Systemic distortion

We all know too much.

What each of us knows too much about is very distinctive, but it’s a safe bet that we all know too much about something. When other people, who know that thing less than we do, attempt to describe it or to understand it for themselves, they get it wrong, not because any part of the description is incorrect, but because somewhow the pieces do not add up the whole.

That’s the power and the weakness of fly-on-the-wall documentaries: you are seeing something real, unmediated and from an insider’s perspective. If you are an outsider, you get a sense of privileged access. If you are an insider, you may be frustrated at a depiction which is clearly right, but at the same time somehow profoundly wrong.

That at least is my experience, both of having been marginally involved in a fly on the wall series years ago, but probably more importantly, from having been involved with enough media stories where I had some unmediated direct knowledge of what had happened to make a judgement about the quality of the coverage. The occasions where the story is accurate and complete are vanishingly rare (and to be absolutely clear, I am not talking here about whether coverage was critical, supportive or neutral, but whether it accurately conveyed what had actually happened).

I loved the West Wing, precisely because I have never set foot in the White House, not depite that fact. I can’t bear Yes Minister not because I can’t take a joke (I like to think), but because the quality of the humour is never high enough to outweigh the degree of caricature behind it: I can’t stop myself screaming (or whimpering), ‘but it’s not like that…’ from behind the sofa (to say nothing of being both bored and terrified by the people I come across who treat it as a form of documentary).

Which brings me to a brilliant post written a few weeks ago by Martin Belam about a new drama series, The Newsroom. I haven’t seen it, so I have no ability tio judge it as drama. What’s fascinating though, as Martin has spotted, is that it collapses two roles which are almost always separate into one. Journalists are usually the observers, the writers, the filmmakers. They are not usually the observed, particularly in depictions by people who are not journalists. As Martin observes:

The unfortunately unique thing is that when writing a show about journalism, your reviews are posted by the very people whose activity you are trying to dramatise.

Policemen don’t get to review crime dramas in the national press. Doctors don’t get a few minutes in the Entertainment chunk of a 24 hour news channel to dissect what is wrong with medical dramas. And I’ve never seen an oil baron explaining that the industry doesn’t work quite like Dallas.

With the result which anybody has been on the receiving end of this will recognise:

The way journalists feel about “The Newsroom”? That is pretty much how everybody feels whenever they read a superficial story about something they know well in the press. Or endure a glib two-way between the studio anchor and a non-expert reporter in the field.

You don’t have to assume (as I think Martin may) that this is attributable to journalists twisting or sensationalising, though no doubt that is part of it. I think it’s more fundamental than that: representing reality is hard. Borges captured that perfectly in his short story, ‘On Exactitude in Science’, in which ancient cartographers aspire to ever more precise representation, and end up with a map exactly the same size as the thing being mapped.

All that reminds of me of a discussion about contemporary history a couple of years ago, on which I reflected that:

I have been an observer and a bit player in enough political events to be able to compare direct observation with daily and weekly press coverage. I cannot think of an occasion when the description matched the reality I had observed.

Sometimes that is the result of the inevitable incompleteness of a necessarily brief account. Often though, things are stated as facts which are simply wrong. Garton Ash stood at Vaclav Havel’s side to watch the velvet revolution unfold. But that is not the vantage point most journalists and historians enjoy for most events. Politics unfolds on the streets by exception, not as a norm. The second hand account is dominant, the contemporary first hand account a rarity, and the disinterested first hand account not much more than a theoretical possibility.

Of course, that’s no reason to give up. Good enough history and good enough journalism are much better than bad history and bad jounalism.

So we all know too much to be anything other than frustrated by the way others who know less describe us. That won’t stop them, nor should it. But we and they need to be conscious of the gap and aim to reduce it when we can.

And of course all of this can be read as a parable to remind many of us that we are not – and cannot be – normal users of our own services.

 

Comments

  1. All of which speaks to then unwillingness, or inability, of those who ‘know too much’ to tell the rest of us. In the case of people in government, that is partly natural reticence, occasionally good and necessary practice and, frankly, sometimes just sheer arrogance because they are actually quite keen to remain burdened by a truth or a level of detail that they won’t share, because otherwise their sense of power and mystery will be undermined or exposed for the inflated fraud that it might turn out to be if it was exposed. Better to keep it all secret and laugh at the inevitable inadequacies of those who would like to know more, are legitimately interested and, in the face of no other options, are reduced to making it up, caricatures and all.

    1. No, this isn’t about reticence or arrogance at all, not is it something limited to the powerful and privileged.

      The BBC ran a great series recently on the Tube, which gave me as a life-time user a level of insight I had never had before and couldn’t get any other way. But I am willing to bet that the army of cleaners, station attendants, poster hangers and track layers were all watching it thinking “yes, but…”, and that wasn’t a result of their positional power.

      Closer to home, the documentary series I saw close up (a fly on the wall watching a fly on the wall documentary team…), was full of people on both sides of the camera who really wanted to share a sense of how our world worked, and at one level it did so brilliantly. But if a two hour meeting, agonising towards a decision, then translates into 30 seconds of screen time, your insight into the decision making process isn’t what you might think.

  2. I can be a normal user of government gateway and somehow magically end up with two ID’s and registering for VAT returns that I don’t even need to do, trust me. But admittedly, I’m new here. Maybe the answer therein lies.

  3. I’m not too sure the dichotomy presented in the narrative above can be labeled “Systemic Distortion”, when in fact the issue described say more about the producer’s/author’s frames of reference than a claim of subject authority. We know that end products are often the outcome of choice, budget constraints, political hang-ups, time availability and the need to keep audience attentive.

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