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Coming to terms with the calamity

G'day. Polly Bush is a Webdiary columnist. She first took a look at securing our borders in Dear fellow Australian...

The mainstream media’s recent fascination with placing 15-minutes-of-fame people in unreal situations and dressing it up as ‘reality television’ seems to have taken a turn to focus more on ‘real’ crime, ‘real’ tragedy, and in this 21st century, ‘real terrorism’.

For those who came in late, suddenly there seems to have been an explosion on our small screens on “securing our borders”, with an increasing amount of prime time dedicated to the subject.

Last week I had the unfortunate channel surfing experience of catching not one, but three different shows on ‘real life’ security matters of ‘international’ importance.

Border Security’, an Australian based production, focuses on the work of Customs staff at a major metropolitan airport – highlighting the predictable (drugs hidden in luggage) to the kooky (drugs hidden in mysterious objects).

Arguably the most exciting scene in last week’s episode was an earnest Customs official trying to explain to an overseas student that mung beans contained traces of seed.

Surely the Australian version can do better than that. Surely in a pitch to really boost ratings, all the producers would have to do is simply follow a bunch of eyebrow plucking Australians to Bali.

But supposedly these shows are rating well as it is. Channel Seven’s ‘Border Security’ is having far more success with ratings than its local content dramas like ‘Last Man Standing’.

The American show ‘Airline USA’ last week documented the not-so-riveting task of asking seemingly intoxicated people to leave an aircraft. Fascinating. Not.

New Zealand also has its own version of a program about “securing our borders”, which begins with opening credits that appear to make the program look like a serious sinister form of Baywatch.

But instead of leading into images of David (Go the Hoff!) Hasselhoff rippling down a beach, the audience is greeted with likeable pudgy Kiwi characters solemnly cracking down on illegal fishing practices along the NZ coastline.

You’d think the producers were merely trying to see how many times they could get the audience chuckling with the amount of mentions of the word “fush”:

“Excewz moy, but as a Fusheries Offica, I thenk ewe hev too mini mini cockles in that fushin’ vissal”.

Yes, indeed our lives changed when two passenger planes were hijacked and driven into the World Trade Center towers in 2001.

But did any of us envisage that this new interest in “border security” would lead to an explosion in so-called “reality” television shows?

Things are happening on the big screen too.

As reported recently, Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures and Colombia Pictures are all busy making films about September 11, 2001.

Supposedly, this a good indication of the general public’s coping mechanisms:

While Hollywood's embrace of the 9/11 story may seem exploitative to some, Paul Levinson, a media scholar at Fordham University in New York, called it a "healthy" sign that the popular culture is coming to terms with the calamity.

"Since this is one of the transcending, defining events of our age, inevitably Hollywood ... has to deal with it," he told Reuters. "It's part of the process by which we come to understand our own feelings about this."

Similarly, mid-last year a flurry of film productions were forecast on the topic of the Bali bombings.

Along with the focus on terrorism attacks, the general public is increasingly being fed dollops of “real crime stories”, whether it’s on the small screen, big screen or in magazines and newspapers.

Obviously a fascination in all things gruesome has titillated the masses since the beginning of time, but did I really have to recently read about the Korps and goat sacrificing?

Reading headlines like “Joe joins his Maria” (mX) - a reference to Joe Korp, the man who suicided after his girlfriend’s attempted (and later successful) murder of his wife Maria (a crime he allegedly orchestrated) – is a sick demonstration of when crime reporting turns into soap opera (incidentally, was it just me, or did anyone else notice the Collingwood Football Club scarf Gus Korp was wearing at his brother’s funeral and momentarily wonder about the depths the CFC will go to for signage?)

No doubt the Korp story will one day end up on one of these new “real crime” shows, or better yet, will appear the subject of the new ‘Australian Story’ rip-off documenting sad people’s lives on one of the commercial networks (a very poor version of the ABC’s award winning program if you ask me).

While the general public might be fascinated with “real crime”, “real forensics”, “real terrorism”, and “really sick shit in general”, does the frenzied airing or publication of these stories serve as any preventative measure or have any real educational purpose?

No doubt people will still try to smuggle mung beans in their airport luggage. Idiots will still get drunk on planes. Idiots will still take drugs in or into Indonesia. Selfish tourists will still pilfer treasures from our coastlines. Tragic domestic homicides will remain a reality.

If this is the new trend in “reality television”, perhaps placing the 15-minutes-of-fame people in pretty exotic locations or trapped in houses with no shower curtains isn’t really so bad after all.



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re: Coming to terms with the calamity

What about the Spider-Man movie saga? The film was scheduled for release on, I think, September 15 2001. The "ultimate battle between good and evil", Spidey one-on-one with the Green Goblin, took place on the rooftops of the Twin Towers.

Then cam the attack. The movie posters disappeared from the streets, and when the movie came out, there were no twin towers.

It can be argued that the change occurred to protect damaged public sensibilities in a time of national crisis. It can also be argued that the eradication of the momunents from ongoing media footage could
enhance the cultural impact of the tower's demise.

On a similarly banal level, an "in-the-can" but unbroadcasted episode of "Friends" featured a line about a character being so anal that they wanted to go to the airport four hours before a flight. In the new enviroment of massive airport security, the scene was deleted.

There's reality media for you. Extrapolate the sentiment to Polly's article and think "psy-op". Not pleasant, is it?

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Anyone see the best piece of reality television I've seen for a while? Channel 9 Sunday programme featured a Geoffrey Robertson 'Hypothetical' relating to terrorism, and featured a diverse bunch of politicians, religious representatives, and media types as part of the panel. Very challenging, very revealing and compulsory viewing for all Webdiarists if ever repeated. Moral and ethical dilemmas, hypocrisy, humour, values all hung out for examination. More of the usual erudition of this well known jurist. I hope it is repeated.

Margo: Sounds great! The Sunday link is here. Go Jana, Ross, Helen, John and the rest of Sunday's journalist team.

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Hey Polly I find one thing about this new TV programming trend particularly fascinating (or frustrating... or both). And that's how the program's producers try to use all the special effects in the kit bag to make it seem soooo serious - be it the menace of mung bean mules or the crooks in the cockle cabal - whilst the broadcaster cuts in every few minutes with adverts for such serious life changing stuff as...

... ridiculous ring tones.

... fun ways to feed yourself a few ounces of fat.

... ridiculous ring tones (again for heavens' sake).

... products that claim to make women feel comfortable about something I understand just ain't that comfortable (well it may not be as uncomfortable as several condoms full of poison crammed into your colon but I believe it is uncomfortable nevertheless).

... and finally the must see other sooo serious program, that for sure will be chock-a-block with emotive build up then... more stupid ads.

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Don't get me started on reality TV! It is the most banal lot of rubbish ever invented. Why it holds this fascination for people is beyond me. What ever happened to good quality programs? No wonder the Australian film & TV industry is in such a state when all the money the networks have is poured into such utter trash. And now of course we have a whole generation who has been fed a diet of this muck over the years and who just sit around longing for the next season of Big Brother. Give me a break!

Sorry, I was off on my little rant. But Polly does make some good points. Perhaps in watching so much death and destruction on TV people become desensitised to it all and in that way can better cope with the reality of our "new" world.

As for any preventative terroism measure I would say that these programs are not going to do much good. I mean how many people would take any notice when standing on a train platform if someone leaves an unattended bag? Current Affair recently did a little trial just like that and the results were not good.

People still tend to live in their own little world, with the "it can't happen to me" idea. It is certainly better than living in fear, I suppose.

Still I wish we could have something worth watching on TV other than these awful reality shows.
Till then I shall just have to stick to books and DVD's.

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Having just read the Sunday link I can safely say Dr Mahatir, please go home!

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Martin Davies, are you being serious or mischievous?

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Do you think maybe, Wendy, that reality TV is to the traditional drama as Blogging is to traditional reading?

We each get a little insight into how somebody else that we may well never meet (and probably have no desire to meet) thinks, feels or reacts to a situation that interests us.

We can get little bite sized bits or we can wallow in it, but the way it is presented does not necessarily make it junk. And either forum can be equally as addictive!

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

'While the general public might be fascinated with “real crime”, “real forensics”, “real terrorism”, and “really sick shit in general”, does the frenzied airing or publication of these stories serve as any preventative measure or have any real educational purpose?'

Does it matter?

Give the people what they want. If it gets ratings, it lasts. If people are interested, good for them. Sometimes it is just the interest factor, rather than fearmongering. If the people want arts shows on the impact of cubist domination of the visual during the cultural revolution before the war, or miniseries on the Tudor dynasty, so be it. But it seems only the people who run the ABC really want it, otherwise the commercial channels would run them. Or cable would (and often does) put them on channel 7690 (pay per snigger) at 3am in the morning. Reality TV in its many forms is an idea that the people (for a time, depending on its incarnation) enjoy seeing. Why laugh at it?

Or should we have some Commissars of the People check what we watch for its 'educational value' or 'preventative measures'?

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Actually I'm quite serious. I don't like Dr Mahathir - his opinions and attitude is blatant hatred, and pure ignorance which I find deplorable. Especially in respect to his comments regarding homosexuality. That he thinks what two adult men do in private deserves corporal punishment ought to be rejected out right by every citizen in this country.

I never joke about these things!

SO much damage is done in the name of hatred and vile prejudice. That it suits some for political reasons to cosy up next to opinions of foreign -former or current heads of state who think homosexuality is a crime deserves nothing but my utter contempt and is a disgrace. Same goes for those politicians who patronise religious leaders who offer the same vile hatred as something they think is legitimate discourse.

Precisely what I say applies - Mahathir, go home, is what his comments an opinions deserve - my utter disrespect and scorn.
I make no apologies for him or others like him.

Last week in the gay press there was a report that two young Iranian teenagers were hung in public for homosexual activity. The photos in SX and the Sydney Star Observer said it all. The Iranian government of course coveted their brutality, claiming the two had raped a minor but most commentators and reports suggest this was bollocks, they were executed for being homosexual and rest of the story was pure fabrication. This is unacceptable to me!

There is no joking about such a serious matter, and to make it all the more important is to recognise that since 1992, 2000 Iranians have been executed for homosexual activity.

This is genocide - unreported and often times ignored by the mainstream press because most just don't give a damn.

Why should gay men living anywhere, live in fear of authorities and leadership such as Mahathir's which hold such barbaric and antiquated notions of morality. It’s a crime to punish people for their sexuality, and crimes such as these are committed against minority groups of human beings who are limited as always to fight back with a wider public support to count on each and every day. Australians often times regard homosexuality as a joke – it’s no joke. These men are someone's son or daughter and their families suffer too.

Humanity has to rise above this type of hatred but we don't because most don't really care!

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

I think that if they really wanted to make use of reality TV then they should follow real live people as they try to have issues addressed and even criminals as they are put before the Court.

That would be an eye-opener as then the people will see exactly how the system works - or in reality how it doesn't work.

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

I appologise for going slightly off thread, but Wendy, my understanding the Current Affair story is that all but one of those unattended bags where noticed and action taken in under 5 minutes. I believe that this pretty efficient and timely action. Before the Twin Towers and Pentigon incidents those same bags would have been left undisturbed all day and most probably thrown into the rubbish by the cleaners at the end of the day. Because of the average Australians 'not getting involved' with something, that 5 years ago, they didn't consider to be any of their business.

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

David, I have to agree - I much prefer the reality of a show like Insight on SBS with real participants (though no doubt carefully selected all the same), to the slickly produced so called "reality" of Border Security and it's ilk.

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Jolanda I believe there was a reality TV program that did exactly that a few years ago. I can't remember what it was called but I do remember watching it.

May have even been on the ABC.

Does anyone else remember this and what it was called?

I recall watching a couple of episodes and thinking it was pretty dull. As someone who used to work in a court as a public servant I could see they cut most of the hours of tedium that are involved in every court case out.

And I assume they were showing the cases they thought most interesting.

Which I guess goes to show that even "selected" court cases aren't very interesting unless you have a stake in the outcome.

The problem with these reality TV shows like Border Security is they are not really a reflection of reality. I don't have figures but I imagine that only a pretty small percentage of the people entering or leaving Australia each day are carrying drugs, travelling on false passports, smuggling (intentionally or not) prohibited seeds, plants, weapons, aerosol cans and cigarettes.

But showing the reality of innocent traveller after innocent traveller coming through customs with nothing to declare or dutifully forking out for their bottles of booze etc would hardly be very entertaining ...

My experience with the courtroom show makes me wonder everytime I see these sorts of programs (the Hospital ones and the Highway Patrol ones and the Border Security ones etc) exactly what is being left out ... and hence what a peculiar view of reality they must be giving to viewers.

Hopefully most viewers see them as simply entertainment, because if not then I guess there are a lot of people out there with a very peculiar view of the way the world works (nothing new I guess).

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

I enjoyed this article immensely thanks Polly.

'Surely the Australian version can do better than that. Surely in a pitch to really boost ratings, all the producers would have to do is simply follow a bunch of eyebrow plucking Australians to Bali.'


re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Apologies as well to Martin, I should have noted that he had only read the transcript and did not see the broadcast, so would have been unaware of the video link bit.

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Does anyone else worry about the racist undertones in the likes of Border Securty.

The show, and especially the advertisements for it, send out a very us vs them message and imply that all foreigners are ether stupid or out to hurt us by bringing in drugs or guns. Even the name of the show "Border Security - Australia's Front Line" implies that we are at some sort of war with foreign invaders.

Maybe I am reading too much into it but it really worries that this is the way foreigners are portrayed in the popular media.

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Re movies and S11 - a movie based on Alan Moore's V for Vendetta is almost complete (staring our own Hugo Weaving) in which a terrorist is the hero - be interesting to see how it plays when it hits the screens.

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Martin, I agree with your sentiments, it was just that I thought he was appearing via a video link from Malaysia and was attracted by the reference to asking him to "go home".

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

There is hardly any light or wisdom in the media or entertainment arenas. I think it's time we just give up all hope in the media and the system.

We need to establish a new agenda, rather than consuming trash and repeated formulas that are designed to stimulate our lowest instincts. We need to nurture our higher instincts.

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Martin Davies I can well understand your ire at Mahathir's presence especially given the trumped-up sodomy charges against dissident Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and the gaoling of Mohamad Ezam Mohd Nor

This vain and vindictive old man who preened shamelessly for the world media at the 1998 Commonwealth Games was nevertheless a master at playing the messy game that is Malaysian politics, and he was quite happy to use the basic social conservatism of Malaysian society against both his reformist opponents and against Islamic fundamentalists in this supposedly democratic country with its British-derived legal system.

"Official" Islam in any Muslim country (as distinct from Koranic teachings) whether political or clerical in nature is going to take a long time to extend even the most token Western-style tolerance to what is seen as deviant sexual behaviour. This includes real as distinct from legislated tolerance and equality for women as well as rights for gays and lesbians. Malaysians, like Indonesians, also view their national leaders as fathers (or mothers) of the nation rather than as equals, notwithstanding that these leaders may have been more or less democratically elected. The notion of chieftainship looms large still. So these leaders are seen as offering moral guidance to their people as well as secular rule.

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Michael Connors in The Age (Opinion, 2/9) makes a number of very penetrating observations about the disconnect between the actual alarm about terrorism held by those in power and what the power elite tell the public . When such a disconnect exists it is the task of the media to make those in power accountable. But in fact the media has been a willing participant in stoking fear and loathing. There is a very good reason for this. Scaring the public enables the Government to ram through unpopular "reforms" that will enhance the power and privilege of the rich whilst cracking down on the poor. The media are owned and operated by the rich so it is entirely natural that the Australian media should happily provide the decisive support for John Howard's jihad against the Australian people.

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Top British scientific adviser Sir David King warns Global warming may be to blame for Katrina. See here

By Andrew Buncombe, 31 August 2005

Sir David King, the British Government's chief scientific adviser, has warned that global warming may be responsible for the devastation reaped by Hurricane Katrina.
"The increased intensity of hurricanes is associated with global warming," Professor King told Channel 4 News yesterday. "We have known since 1987 the intensity of hurricanes is related to surface sea temperature and we know that, over the last 15 to 20 years, surface sea temperatures in these regions have increased by half a degree centigrade.
"So it is easy to conclude that the increased intensity of hurricanes is associated with global warming."

Maybe now Bush and Howard will take the real and present danger of Global warming more seriously than the threat of terrorism?

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

Michelle Davis, for sure in the past there have been different shows in relation to this aspect, but I believe that if they are not successful it is because of the way they have been presented and the choice of material presented.

The system wants us to believe that only sex, drugs, crime and infidelity are interesting news and the rest is boring. So they present the rest in a boring way so that nothing changes. Money is what rules and what brings in the money at this stage is sex, drugs and crime.

What I found interesting in some of those shows where they follow the Police on the beat is that they pull over a car, the driver has an expired license, their car isn’t registered, they have all these issues and they are allowed to drive away. It begs the question, are these things actually against the Law or is it just against the Law to be caught doing these things?

Until they clear this up, the criminals will learn the system and know exactly what they can get away with and how to get away with anything. Worse still, they won’t care and will even consider it a game.

re: Coming to terms with the calamity

A breakdown of television viewing habits per political persuasions - from Roy Morgan research:

Crime and Drama

L-NP supporters are more likely to be found watching Crime and Drama. They watch CSI, CSI Miami and The Bill (42% each, 3% higher than the general population). ER, Lost and Desperate Housewives all have higher than average L-NP audiences at 42% (3% above average). ALP audiences are also higher than average for ER (39%) and Desperate Housewives (39%) and Lost (40%). They also attract higher than average ALP audiences at 39% for ER and Desperate Housewives and 40% for Lost.

Australian Crime and Drama also attracts L-NP supporters with Blue Heelers and All Saints enjoying a 43% L-NP audience (4% higher than the general population). McLeod’s Daughters has a strong L-NP following at 46% of the audience (7% above average) with an ALP share down 3% compared with the general population to 35%.

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