The Baroness O’Cathain and Christian Broadcasting Council | Wed 27 June 07 at 4pm, Committee Room No 4a, House of Lords
‘What is it to be human?’
Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill
Churches Media Council
In a building about fifteen miles North of here 14 people are being held captive. They have had no contact with the outside world for three weeks. They are watched 24 hours a day. For the past 27 hours they have been deprived of sleep. They were told by their captors that if they fell asleep all their food would be taken away from them. That in fact happened. So now they are surviving on a diet of watery slops. They don’t know when they will next be fed properly, or what will be required of them tomorrow.
I’m talking of course about the contestants in the Big Brother house. The treatment they are receiving, if it was in any other context, would probably be a breach of their human rights. But like the contestants in the dance-off competitions of the American depression, they have all entered into the programme willingly in the hope of escaping poverty or achieving wealth or fame, or at least some significance.
Big Brother housemates are humiliated – but they are humiliated in the name of entertainment…so that’s OK. The same goes for the singers excoriated by Simon Cowell on The X Factor, the contestants ridiculed by Ann Robinson on The Weakest Link or the kids falling off their bikes on You’ve Been Framed. Humiliation as entertainment has always had a place in low-culture from the Medieval stocks to the Victorian freak show. But there is something new going on here. First, we the public have been given an overt role in the humiliation. We vote in our millions for the people we want to see rewarded or evicted. We watch with rapt attention as their personalities are tested to destruction. Second – and I think this is genuinely new - the producers of the programme are playing an active role in the humiliation. Who is Big Brother after all, but a television production company. The disembodied voice of the duty producer is a key part of the show – offering quasi-psychological help at one moment, denying cigarettes at another. Three “task producers” are employed by the production company Brighter Pictures to design the humiliating activities. The phenomenon of the producer playing a part in the programme – almost always in a God-like role – is a new one. In Channel 4’s Deal or No Deal the disembodied “banker” toys with contestants, tempting them to gamble with fate. In ITV’s X Factor the big star is faux-nasty judge Simon Cowell. It may not be immediately obvious to viewers that not only does he own the company that makes the programme (the aptly named Syco) but he also has buy-out deals with the contestants for his company to manage them should they become successful.
I worry about the human impact these programmes have – and not only on the people who appear on them. I worry about the dehumanizing impact on the production teams of being presented with people – more often than not poor, marginalized or dysfunctional people – and encouraged to stress them in the name of entertainment. Bear in mind that the average age of an employee at the BBC is 27. What does a stint as a producer on Big Brother do to you as a person? Is it possible to manage the equation between the power you have over the participants, the pressure of the all important viewing figures, and the short-term nature of most TV contracts. And having produced TV and radio programmes for the last 15 years I know that I’m not immune.
I worry too about the human impact these programmes have on the viewers. Even the impression that I can alter another human being’s story - detain or release someone, or see them further humiliated or rewarded, just by emailing, phoning or pressing a red button, does something to me that I don’t like. But part of the problem lies in the nature of the medium. Because these stories are mediated it’s hard to remember that these people are not actors playing roles, but real people expressing real joy or pain or hopes or fears.
Why do I bring this up in a gathering about what it is to be human? Well for two reasons. The first is that at the core of what makes us human is the way we relate to one another – the balance or imbalance of power we allow to exist between people who are essentially equal before God. We have to give attention to that imbalance whether it arises between princes and paupers, or between the born and the unborn, or between the healthy and the sick. And the media has the ability to focus enormous power in the hands of some or use it against others. If you are home by 9pm tonight take a look at Britain’s Most Wanted Paedophiles on BBC1, and ask whether taken as a whole it contributes anything at all to the safety of a single vulnerable child, let alone the redemption of a sick adult. From long experience I can guarantee that the programme-makers won’t assess it on either of those criteria. Tomorrow morning they will want to know how big the audience was, and how many column inches it gets in the papers.
There’s another reason why I think it’s relevant to consider the role of the media in a discussion about humanity.
The way we make and receive the media are changing very very fast. There’s a revolution underway that’s every bit as radical as the invention of the printing press. The widespread availability of high-speed internet access and the exponential rise in computer processing power will mean that over the next few years almost every aspect of our lives – working, shopping, communicating, playing – all will be computerised. We are entering an era of digital saturation Most teenagers already feel quite at home in this immersive digital environment. A mere adult like me often feels lost and confused.
The earliest development of radio and TV was driven by the thirst for news. Much of this contemporary development is being driven by entertainment. Computer gaming is now a massive industry – already bigger than the entire movie industry. Most computer games now link directly to the internet, so that players can compete with strangers in other places, even other countries. These MMOGs (or Massive Multi-player Online Games) offer players a chance to create and take on their own characters, build houses, start businesses and form relationships. They are far more immersive than watching TV. One of the most popular MMOGs is Second Life. It’s only been going three years but already it has a population bigger than Greater Manchester, an economy bigger than 19 countries, its own churches, and even a daily newspaper with a Reuters correspondent. And yet it doesn’t exist. These games are not just for geeky teenagers. The average player of Second Life is in his mid-30s.
My son is 14 and he lives on a different planet to me. He certainly lives on a different planet to the one I lived on when I was 14. He lives in an entirely digital world, where most of his life outside school is played out through - in this order – online computer games, the internet, the mobile phone, television and radio. When I was 14 I used to watch the TV sometimes, and in the mornings I’d listen to the radio before school. The media were a part of my world. But for my son, the media have largely created the framework in which he lives.
Not surprisingly his favourite games involve warfare. He (or rather his character Phantom Commando) can happily kill a thousand virtual people before tea-time. Do I worry about what it is doing to him? You bet I do. Some times I feel like he is skiing down a mountain in the path of a digital avalanche. And I can’t even ski.
The fact is, the media now owns the public conversation. Our views and values about everything from curries to chimeras are framed for us by the digital media. I’m not talking about the phenomenon of spin. This is far beyond spin. It is about the shaping of a culture. It is about what it is to be human.
And we have to decide what we are going to do about it. We have to work out how to live, and how to help our children to live, humanely in a virtual environment. We are in a very similar place to the pioneers who first dipped their toes in the media water 80 and more years ago. We have to work out – almost from scratch - how to engage with the radically new media landscape. Of course, one option is not to engage at all. We could stand like King Canute on the digital beach and pray that the tide will turn. But it won’t. Or we can do nothing and simply watch as the culture is transformed around us. But that is a counsel of despair.
My guess is that those of you who are concerned about the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill are not only concerned to win a battle here – you want to change the culture. If I were to offer you one suggestion it would be this: all the great ethical issues of the last decades have been defined not by abstract principles of theology or morality. They have been defined by stories. Think of Diane Pretty; Reg Crew; Diane Blood. To change the culture you will need to identify stories that speak to your values, and find ways of seeding them into the public conversation.
I’d like to reflect very briefly on five features of the digital future. Then in conclusion I want to say what I think needs to be done.
The first feature is proliferation. Quite simply there are far more media outlets, more TV channels, more ways to receive content. And those platforms as they are called are increasingly portable. Vodaphone are currently advertising mobile internet access, with the virtue that you can fill every moment with media. One might imagine that the diversity of outlets would lead to a diversity of expression. But as platforms multiply, it seems that outlooks are more and more unified around a single set of liberal Western world-views.
The second feature is convergence. The platforms are converging around one – the personal computer. In five years that will be where you watch TV, make phone calls, do your banking and so on.
The third feature is personalisation. Where once TV viewing was a communal experience, increasingly content is available on demand to the individual. No longer will a few people in West London decide what the rest of us watch on TV on any given evening. Choice is everything. From now on it’s probably best to think of TV as a supermarket rather than an art gallery. This is a democratisation of viewing, but it also presages a loss of the social cohesion.
The fourth feature is participation
A fundamental shift is occurring in the way we communicate – from the “one-to-many” model exemplified by TV and radio broadcasting to the “many-to-many” model exemplified by blogging. My 14 year-old son now has the ability to make his own website which can be viewed around the world. Few children leave high school without the ability to edit a simple film. At the press of a few buttons you can make your own video and upload it onto the web through a video-sharing website like YouTube. The structure of production is flattening. It is no longer the domain of a privilege academy. The digital laity have been empowered. That’s going to radically change the way we make our feelings about the media known. Traditionally, lobby groups such as churches have sought to influence the media by putting pressure on governments and broadcasters. But we are all TV producers now, and we all have the power to speak to billions. The only important people in the new contract are the one who produces content and the one who consumes it – and they may well be the same person.
The fifth feature is the commercialisation or commodification of the media.
There’s a lot to be excited about here. As membership of clubs and churches declines, social networks are forming on the internet that provide their members with information, support and friendship. But beware – some of those who are most excited about the potential “reach” of social networks are commercial interests. Every click of your mouse tells a business a little more about you. Commerce sees great potential in the ability to collect detailed information about our likes and preferences in order to market exactly the right product directly to each individual.
Besides my production work I Direct the Churches’ Media Council – an organisation that seeks to help the Christian community understand the media and the media understand the Christian community. I meet every day with programme-makers and industry executives. And most of them are as scared and uncertain about the future as anyone else. They need to hear clear prophetic voices from people of faith, people who understand the digital environment, who can help to draw straight lines and can remind them of the sacred humanity of the audience, and that there is more to communication than commerce. We need to speak about values and spirituality – and not from a distance in green ink, but out of real and close relationships…the sort of relationships many of us engage in from day to day. We have a prophetic role in the industry – and I believe the industry is inviting us to play that role.
We must invest in the two key figures in the digital environment – the one who produces media and the one who consumes it. We need to develop digital literacy. That doesn’t only mean giving people access to technology, but also helping people to understand the media, its power, its ownership…and helping individuals to develop tools for critical evaluation. Those critical tools will mean reattaching the humanity to the data-stream – asking constantly who made this, and what impact is my digital footprint having. The creator and the impact may be the other side of the world. But I believe we will need to struggle to reassert the value of the human being in a saturated digital environment.
Wednesday 27th June 2007
Andrew Graystone is Director of the Churches’ Media Council. He is a TV producer, radio presenter and media analyst. In 1995 he joined the BBC as a producer and later Development Executive in the Religion and Ethics department. He left the BBC in 2000 to work freelance as a media analyst and communications consultant. He still produces and presents programmes for BBC TV and Radio, and also trains and advises Christians on media relations and teaches at numerous universities and colleges. A key part of his vocation is to help Christians work out how best to engage with the fast-changing media environment. Andrew regularly writes, produces and presents programmes for BBC Radio 4 and for the BBC World Service – mainly in the Daily Service and Prayer for the Day strands. www.churchesmediacouncil.org.uk
Click here for Response to the Call for Evidence from the Joint Committee on the Draft Human Tissues and Embryos Bill