Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On being stitched up

Well over three thousand comments on the Dellersblog about the Paul Nurse stitch-up (now online) is a remarkable social phenomenon. It is one to which the media and politicians should pay attention, as it demonstrates that "debate" – such that it is – has not disappeared. It has simply found other venues.

However, the use of scare quotes on the "debate" is well merited. The comments range from the barely literate abuse, to the pretentious, aggressive and, occasionally, well-reasoned. Very few, nevertheless, are going to plough through the many thousands of entries, but by and large, having comments read is not the intention. Instead, the aim of each side to dominate the argument by force of numbers, driving the opposition into obscurity.

Whether this is important is hard to tell, but the warmist "community" is certainly investing a huge effort in the activity, matching the determination of the BBC and its fellow-travellers in The Guardian and Independent to bring down high-profile sceptics such as Delingpole.

Given that the blog and then the comments are a response to the BBC Horizon programme, though, it is interesting but not at all surprising to find that none of the commentators display any real understanding of the dynamics which led to Delingpole being interviewed.

The core issue is that he was interviewed by Paul Nurse, president of the Royal Society, for around three hours, on camera, for the Horizon programme, which purported to argue the case for greater trust of science, claiming that science was "under attack".

What was very clear, though, was that the producers then "cherry picked" a tiny segment of the interview that gave them the line they wanted to present to the audience. That itself is a major issue and one might have thought that an intelligent, semi-adult discussion might then have responded by at least remarking on this phenomenon.

This is the practice of modern documentary makers, who can gather huge amounts of material and then edit and assemble the material in a way that they can present a message, the message the producer wishes to convey. This is irrespective of what is actually said, and what interviewees actually intended.

As it happens, I have had the self-same experience myself. Recently, I was interviewed for the Dispatches programme by Rageh Omaar. That interview was easily three hours and I spoke freely, at length over a wide range of issues, all to do with the very contentious subject of immigration.

When the programmes were aired (it was a series) my interview was used, in very small measure, here and there, totalling no more than a few minutes. It showed my saying words, and I did say the words. But in no way did it even begin to convey what I felt about the subject. Huge areas which I had discussed at length were not even raised.

What helped me to recognise the process was that I've done the same thing. I've made several documentaries myself, including two Dispatches programmes. You write the script first, setting out what you want to say. Then you go out and find the talking heads that will say the words you need to fit the script. You (in this case I) interview them, collect up the words on the tape and then go back to the edit suite and pull out the words that fit.

I remember at a late stage in the film-making, we needed a scientist to say one thing, one sentence, to confirm a key premise we needed to make, for the film to hang together. And we would not find anything like it in all our interviews.

We hunted around and eventually found a water scientist in Inverness, who looked as if he might say it, so we took the crew all the up there from London. I went through the motions of interviewing him, waiting for him to say the words we needed.

At the time, we were under huge pressure to catch the last flight back and the man would not say the words. So I talked around the subject, and kept re-phrasing the question, putting it to him again and again. Then, as we were getting more and more desperate, he said the magic sentence. He didn't really mean it, but the way I had asked the question gave me the string of words I needed.

The cameraman snapped off the lights, we threw the kit in the boxes and fled, rushing to catch our flight. The poor sod must have wondered what he had said to get such a response. When the film was broadcast, it had that one sentence in it. Nothing more from that man, even though he had talked for hours.

That is TV for you – that is how it works. That's what Delingpole went through. The "line" was already pre-ordained - worked out in advance. He was picked as the "talking head" most likely to, and Nurse went out to collect the words needed to fit that part of the script.

It thus really didn't matter what Delingpole might have intended. The outcome was always going to be the same. So those who exult in him being "caught out" or some such really do not have the first idea of what they are talking about, or the first idea of what was going on.

This, of course, makes television documentaries (potentially) a massively dishonest medium - you think you are watching the expressions of the participants, but you are not. The audience is being led through a carefully crafted script towards a conclusion that was decided in editorial and commissioning offices, months and sometimes years before the first camera was switched on.

And yet, so many fell for it, have fallen for it before, and will do so again. Many did so this time because the programme fitted their own prejudices and expectations. But, while they are strident in condemning Delingpole, if they believed (or convinced themselves) that what they saw was real, they are the fools,

Delingpole's mistake was in trying to play a bent game straight.