Noel Edmonds has a point: complicity with TV ‘fakery’ hurts our democracy

Stuart Jeffries
‘Reality TV, from Big Brother to Love Island, presents us with unreal relationships unfolding in cunningly edited simulations of real time.’ Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

In 1991 the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard argued that the Gulf war did not take place. Now, in 2018, Noel Edmonds is arguing something similar. The TV presenter takes part in Eight Go Rallying: The Road to Saigon, featuring teams of celebrities racing across 2,500 miles through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. But the looming BBC2 reality show is, Edmonds claims, a deceptive fiction.

Viewers, he suspects, will not see the grubby truth – that some of his fellow celebrities couldn’t drive so didn’t really race against each other, others travelled in air-conditioned minibuses and stayed in five-star hotels, and shooting ended with a wrap party in a brothel.

Is it usual for a wrap party to take place in a brothel? I don’t know, though if it turns out I bankrolled it through the BBC licence fee, allow me to adopt a concerned expression.

If Edmonds is right about Eight Go Rallying’s fictional basis (and the BBC has contested his claims) then it exemplifies how fakery is corrupting us. If we become habituated to accepting that what we see is on TV is not quite real, one possible corollary is that we become less critical of politicians who baldly lie. We risk becoming temperamentally incapable of resisting the deceit and manipulation that increasingly dominate political life.

Baudrillard’s point, for which he was lambasted at the time, was that the first Gulf war we saw unfold on our TV screens was a sanitised simulacrum of the real thing. What we watched was more akin to a video game in which, apparently, no one got hurt. Embedded journalists, missile video footage and the rest of the paraphernalia of the broadcast media were deployed, he suggested, to throw sand in our eyes and veil the real suffering of war. If the first casualty of war had long been the truth, never had it been so comprehensively airbrushed.

What has happened since Baudrillard’s Gulf war intervention is that the simulacrum has replaced the real, the faked has replaced the truth, Orwellian Newspeak has some new terms. Reality, for instance, now means its opposite. Reality TV, from Big Brother to Love Island, presents us with unreal relationships unfolding in cunningly edited simulations of real time. The best video games depict a simulation of reality that makes the real thing seem pallid and uninteresting by comparison. There is an oxymoron called virtual reality. Baudrillard called this the perfect crime, since the murder of reality has been covered up with decoys like virtual reality and reality TV.

Even David Attenborough is party to this crime, if crime it be. In 2011 a Frozen Planet programme, which he narrated, combined wild polar bear footage with film of cubs in an ice den taken in a Dutch zoo, a conjunction that only emerged after the show had been broadcast. Last year, he narrated Blue Planet 2, which included filming the re-creation of the burrow of a zebra mantis shrimp to enable close-up shots, while the fearsome-looking fangtooth fish, which has the largest teeth relative to its body size for any fish, was filmed in a special chamber aboard a ship. The executive producer James Honeyborne defended these constructed shots, arguing both that such “film craft techniques” were important to showing the truth of ocean life and that, in any case, “you can’t just break the spell”.

That last remark is telling: as if, when we watch documentaries like Blue Planet 2 and reality shows like Love Island, we now suspend our disbelief in the same way we’ve long done when watching drama, so used are we to the techniques of presenting us with simulated reality. No wonder so few viewers complained about the constructed reality in Attenborough’s nature documentaries: the pleasure of following a narrative is of greater value to us than knowing the truth about the shortcuts taken to make that narrative plausible. Similarly, if there is a grubby reality of manipulation and distortion behind Eight Go Rallying, we won’t care for such considerations to spoil our viewing pleasure. Or if we are bothered about such considerations, we’ll savour them if we watch the making-of documentary.

But here’s my worry. In 1984, O’Brien tortured Winston Smith with rats to induce him to believe 2+2=5; in 2018, TV viewers willingly accept fakery uncoerced. In our casual acceptance of fakery in what we watch on television, our critical faculties become dulled. We get used to the unreal masquerading as the real, fiction trumping truth in terms of verisimilitude. We get less skilled as a result at detecting political lies. TV’s savage parade of unreality conspires with other forces in our culture to make us politically illiterate and incapable of doing what we ought as democratic citizens, namely checking the powers that be.

‘According to PolitiFact, 70% of Donald Trump’s statements during his electoral campaign were false.’ Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

What are those other forces? Think social media. Among the 50 top performing fake news stories of 2016 on Facebook was not only the lie that President Obama had banned reciting the pledge of allegiance in US schools, but also the story headlined: “Pro-lifers declare: ejaculation is murder, every sperm cell is a life.” Stories like these get believed because the online world has an aura of verisimilitude (“The problem with the internet is that everything is true,” John Diamond once wrote) while spreading falsehoods, and because of the tendency of social media sites to trap participants in echo chambers where their views are reinforced rather than challenged.

Or consider the Brexit campaign that told us the lie that Britain sent £350m in membership fees to the EU each week and if the UK left the EU that money could swell NHS coffers. Or consider Donald Trump, who once claimed that on 11 September 2001, he had witnessed Muslims cheering as the twin towers fell after the terror attacks. Though, in fact, he did not. Lies like these gain currency through the conviction with which they are told. They also gain power in an age where there is so much information that we’re tempted to distrust experts and seduced by deceptively simple lies rather than honestly complicated truths.

It’s poignant in this context that Trump, as host of The Apprentice, is a former reality TV star, since he has been able to profit as businessman and president from lies – from presenting the unreal as real. He is the president of post-truth, a term defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Hence in the early 1990s, his real estate and gambling businesses suffered huge losses, but he nonetheless presented himself as a successful businessman, shoring up his brand’s value through media manipulation. Hence, according to PolitiFact, 70% of Trump’s statements are false.

In Trump’s autobiogaphy, The Art of the Deal, his ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, came up with a superbly Orwellian term for such Trumpian falsehoods – “truthful hyperbole”. “It’s a way of saying, ‘It’s a lie, but who cares’,” explained Schwartz. “Who cares” is right. It’s our disengagement from valuing the truth that Trump relies on for his success – as well as our inability to tell truth from truthful hyperbole. Sorry, I mean lies.

Stuart Jeffries is a Guardian feature writer