Channel 5 is a strange golem; a knackered, anachronistic ghost that still haunts the corridors of the terrestrial Titanic long after its competitors have escaped in their digital lifeboats.
Last night, the channel enjoyed a moment of minor national attention, thanks to the Big Benefits Row, a live debate designed to capitalise on the endless controversy surrounding Channel 4's Benefits Street. They actually had some decent people on it – VICE columnist Paris Lees, for one – but all good intentions were trampled upon by the decision to give one of the four main speakers' chairs to walking hashtag Katie Hopkins, a woman with a mouth like a cow with a sprinkler attached to its arsehole.
Hopkins, as we all know, is a troll. But, in the eyes of television producers, she's a gatekeeper to social media – never mind that she'd happily slip her stiletto through the eye of a baby to get on page nine of the Radio Times, she's good at starting a row. And you can't have the Big Benefits Row without a fucking row.
Obviously, the whole event dissolved into farce. I mean, how often have you had a row that resolved itself calmly and productively? My guess is less frequently than you’ve had rows that ended with someone being called a cunt. But whatever, Channel 5 weren’t hosting the Big Benefits Row in an attempt to help the country out of a damaging impasse that is dredging up class issues which most baby boomers thought would be dead by now. No, they’re doing it to piss you off, basically. Conflict makes for good telly, and as such they were merely continuing a long modern tradition of obverse journalism.
I once had a mate who worked on a radio show hosted by a high-profile journalist. They were hosting a phone-in about gay marriage. My friend – the researcher – had been asked to find one person who supported the concept and one person who was not in favour: as such they would represent the debate happening in streets blah blah blah. But, as the calls came in, they were all very positive. There were no fire and brimstone Catholics, no furious homophobes, no paranoid family rights campaigners – just a bunch of people who were perfectly happy for the gay community. My friend dispatched the good news to the producer and was quickly sent back to the phones where he spent the next 20 minutes dredging Britain's sewers until he found an available prick who would come on and claim that gay freaks were trying to steal marriage from the real humans. I'm sure it made for noisy radio, but if you'd listened to that show, the Britain you heard portrayed was an angry, polarised one, half the population of which spends its weekends nail-bombing bars in Vauxhall. Of course, in real life, Britain is quite a nice place.
Whenever I talk about this subject, I always bring up Graham Linehan. A couple of years ago he was invited onto the Today programme on Radio 4 to talk about his new stage version of The Ladykillers. When he arrived, however, it turned out that rather than chit-chatting about the production, the whole thing had been framed as a debate. The BBC had parachuted in a critic to play the opposition and it was his job to blindly argue that the play should never have been made. Somehow, Linehan’s decision to adapt a slight comedy from film to stage was a matter of public debate, demanding earnest opinions from serious men. It was fucking ridiculous, like the Oslo Accord redrafted to settle a ticket mix-up at the Odeon.
Anyway, Linehan wouldn't play along, and instead flipped out at the presenter for reducing even a discussion about a West End play to irreconcilable differences. He later wrote: "It is a binary view of politics, of life and, as a result, it is also a dishonest one. Replace it with anything – anything – because anything would be better."
He's right. The tone of endless, exhausting opposition and argument is not only childish, but it’s dangerous. Once you can no longer even talk about a play without shoeing shit at each other like it’s Sunni vs. Shia, you’re in trouble. It makes the planet seem like a scary place where people exist with permanently locked horns, it celebrates angering people, and it places significance in opinion, rather than knowledge.
I deal with a lot of journalists at the beginning of their careers and it’s easy to see that this crap is flowing directly into their heads. Journalism is about learning, on a basic level it’s about looking for truth, but a certain type of media is teaching people the opposite. It’s teaching people that journalism is about looking at a subject, deciding where you stand on it as quickly as possible, and then shouting loudly at other people who have been paid to hold the opposing view. As such, many writers who pitch to me think the most important thing they can possess is single-mindedness.
I’ve had pitches ranging from: “Why Beyonce is a feminist traitor”, to: “Why the Muslim Brotherhood are the ONLY way to save Egypt” from people without any of the knowledge, experience, age or fucking passport stamps to make such statements. Quite often they pitch them fully formed, already written, as though media is simply a vacuum to be filled with unsubstantiated opinion.
I don’t know about you, but to me, most debates that don’t involve straight-up shove-them-in-the-oven bigotry seem complex. I can see both sides. And on the rare occasion that I can’t, I tend to find out that I probably should have.
The language of mindless opinion is the language of the idiot who suspects they’re a fucking genius. Basically, it’s the language of Katie Hopkins. Congratulations, Hopkins, I guess you've just trolled me.