Category: truth

Truth, lies and documentaries

By , 11 December 2009 6:30 pm

It was the last day of teaching today and I was delighted to be able to show a BBC documentary Hot Planet on climate change issues to my environmental studies students. The ability to project television programmes from the BBC’s excellent iPlayer in class is potentially revolutionary.  It was also a very relevant documentary. It was typical of the current fashion in documentaries: sexy presenters (male and female), dramatic imagery, continuous and often loud background music and it bounced from topic to topic so rapidly that it was hard to be bored. Boredom must be avoided at all costs! There was much about it that I thought was good and it was an excellent complement to my lectures and notes. And, as I mentioned in last week’s blog, I don’t really have much of an objection to its thesis that we face human-induced global warming on a somewhat alarming scale.

There was however something that troubled me to the point at which I think it is worth blogging on. I’ve seen it before and Hot Planet was by no means the worst offender. Quite simply it was the blurring and intercutting of computer-generated imagery (CGI) with real imagery. In places we shifted within 20 seconds from fantasy film CGI (clips from Day after Tomorrow) through digitally created computer reconstructions to true imagery from real events and all without warning. Frankly, I don’t like it.  I could tell the difference from real storm footage to Hollywood generated imagery but I’m not convinced my students could. In the past, the shift from reality to grainy and pixelated computer-created imagery was so obvious as to need no comment. Now it is much less easy to tell the difference between these, let alone the intermediate of ‘Photo-shopped Reality’. I should say, by the way, for the benefit of climate sceptics and conspiracy theorists that I was not aware of any case which materially altered the factual basis of the documentary. It was just done for effect. I have no doubt similar things occur in almost every documentary.

I don’t mind this sort of thing in the cinema, particularly in something like science fiction or historical fantasy. But I find it troubling in documentaries. Ideally, I would like some sort of icon or subtitle that states whether what we are seeing is authentic, enhanced or totally created. That is of course too much to ask given the almost universal occurrence of digitally enhanced imagery; we all tweak our holiday snaps in some way or another. To some extent distortion of imagery is as old as the camera; as the saying goes ‘the camera always lies’. Indeed, in the dim and distant days of film, you could always buy particular slide and print films that gave somewhat enhanced colours to make your holiday skies and seas bluer than they really were. But here we have gone much much further.

Now, this may seem a petty rant but here there are deep issues here on how we portray truth in a society that has given up the idea of a divine truth. I suspect that a massive distortion of the truth never arrives in a single overwhelming tsunami of falsehood; instead it creeps in quietly like the advancing tide through the successive advance of a million wavelets of little deceits.

There is an interesting side-effect of all this that merits noticing. The effect of such CGI wizardry and Photo-shop enhancement is not, in fact, a mood of universal credulity in which people believe everything they see. It is actually the very contrary; an endemic and pervasive scepticism which doubts everything. I’m not sure whether credulity or scepticism is worse. Those who doubt everything will never believe lies; but equally they will never be able to trust the truth either.

Have a good week.

A warning to the incautious

By , 18 September 2009 6:00 pm

I don’t understand this blogging business; post something innocuous and you get lots of responses, say something outrageous and there is only silence. I thought for instance last week I would have lots of responses; instead Catherine took another position in her post (she made some fair points even if I don’t agree with them all) and we got not a single response. Oh well.

Anyway, some people might lament the fact that I am not hard-hitting enough, that I do not thrash about and lash the targets of the age with barbed witticisms and withering critiques. (Memo to self: must read Richard Dawkins’s new book – that should give me something to be venomous about.) There are several reasons why this is not a more acid blog and my belief in grace and forgiveness is only one of them.

One reason is something that has always lurked at the back of my mind but which has surfaced rather spectacularly in the UK; namely our extraordinary libel laws. I picked up a fascinating and disturbing case in a recent perusal of the New York Times website. The background is that a British science journalist of some repute, Simon Singh, wrote an article in The Guardian in which he said there was no evidence for some of the claims that the British Chiropractic Association makes about the health benefits of visiting a chiropractor. He specifically wrote, “The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.” That penultimate and incautious word bogus damned him and he is now being sued for libel by the BCA. He is in a desperate no-win situation. In order to successfully defend himself, he will have to come up with at least £25,000 and spend a couple of years battling the BCA; if he loses he will be hammered for the best part of quarter of a million.

The problem is that British libel laws are very biased. It is apparently very easy to bring a libel case against someone and astonishingly hard and costly to defend having made an allegedly libellous statement. The New York Times says that the average cost of defending a libel case in England and Wales is 140 times greater than it is in most of the rest of Europe. Not only that but English law favours the person who believes he or she says she has been defamed.

Now I know almost nothing about chiropractors. Until I did a bit of reading up on the subject I was not aware that there was something of a philosophy behind it and I am not qualified to say whether Singh is right or wrong. (Mind you, I have my suspicions.) The New York Times‘s point of view was that the UK was definitely not a place for discussion of difficult scientific issues and I have to concur. What is surely legitimate discussion is being suppressed by the fear of punitive litigation.

If pushed to give a Christian take on this, I think I would want to say three things. The first is that, as those who are dedicated to the truth, we must have some sort of commitment to supporting open discussion even if the outcome can sometimes be abusive and hateful. ‘You will know the truth and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32). Surely, one of the differences between Christian orthodoxy and fundamentalism is that orthodoxy is prepared to risk being criticised. That somewhat aberrant Puritan, Milton wrote in protest against censorship. (Mind you I wonder whether he would have persisted in his views had he seen what’s on the Internet.) If this sort of legal situation persists we will have a culture of nothing but blandness and empty words. Perhaps this is the root of the legendary English politeness: not goodness of heart but the fear of being sued!

The second is that in the sovereignty of God (and the stupidity of men) such actions can actually be astonishingly self-defeating. Courtesy of this action I, and I’m sure many others, have gone from being neutrally ignorant on chiropractors to being better informed and distinctly more negative.

The third is the comforting thought that we know that the truth will ultimately triumph. Perhaps in this life but certainly in the next, the lie will perish. A verdict will be given that is more definitive (and certainly more unarguable) than given by any judge and jury. And if necessary we can wait until then.

So if you do turn to this blog and find a fiery condemnation of some movement or individual, can probably guess that I have left the UK’s shores and am living abroad. In the meantime I will watch out for words like ‘bogus’.

Have a good week.

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