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BBC: The Pity of War versus The Necessary War

March 5, 2014

To mark the anniversary of WWI and the British soldiers who did fighting in it, the BBC ran two TV programs offering alternative perspectives. The first “The Necessary War” was an account of the reasoning behind why Britain joined the war, the conclusion being that it was not something we could have avoided. The second, “The Pity of War” took the opposite view.

I don’t actually want to talk about the points made in either program. It’s fair to say that both made good points and the best conclusion I can draw is not one that’s going to set the world on fire; simply, that international relations are complicated, history is difficult to uncover and politics exercised by the most well-meaning of people can end in disaster if they are also clumsy. As I said, nothing new.

What I want to talk about is the delivery of the shows. I’m no media professional so I couldn’t say for sure, but I’d say that the order you put the shows in usually determines the institutional bias; The Pity of War had the last word and is the view held by those more typically in the liberal left wing. The BBC, as a state institution, could be counted under that category – even though I’m sure the personal politics of the executives within it varies – because the right wingers traditionally do not agree with state owned (and thus influenced) media.

Personally I would debate “influenced”, since if it were state influenced, it ought to reflect the Govian view that WWI was, indeed, necessary, since the Tories are currently in government. Not that I’m certain of the extent to which his fellow party members agree with him. The Tories have undergone quite a shift, with a good proportion of the party adopting views that we once thought of as being unique to the other side.

Regardless, the BBC is for entertainment and journalism, not for pushing politician’s views. As such, it adapts its style in accordance to what audience it thinks it will receive for any given broadcast, reflecting its experience of what this demographic wants to see in terms of style and presentation. Here lies my point of contention.

When I watched The Necessary War, I was impressed by what a clean cut it was. The points were clear and rational and came from a variety of sources – mainly historians who, while obviously holding their own opinions, are known to arrive at them by careful analysis of the facts and not with an obvious agenda. It was not pro-war nationalistic claptrap about Britain this, Britain that, Our Boys blegegegeeger. You would hope not, but the BBC can be as hit and miss as any other established media broadcaster and some of its documentaries suffer from the contemporary disease of style over substance.

This, unfortunately, was exactly the case for the second in the series, The Pity of War. It started completely differently, with a young(ish) presenter bellowing at a studio audience accompanied by lots of artsy-fartsy visuals. I wouldn’t mind so much, since I think the visual element when used correctly can help people understand the point at hand, but my objection in this case is the stark contrast between the two halves of the supposedly equally weighted argument. It was all too obvious that the BBC expected that the audience for The Pity of War would not be able to engage with the facts unless they were presented in a whirl of colour and noise.

Why such a stylistic difference? Because the types of people who would watch The Necessary War and the types that would watch The Pity are different and the BBC knows it. I spend a lot of my time analysing newspapers and I can see that the anti-war style is typified by publications aimed at liberal left-wing youth – with the emphasis in this instance on youth – whereas the Govian view is typified by older people who have a closer engagement with the reasons behind WWI, thanks to differences in education and the cultural attitudes they were raised with. In their time, it was usual to call those returning from WWI heroes, regardless of what was achieved during the war. We lost that attitude and I’d say, perhaps optimistically, it’s because we have become more critical in general and more critical of conflict, following other arguably less “necessary” wars in recent years.

You might ask “What’s wrong with playing to your audience? Everyone does it.” That’s true. Most of the time it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter a fig whether old people think TOWIE is a sign of the end of civilisation, because, ultimately, TOWIE doesn’t matter.

But WWI does matter. All wars and the reasons they started matter. It is the, perhaps vein, hope that by paying attention to how wars start, we can avoid them in the future. Thus, it’s the job of the media not to show people simply what they expect they will want to see, but a fair balance that ensures that what is seen is what is true. The Pity of War contained fewer facts and more assertions and opinions. This can help people’s understanding of an issue on the surface, but not in depth. To understand a complex issue, you do not need fifty odd people all asserting their scattered, partially informed opinions. You need people who have made it their life’s work to analyse the facts to present them to you in plain English as straightforwardly as possible. Anything else is a diversion.

Because the BBC expected that people would only watch one side of the argument – the side they already agreed with – The Pity of War made less attempt to inform or change minds. It needed to less, because it is working from the majority held viewpoint, the one that is taught in schools as a matter of course. Its aim seemed more to unify people who already think they know everything. I’m anti-war and anti-military, but like all rational people I have to accept that we live in an armed world and have done so since the beginning of civilisation.

So, your more realistic approach is not to respond in a knee-jerk manner to violence and death, but to think about the actions of governments and the military within the boundaries of the system we have laid out, while attempting to make gradual alterations to public perception about the effectiveness of using of force to instil positive change. This is irrelevant to WWI simply because it has already passed. So the real question is not “In and ideal world, what would I have done?” but “Under the circumstances, what could they have done?”

The BBC cynically decided that no one could have their minds changed and thus made no attempt to change them. This defeats the object of an educational program on a contentious topic, which isn’t doing its job unless scrutinises the audience’s preconceptions. Older people would have been automatically deterred from the glitzy, flamboyant and almost flippant presentation of The Pity of War (considering the baseline for the argument is one of grief and sorrow, this seems particularly inappropriate) but younger people wishing to learn would not have been put off an intelligent and well presented factual documentary, even if the point made did not previously meet with their agreement. Again, rational people are not greatly upset by having their views challenged provided the challenge is not offensive.

The assumption that we cannot be rational is a mark of the growing trend in the condescension of youth. I fit neatly into the age bracket intended for The Pity of War and I object to the implication that I cannot be trusted to understand information, engage with history and make a reasoned decision. We worry about the level of education among young people and it isn’t clear if this is justified. If it is justified and the level of general knowledge among my generation is off target, then the tactic of purposefully dumbing down factual programs to appeal to a younger audience is an irresponsible one.

However, I suggest that the fear is not justified. It is mirrored across many generations and stems mostly, it seems, from of lack of understanding about the younger generation and what they know. I don’t think anyone would argue against the commonly held belief that mine is more tech-savy and voluntarily multi-tasks on a regular basis. I would say that we know how to source information and are interested in keeping up to date on it. The flip side of this hurriedness may be that we are not accustomed to taking the time to expand on our skeletal knowledge of world events or wait for evidence-based verification of the facts before assuming them to be true (though, judging by the prominence of superstition through the ages, this has always been the case). It may be that we have quite in-depth knowledge, but the focus has tightened onto things our parents and grandparents do not understand the value of.

I don’t think we’re behind, but I do think that having a butterfly mind that flits from one task to the next, while useful in some circumstances, is useless in others. Any method of teaching which gives encouragement to the slower, more in-depth and thus longer lasting types of education is needed, not for the older generation where it is usually directed, but to the younger. Judging by the preference of articles and blogs to books, I’d say we like things in smaller packages, but we mostly like what is conversational and personal. It provides a more intimate involvement with the subject matter (sometimes to the point of hysteria, but all methods have their drawbacks).

I’m all for making education more personal. For WWI it is harder because most of the people involved are dead. Every subject can be improved by the colour of personal experience, which is why you will often hear from the daughter, grandson of great great niece of whichever person is under discussion. That’s not a tactic reserved for The Youth. Yet, The Pity of War didn’t choose to organise itself in this way. It chose to appeal to a much shallower, much less positive human instinct than the need for empathy; the need for glamour and sparkle.

When we become this older generation, who sit in the house and croak cantankerously at the TV  whenever anyone young enough to be our children comes on and starts trying to tell us things we think we already know, what will we remember from our early education? Will it be the overuse of  special effects that have become dated, needlessly used to illustrate a point that was never difficult to grasp in the first place? More likely, it will be the information imparted that seemed the most significant, whether the style appealed to us at the time or not. You may, as I do, look back on books that you disliked when were forced to study them as a teen with renewed appreciation in adulthood. The key point is that you remembered them because  they were memorable.

I will always think that the best media, fact and fiction, transcends demographic boundaries. If the subject really matters, it will mean something to you whether you watch TOWIE or Gardeners’ World. I understand that markets will exist for as long as money does, as will this stylistic rift. But I hope that when it matters, we will know how to present to everyone a delicate balance between the things they want to see and the things they need to know.


From → Media Analysis

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