Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Yet more self-hate posing as creative freedom

In today’s Times, Michael Gove criticises Channel 4 as it prepares to broadcast a drama depicting British troops as cowards and sadists. Doubtless the broadcaster thinks it is being ‘courageous.’

You could call it the whistle-blower’s dilemma. Is loyalty to the tribe, solidarity with your mates, a higher virtue than fidelity to the truth? Is the moral courage required to speak out when you know something is wrong a more admirable trait than the respect for those who have looked out for you in the past, which might incline you to keep your trap shut when they’re under suspicion? It’s that basic moral question that lies at the heart of a superb Channel 4 drama to be broadcast on Thursday. The Mark of Cain is a searing, wrenching, disorientating account of British troops under the most extreme pressure. Set in the months immediately after the liberation of Iraq, it grips from the first frame to the last. It lays out in brutally arresting terms the difficult moral choice between loyalty and honesty. And yet I would never have commissioned it.

The tribe to which I belong, the profession with which I’ve shown solidarity throughout my career, is journalism. And the basic principle of journalism is a belief in free speech; indeed, more than that, a desire to drag into the open those things the powerful would rather keep hidden, and a natural affinity with all those who push the boundaries of expression, even unto the point of giving offence. Faced with the question of whether it was right to publish, for example, Danish cartoons that mocked the Prophet Muhammad, my view has always been, let them be seen. And the more vehemently that fundamentalist obscurantists demand that they be censored, the more powerful the obligation on the rest of us to ensure that we are not intimidated into censoring ourselves because of their threats.

So, if I can defend the widespread publication of some cartoons, which are certainly offensive, and may be of only indifferent artistic merit – indeed, if I can not just sympathise with their publication but insist upon it – how on earth can I defend my negative attitude towards a drama that I freely acknowledge is superbly made? Because the moral questions that the drama discusses are as nothing next to the moral problems that its screening will raise. The Mark of Cain is marketed as a fictional drama, but it has been filmed with documentary verisimilitude. It depicts, over two hours, horrific scenes of prisoner abuse in which British troops visit disgusting punishments on innocent Iraqi detainees. British soldiers are shown bullying their juniors, with NCOs looking on benignly. The treatment of Iraqis is characterised by a gleeful sadism laced with casual racism. Faced with the threat of exposure, ranks close but it’s the other ranks who are left to take the heat. While officers and NCOs scuttle out of danger, two private soldiers are court-martialled and it’s then that they have to weigh up loyalty to the guys who have covered their backs in the past with the need to speak truth to power.

I have no problem with that dilemma being posed in dramatic form. But I do take issue with Channel 4’s decision to screen a drama, its only dramatic depiction of our troops at war in Iraq, which portrays them all as bullies, sadists, moral vacuums or cowards. And I worry profoundly what effect it will have on British forces in the Gulf when one of our state-backed broadcasters screens appalling footage of them abusing Iraqis which, while taken from a drama, has all the vérité power of a documentary.

Channel 4 must ask itself what greater risk British soldiers will be put to as a result of this screening, and what justifies that greater risk. I know that its spin-doctors will talk about its historic responsibility to raise difficult issues but, frankly, no one buys that tosh any more. This is the channel that justified the psychological bullying of Big Brother on the basis that it was sparking a debate on racism (you might as well sponsor a BNP march down Brick Lane on the same principle). And this is the channel that fights its rating war from the gutter, with shows such as Something for the Weekend and Sex in Court sitting a little uncomfortably alongside its public service broadcasting obligations. Channel 4 coming over all evangelical about the need to grapple with the big moral issues is as convincing as a crack addict managing the Priory.

The real moral issue that Channel 4 needs to tackle – indeed, that the broadcast media as a whole must consider – is not so much the need for moral courage on the part of our troops. The men and women in the Gulf show the sort of bravery every day of their professional lives that should leave the rest of us speechless with admiration. No, the real issue is the disturbing moral relativism of our media and their lack of moral clarity at a time of trial for freedom. How can it be right that the only drama yet screened about our troops in Iraq, who are risking everything to help to build a democracy, is one in which they are depicted as sadists and cowards? Why do the people who commission this sort of stuff seem to hate our country, and our values, so much that their first impulse is to see what they can do to blacken the reputation of those who fight in our name? And what does it say about the moral courage of our broadcasters that the broader context of the war our soldiers are fighting, the struggle against militant Islamism, just doesn’t get a look-in? It’s time that the whistle was blown on the broadcasters’ abuse of our soldiers’ mission.

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