luke Marsden from outside the house (Photo: Getty)

“I’ve spoken to ex housemates who signed on to the dole a few years after Big Brother because they didn’t know what to do. In their heads, they were thinking I can’t sit in an office, I was on a big show,” he said.

“Some of these contestants come out and they tell me they are very depressed a few months later, when nobody cares about them.”

He added: “They [Ofcom] need to set a very clear plan, where you talk to phycologists at key points, and they force you to have it, because some people don’t realise what they’re going through. It’s all very fluffy what Ofcom has released.”

Adam Baxter, Ofcom’s director of standards and audience protection, said the changes were made following a wide-ranging review with affected parties.

“People taking part in TV and radio programmes deserve to be properly looked after,” he said. “Our new protections set a clear standard of care for broadcasters to meet – striking a careful balance between broadcasters’ creative freedom and the welfare of the people they feature.”

A link to the OFCOM text:

Statement: Protecting participants in TV and radio programmes (ofcom.org.uk)

and a recent news story from SKY:

https://news.sky.com/story/new-ofcom-protections-for-tv-contestants-require-broadcasters-to-take-due-care-over-their-mental-health-12266294


Further clarification from me-

To be more precise, it seems wrong to throw psychiatry at a problem in the hope of fixing it. Psychiatry has a valable role to play but here it is compromised. For teh very same Psychiatrists who are used to cast the show are also used to provide counselling afterwards. Either that or we are fobbed off to organisations whose psychiatric support staff prove entirely inaccessible.

2)There is no effort in the OFCOM report to define reality tv. This was actually the first question my MP asked me- he is on the ball while others are not. Is it a game show, a constructed drama, unscripted entertainment, a variety show?

3) there is no definition of vulnerability and this, anyway, was already part of the OFCOM remit to protect both participants in tv production and to protect the audience, especially the vulnerable.

4) Much of the OFCOM document is simply well-meaning and vacuous words- verbiage to disguise a hastily published document. These words effectively try to demonstrate that any decision belongs, and any ills that happen as a consequence of participating in a show belong, entirely to the participant whether recruited or applying for the show. No amount of box-ticking psychology, however, can deal with the fallout when things go wrong, especially if the psychology team is run by the production company itself (as OFCOM seems to recommend). This is either onanistic or delusional. It also avoids responsibility. It is not about care- it is “careless” in every sense of the word.


-the only new content in the document is that shows are obliged to inform participants but that information in practice is likely to be misleading

– things change in production and it is perhaps as inappropriate as getting a magician to explain how a magic trick works before submitting it to a paying audience.

-we have to buy into the illusion which means we must rely on another body to protect us from genuine exploitation.

-That body exists! It is called Equity. Equity, therefore, needs to decide whether its role is primarily to validate a performer’s training or to protect all performers from the possibly irresponsible and unfair activity of management. The old Variety Artistes Federation understood this fully and accepted that many performers came into the business in different ways- and were, therefore, all open to exploitation by theatre bosses and, therefore, deserving of protection. The VAE merged with Equity in the early 1960s and accordingly lost its distinctive and very worthwhile remit.

-We have a situation now where upwards of 30% TV scheduling is filled with reality tv and therefore with performers often working for expenses or a derisory “displacement free”- less than minimal wage and, yet, at the same time, commanding prime time slots on TV channels for an extended period- they are utterly at the mercy of a production company that controls  the edit, the hours they work as well as their access to media and proper representation after the show has ended.


It is for this reason that I have now formally asked top executives of Studio Lambert to join me in approaching the secretary of state, the Rt Hon Oliver Dowden, to urge a rethink of the OFCOM “rules” and recognise that what is now trumpeted as new is not fit for purpose – it is the result of a half-completed job and the DCMS committee must, therefore, be reconvened and admit proper evidence that must be given by those who have experienced what it is truly like to take part in these shows.