1980s >> 1988 >> no-1001-january-1988

Between the Lines: Keep the tears flowing

Television thrives on tears. Tears of distress make good news disaster stories; tears of sentimentality bring in a few quid for Terry Wogan’s annual evening of pseudo-benevolent piety. Children In Need (BBC1. Friday 27 November, all evening); tears of anger, such as those of victims of so-called terrorists’ attack, are easier images than those of explanation. It is a cruel and harsh observation to make, but the facts indicate that cheers go out in the TV centres every time news of a new cause for tears and mass suffering comes in through the teleprinter. One sees the look of excited expectation upon the faces of these tasteless, trivialising newsreaders; “And news is just coming in of an air disaster in Manchester — it looks like as many as twenty could be dead — but keep watching, we’ll do our best to push the figures up — and then we’ll be the first on the scene when the injured are persuaded to show their ugly wounds before the cameras — as a matter of fact, a little birdy tells me that we might just have first degree burn on a little kid to flash before you. so keep your eyes on the screen and then well show you the ritual tour of the overcrowded casualty wards by The Royal Couple”.

No, of course it is not true that TV producers actually take a sadistic pleasure in seeing workers suffer, but there can be no doubt that tears make good TV for them and that is what they are out to make. One recalls that awful day when cameras showed the burning alive of those numerous workers who stood on the unsafe terraces at Bradford Football Club and perished. Of course, the commentators were genuinely moved. But something else was going on. TV uses disaster for a particular social function. Firstly, it is intended to say to viewers. “Look at these poor sods: you might be poor, insecure and depressed, but at least you’re not the ones being burned alive. There’s always someone worse off than you. you know”. How long have workers been deterred from taking real action to solve our own misery now on the grounds that to do so would be wrong, for first we must attend to the miseries of those who are worse off than us?

Secondly, there is something inherently irrational about tears. To be sure, it is psychologically very useful to have a good cry when misery becomes too much to bear — and it is incredible the number of men who are afraid to do so, not least because of the TV imagery which shows that “men don’t cry”. But tears are an expression, not an explanation; a cry and not a speech. And TV likes to catch the workers at our most inarticulate and animalistic. It confirms the basic Christian doctrine that try as we might to pose as reasoned beings, when the Lord decides that it is disaster time (vicious swine that this legendary god must be) all we are empowered to do is weep like babies.

Thirdly, disaster allows the capitalist system to be seen as caring. That is why Margaret Thatcher is always on the scene — with cameras firmly focussed on her — when the tears are flowing. The newsreader lets us know that The Queen sends her condolences. When do these uncaring, rich parasites send their condolences to the families of the thousands of old people who die of hypothermia each winter because they are too poor to switch on a heater? But give us a nice, single, packaged disaster and we see just how caring these defenders of the system really are.

What TV does not show — or, if it ever makes moves towards doing so, it happens at late and undramatic moments — is why these tears must flow. Why did hundreds drown in the cold sea off Zeebrugge? Was it anything to do with the shipowners making huge profits out of over-packing cross-channel ferries? Why did they burn to death at Bradford? Were the owners of the football club, who allowed spectators to stand on dangerous wooden stands, not placing profit before human needs? Why did they burn to death on the escalators at King’s Cross station? We do not yet know, but might it not have at least something to do with London Regional Transport’s decision to divert the money it had allocated for scrapping the unsafe wooden escalators to building heavy steel barriers to stop fare dodgers?

Why are children in need, Terry Wogan? Your children will not be in need (and we are very glad to know it) because you receive millions of pounds for presenting trivia to the BBC. But is it really worth spending one evening a year indulging in a TV charity marathon which can only collect less than £10 million from the entire population of Britain when every hour the British government spends £1.5 million on arms alone? Children In Need shows a tragedy beyond the tragedy. The tragedy it tries to depict is that of large numbers of kids who need our pennies and the few quid which the worker can spare in order to alleviate their suffering. Credit where it is due: the presenters of the programme all do a very good job in showing us just how needy these kids are. just how tearful we should be. But the tragedy which transcends those tears is that we are now living in a society which is more than able to satisfy the needs of those deprived and diseased children — more than capable of allocating resources to end or alleviate as much as possible their suffering, but does not do so because of the warped logic of capitalism which must place profits before needs.

The real tragedy is that we must look at the needless waste of children’s health and happiness which has been allowed to go on in a system which makes a TV show out of caring and an economic science out of saying “go away and die”. When workers wake up to the sense of what capitalism is doing to us all — to the children of Ethiopia who now are pushed before the cameras so that more tear-flowing may be indulged in. led by the ever-miserable Bob Geldof — and to men, women and children across the world — when workers wake up there will be more important things to do than to weep. We can leave that to the tears of relief which will doubtlessly follow upon our self-emancipation.

Murder by law
If tears are what you fancy, then few programmes in 1987 could have had more effect than Fourteen Days In May, shown by the BBC last November. This was a documentary which would soon disabuse innocents who were under the misapprehension that racists stopped sending their victims into gas chambers after the Nazis fell from power. Not so. This extremely moving documentary told the story of a black worker from the Southern USA who was convicted to death for the alleged crime of shooting a white cop and — worst of all — raping a white woman. In the racist South nothing short of legalised murder would suffice to teach the man a lesson (there’s nothing like death to teach us lessons, I always think) and in this particular state death is by gassing.

The BBC cameras showed the gas chamber being prepared by the wage slaves in uniform, and even the gassing of a rabbit on a trial run. All very sick. We watched the victim live out his final fourteen days on Death Row where he had been for eight years. We watched him hope for leniency and we watched him walk into the gas chamber. It was like watching a social system throwing up. After Johnson had been gassed to death we had a message from the producer flashed across the screen. On the night that he had allegedly committed the two crimes of which he had always pleaded innocent he had been with a black woman. This alibi went into a police station some time after his arrest and offered herself as a witness but was warned by the white cop that she had no right to interfere in their business.

Earlier the same month we were shown on Channel Four the excellent two-part documentary, Shoah, which told of the mass gassing of people by the Nazis half a century ago. Capitalism still goes on; the gas chambers are still being used; who the hell are the inhabitants of this system to call themselves civilised?
Steve Coleman