Later today I must remember to print out an emboldened notice in 72 point script and sellotape it to the television. WARNING: PLEASE REMEMBER THAT PANORAMA IS RUBBISH!
The last time I inflicted the BBC’s ‘flagship current affairs programme’ upon myself, it prompted an intemperate rant about John Sweeney and his eerily Chris Morris-esque ‘Weekend Nazis’ documentary. Alas, I had forgotten this previous experience when I settled down last night to watch Panorama’s supposed examination of modern Britishness.
I suppose that in the blogosphere we are spoilt with a surfeit of reflective sites which ponder extensively and thoughtfully questions of identity and nationality, political and cultural, as they impact upon the United Kingdom. Still, it was shocking that the national broadcaster should produce such a trite, gimmicky, slanted and at times downright offensive treatment of a complex and fascinating subject.
It was particularly frustrating that the programme touched upon issues which deserved a much more thorough and considered examination. The Labour government’s project to define and impose a sense of Britishness is ill-considered. What is more, it seeks to impose Britishness at the expense of other identities which can be held in common. Why, for example, isn’t the British government seeking to allow multiple expression of identity on census forms?
Rather than focus on such issues, Vivian White’s documentary instead chose to attack Britishness and present it as an identity felt only by white nationalists, Ulster Orangemen and a Labour Party trying desperately to retain its hold on the United Kingdom. The evidence adduced was a series of vox pops with teenagers and people on the street, many of whom looked blank when asked to describe what Britishness meant to them. Of course a vox pop of any nationality asking such an abstract question would produce its fair share of blank looks.
As for the BNP, naturally British nationalism abuses the concept of nationality by defining it in exclusive terms and appealing to popular sentiment against the ‘other’, but the BNP and other British nationalist groups have been overwhelmingly rejected time and time again at the polls.
In the midst of all the tricksy photography, fast cuts and gimmicky editing, it was easy to miss Northern Ireland’s introduction to the debate, but even so the reaction, ‘oh god no, that’s Drumcree’, escaped me as Britishness (presented by the BBC) became the preserve of fanatical Orangemen. To drop this portrayal of Northern Ireland, graced by neither context nor nuance, into the debate was typical of the facile approach this programme took. Northern Ireland is a crucible of contested identities and two minutes of flags and murals added nothing to an already lightsome whole.
Ironically this snide documentary was presented on the same day that the UK’s Olympics team flew home to a rapturous reception, after two weeks of galvanising British people around its efforts. The important aspects of Britishness, the shared history, institutions and values, were barely touched upon, and the fact that Britishness is a mutable thing which encompasses all those who subscribe to it, was lost entirely. What is Britishness? It is you and me and all of us. The BBC, which is in a unique position to examine this carefully, instead produces populist, insubstantial nonsense in the guise of its flagship documentary show.