Friday 17 January 2020

It's the end of the world as we know it, on live television

  • 2019 (All Channels)
Bruce Forsyth (Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA)
Bruce Forsyth (Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA)
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Against the grain of media mythology, this past year has brought a new importance to television. What TV has been bringing us can only be described as a front-row seat from which we can observe the struggle for Western civilisation. And soon perhaps, its fall.

There is no way we can play down the scale of these developments, no way that the rise of far-right nationalism in Britain and the US can be understated. These people are in Downing Street and the White House, not roaring their heathen gibberish on street corners, as they would be in any well-run society.

Indeed there is still a sense of utter dejection at the victory of Boris Johnson - dejection at least on the part of people who fear belligerent nationalism, on the reasonable enough grounds that it has never brought anything but grief.

And we watched it all on television: the Brexit votes in the Commons, the impeachment hearings in Washington, and all the other daily episodes which make these events so absorbing. Netflix isn't going to give you that. Facebook is part of the problem. Twitter will give you bits and pieces, but it's not the place to go for an election night special or some rolling news coverage of a summit which may or may not decide the future shape of the continent of Europe.

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Conveniently, the US president tailors most of his performances with TV in mind. He is in no doubt about the arena in which these battles are mainly being fought: it's the old goggle box, that supposedly obsolete medium which has somehow found this new purpose.

Because politics, in the maddest way, has become important.

As we know, most of the time it is not important at all, and its methods have been horribly exposed by the hooliganism of the nationalists. But you can't say that it doesn't matter any more. Not when the Speaker of the House of Commons has the most famous catchphrase in British showbusiness, an honour which used to fall on giants of the culture such as Bruce Forsyth or Tommy Cooper. Not when the BBC's political editor has 1.1 million followers on Twitter.

The sense that we are looking at a kind of War of the Worlds is heightened by the disappearance of things we assumed would always be there - things like a commonly agreed version of reality, the idea that some things were objectively true and some things were objectively false, and the former was better than the latter.

No more, my friends, no more.

Last year you could turn on your TV and watch Johnson or Trump speaking for long periods during which they would say nothing true, in any meaningful sense. And they knew what they were doing, and their supporters knew, and they didn't mind, in fact they loved it.

And we viewers knew, though we were conditioned to believe that there is a price to be paid for pathological dishonesty - especially on TV, where everyone can see it.

Turns out there's no price to be paid; they'll even make you prime minister.

No, your Netflix drama is not going to compete with that, though the great fictional TV dramas of the year also had an end-of-civilisation theme. There was Chernobyl about how the Soviet Union was eventually destroyed by its own lies, and Succession, about a media mogul and his family who are as committed to destroying each other as they are to destroying the culture which somehow maintains them in seven-star opulence.

Sure enough, RTE's breakout performer was Europe correspondent Tony Connelly. Where once a Europe correspondent could have a quiet and wonderfully boring life, Connelly was transformed into the 24/7 narrator of an epic international saga.

To be continued…

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