Not Suitable for Kids
The BBC’s Moscow Correspondent, Steve Rosenberg, recently tweeted this:
Now, despite the air of handbag-clutching sanctimony, I agree with the implied criticism here. If true, it’s wicked that Russian kids are having their history censored. However, the other implication – that ‘we’ would never censor history for ‘our’ kids – is trickier to agree with. Media Lens promptly responded to Rosenberg with: “Try reading a British or US kids’ history book on the Vietnam war (for example)”.
I myself, monomaniac that I am, was instantly reminded of ‘Victory of the Daleks’, in which Winston Churchill is presented to the kiddies as the Doctor’s bezzie mate; a naughty, fallible, but essentially heroic fighter against evil. Nothing in that episode about, say, the Bengal famine, or the Black and Tans in Ireland, or the conspiracy to unseat Mossadegh, or the pointless firebombing of Dresden. Sticking with Russia, Churchill was the leading British politician behind Allied ‘intervention’ (i.e. aiding the counter-revolutionary Whites) against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War… a war that (arguably) indirectly helped bring Stalin to power. You might well argue that there is no place for such things in an episode of Doctor Who. You could be right. But don’t then tell me that there is a place for presenting someone like Winston Churchill, sans context, as a jolly and fiercely moral pal.
Of course hierarchical societies, which depend upon ideology to manufacture public acceptance or quietitude, are going to lie to their people, and they’re going to start early. What’s interesting here is not the obvious fact that Russian kids’ history books and British kids’ TV shows are going to mislead them about the histories of their domestic ruling classes. What’s interesting is the way the educated, orthodox, democratic, freedom-loving mind can notice – and be outraged by – this obfuscation when practiced by Russia, while completely failing to notice it when it is practiced by the BBC.
You have to wonder how automatic it is, versus how deliberate.
In Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Orwell has Party members practicing this very double standard openly and proudly, using it as a badge of honour. It can be viewed as such because ‘we’ are good by definition, so any contortion of truth or good sense which benefits ‘our’ side is also good by definition. Like many psychological habits, there’s no clear cause and effect, but rather a rabbit hole made of mutually-reflecting mirrors. And I don’t think we need go to Oceania to see it.
The orthodox view of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it’s a satire of Russian totalitarianism… and yet Orwell sets it in Britain (as was). He’s also having a go at British Communists who willingly and happily parroted the nonsense dictated to them from Moscow. But familiarity with his wider corpus shows us that Orwell was quite aware of the same technique in the capitalist media. The Ministry of Truth is at least partly drawn from his experiences within the BBC.
It would be unthinkable to do a Doctor Who story featuring Stalin without portraying him as evil. They put Hitler in and, to the extent that he appeared at all, it was taken for granted that he was despicable (rightly so… which I shouldn’t have to say but experience teaches me I do). They even felt obliged to put in a degree (insufficient, in my view) of queasiness about Nixon. But Churchill, ‘our’ guy, is whiter than white. Anything else would be ‘inappropriate’, ‘political’, evidence of an ‘agenda’. Which is fair enough. It would be. When I trash Churchill, of course I have an ‘agenda’. What bugs me is the idea – actually, it’s so tacit and assumed that it doesn’t even qualify as being an idea as such – that presenting Churchill in purely positive terms is apolitical!
Telling Russian kids about Russian history without mentioning that the country was once run by probably the biggest mass murderer in history is certainly evidence of an agenda. We just have to grapple with the fact that it probably seemed like neutrality to whoever wrote and published the book. (Not that all Russians think that way.)
As Orwell says in ‘Notes on Nationalism’ (recently cited by Gary Younge):
The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them…. Whether such deeds were reprehensible, or even whether they happened, was always decided according to political predilection.
This is especially urgent at the moment, when the mainstream conversation seems to be taking it for granted that Russian bombing of Syria is bad and harmful and cynical by definition (and I’m against it, for the record) but British bombing of Syria is, at least arguably, a sad necessity to people of conscience. Our beloved Prime Minister, the Pigfucker General himself, seems to believe (based on his public statements) that Russian bombing of Syria will produce more terrorism whereas British bombing of Syria will somehow not. As I recently joked on twitter, this must be because British bombs are made of British values and therefore blast democracy into people when they explode.
It seems a shame that the BBC can unambiguously declare that certain ideas are not suitable for children but also entertain the notion that certain bombs are.
December 8, 2015 @ 2:36 pm
I must admit that I am willing to give a bit of respect to the Horrible Histories tv shows which do sometimes go out of their way to admit that most people who make it to the “top” are generally not nice, although admittedly it’s usually only for the purposes of a joke. It’s generally quite a good joke though.
And I find it hard to blame the BBC for taking a pro- establishment line; after all, that’s what they have always done, regardless of the political persuasion of the government of the day. (And yet they are still able to run some moderately challenging reportage from time-to-time, albeit in narrower and narrower spaces.)
And the other part of the problem is the one of fake patriotism. The notion that suggesting that one’s own country (whether now or at some time in the past) may not be perfect has become equated in some minds with being a de facto traitor – which makes it difficult to debate the issue openly. As a result, you get people who are presenting themselves as potential leaders of their country making statements that focus all the pressure outwards (or, if inwards, on very specific targets) so that they cannot be portrayed as traitors to their country, regardless of what effect this might have.
December 9, 2015 @ 2:23 pm
I’ll second that re: Horrible Histories 🙂
If the BBC taking a pro-establishment line had no side effects then it wouldn’t be much of an issue. But, as one of the major organisations ‘informing’ the public, they have a good deal of influence over public opinion. If the BBC really presented an impartial view, the government would find it a lot harder to go to war or dismantle the NHS.
December 8, 2015 @ 7:46 pm
Nixon works for me because he’s literally trotted out as a hollow symbol of the age and of his office. They could’ve done more to show what a despicable, undemocratic monster he is. I mean, the guy derailed Vietnam’s peace talks to save his campaign. But I think Moffat did an adequate job of portraying Nixon as a problematic figure without going into a list of his crimes. Had the same been done with Churchill, I probably would’ve been satisfied.
December 8, 2015 @ 8:12 pm
The whole point of Victory of the Daleks was to do theme park Britain. The money shot was the absurdity image of jolly RAF lads in Spitfires flying into outer space to fight the Daleks. Once the decision was made to place Winston Churchill in that milieu, he was always going to be a patriotic icon rather than a recognizable human being. Viewed that way, the white-washing of his character is no more objectionable than the rest of that silly episode (one of my least favorite of the Matt Smith era). And in any case, I can hardly say too much in complaint, what with all the $5 bills in my wallet which all depict the face of Andrew Jackson, America’s original genocidal madman.
December 8, 2015 @ 8:46 pm
Jackson is on the $20. Lincoln is on the $5.
December 9, 2015 @ 9:36 am
sptrashcan: Shhh, don’t tip him off!
Alan: I don’t suppose I could trade you a ten for two of those “fives”?
December 9, 2015 @ 11:48 pm
Also, he was hardly the original.
December 9, 2015 @ 2:05 am
I’m deeply uncomfortable with Victory’s representation of Churchill and particularly the Doctor being friends with him, but have come up with a headcanon that the Doctor has spent so much time around Britain that he’s inherited our biases and blind spots in terms of history, and literally does not know the problems with him.
Nixon…that’s an interesting revision from your previous position of the Doctor being chums with him, which is at least an improvement. But if the plot of the episode dictates that he has to work with Nixon, how much queasiness can be shown without derailing the episode? As it is, The Doctor puts on a performance of amiability, but dislikes what he’s done (Vietnam War mentioned in particular) enough that he sets him up for Watergate for shits and giggles.
As for the BBC correspondent, while I agree with pretty much everything here, is he speaking in personal or professional capacity? It makes a slight difference as to whether or not his point is ‘we’d never censor history for our kids’. Not much, though, and the two may be inextricably linked.
December 9, 2015 @ 10:59 am
Is there any prominent Briton of the year 1941 that the Doctor could be friends with who would not have some horribly compromising association with horrific events?
Are we picking on Churchill, in particular, or is it basically just “the British Empire was bad, and we shouldn’t celebrate anyone associated with it?”
And why should the Doctor’s friendship with Churchill be in any way surprising? He was good friends with the Brigadier, who attempted to commit genocide against an entire species. Obviously, the Brig is fictitious while Churchill was a real person, but doesn’t that make it worse?
December 9, 2015 @ 11:52 pm
Meanwhile, in America, our biggest state (the one that drives much of the education standard for the middle of the country) puts out history books with no mention of slavery and, for that matter, no mention of Thomas Jefferson. After all, slavery was bad, and if the founding fathers owned slaves, wouldn’t that make America bad? We can’t have that sort of existential nationalist crisis going on in our children’s minds! They’re not advanced enough to learn what Cognitive Dissonance is! Best to just leave ’em out. The constitution was handed down by god to St. George Washington, on the occasion of him slaying the great British dragon.