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.