The Complicity of Vice

Years ago, when the world and I was young, Iain Banks wrote a book called Complicity. It was about a man who wrote a bit, and a woman he fancied who became an accountant, his half-hearted pursuit of her and his how shall we say, his taste for alternative avenues of enjoyment. I have nothing in common with him. Honest.

Anyway, good book. It was really about the 1980s and how everything changed and even though while it was changing you had the feeling everything was turning into something not very nice at all, damn but it felt good. A lot of people sold their souls for a pair of fake tortoiseshell Ray-bans and thought they’d come out ahead on the deal. vice-1

It was about how bankruptcy accounting was a growth area and how good the 4×4 and the boat that bought you felt. It was about stupid schedules that meant you had to be off your face to meet them and how that was just supposed to be part of the job, in that whole ‘lunch is for wimps’ BS mantra. It was about a man who after the Falklands and the stupid venture-capital rubbish shop he opened going mega decided he’d extract a personal revenge on the people who’d annoyed him, now that he could afford to. And it was about how journalism and castles in the air, or in the book a computer game, turned to crap.

I just about remember how a team of journalists brought down Richard Nixon. These days editorial resource is devoted to ‘reporting’ the latest eternal truths from reality TV shows that aren’t even vaguely real. Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends was supposed to be a spoof when it was written about in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, not an accurate meta-analysis. To save you the bother, just in case you’re a journalist, book that was turned into Bladerunner. (Character in book but not in film watches TV all day long. Chat show. Called Buster F & his F Fs, obvs.)

At breakfast time Buster interviews an actress about the film she’s about to make. At lunchtime Buster interviews her about the film she’s making. At what we used to call teatime Buster interviews her about the film she’s just made. There isn’t any film. There never was and never will be and nobody minds. Just try not to think of the actress as Kenny Everett’s Cupid Stunt though. It doesn’t help at all.

As an accurate summary of news gathering now and how it relates to what’s going on, that seems a fair enough analogy to me, after ‘beheading videos’ that categorically didn’t show anything of the sort. And if you think they do, watch them again. Then tell me at what point you see the beheading, at what point the guy it’s being done to even flinches, and exactly where eight pints of blood fountaining into the air is supposed to have gone, because it certainly isn’t in the video.

Vice magazine looked as if it was going to be different. Until today when it didn’t print this, where John Ronson chats to Adam Curtis. Obviously, you’re supposed to be hipNhappenin™ enough to know exactly who these two are, or why their coffee time drolleries are worth publishing to the universe and yours aren’t. They tell you at the end, if you get to the end.

Totally relevant.
Totally relevant.

At least they didn’t do those twee little face shots that every newspaper feels they have to have now, feigning amazement, indignation or trying to look beautiful-when-they-take-their-glasses-off-and-nobody-ever-told-them-but-they-knew-it-anyway/quirky-kooky-smart in the way most female newspaper writers go for.

Why do you believe journalism changed?

Cooed John. Or Adam. It doesn’t really matter which. Trust me. Well, we like writing about interesting people. Not dull old guys who wear ties and iron their shirts and have meetings. So not people like well, JFK then. He was quite interesting. Or Churchill. Fat drunk though he was, anyone who wears the same clothes for five years, lives in a house with more bedrooms than lots of streets and eats steak and kidney pudding by mashing it up in the bowl and pouring it into his mouth because

Graphic enough for journalists, apparently.
Graphic enough for journalists, apparently.

So not people like well, JFK then. He was quite interesting. Or Churchill. Fat drunk though he was, anyone who wears the same clothes for five years, lives in a house with more bedrooms than lots of streets and eats steak and kidney pudding by mashing it up in the bowl and pouring it into his mouth because he’s off his face counts as quite interesting in my book.

Except of course, journalists didn’t write about that at all. We’re expected to believe that we got here because George Bush senior and his son look a bit dull, even if Junior bears a disturbing physical similarity to Alfred E. Neuman.

The Adam and John show took a little time out from ‘as I was saying in my latest book dude, just like that great film you just did…” to come out with this:

It’s intimately related to what has happened to politics, because journalism and politics are so inextricably linked. Politicians…handed power to other institutions… finance, but also to computer and managerial systems.

They reinvented other parts of the world they thought they could control into incredibly simplistic fables of good versus evil. I think Tony Blair is the clearest example of this – a man who handed power in domestic policy making over to focus groups, and then decided to go and invade Iraq.

Well, bollocks. We’re supposed to beleive that for the first time ever, finance dictated politics. I mean, what a preposterous idea! That could never happen. And even more ludicrously, we’re being asked to accept with a straight face that focus groups called for the Iraq war.

Tony Blair was a spineless liar driven by expediency. He crawled around George Bush to bask in the reflected glory of a man whose own election was clouded with doubt. He lied, lied and lied again. And the media lapped it up and gave it to people as the truth. Weapons of mass destruction. 911. Al Q’uada in the Middle East. Missiles from Iraq in 30 minutes. Our Brave Boys. All of it total bullshit. All of it churned out as ‘journalism.’

But it doesn’t stop there.

And I think this process led journalism to face the same problem. They discovered that the new motors of power – finance and the technical systems that run it, algorithms that try and read the past to manage the future, managerial systems based on risk and “measured outcomes” – are not just obscure and boring. They are almost impossible to turn into gripping narratives. I mean, I find them a nightmare to make films about, because there is nothing visual, just people in modern offices doing keystrokes on computers.

I wonder how much ‘gripping narrative’ there was about hundreds of clarks sitting on high stools under gaslights, copying longhand before type-writers were invented, the people who underpinned Empire, global domination, the Industrial Revolution, the Golden Age of railways, or any and all of that. Or how visually appealing the Corn Laws were, or the endless committe meetings that preceded passing the Act that gave women the vote. About the same as visualising a modern office, I’d guess.


Even more fatuouosly, we’re supposed to believe that the failure of modern journalism in the sense of it finding things out and telling people about them isn’t just because it’s easier to repeat government press releases than go and do something that an MP might not like, nor even that you’re paid the same whether you do or not, no, none of that. The failure isn’t that journalism as say, represented by the BBC, the thing that used to be the lodestone of impartial, accurate reporting, went the way of highly visual frock coats years ago. That would be too simplistic for Adam and John. The failure is one of imagination, apparently. Because let’s face it, giving people boring old facts, like say, that there weren’t any WMDs or if there were it was because we sold them in the first place, what would be the point of that? It’s just no imaginative enough. Unlike Adam and John. Who managed to get through the entire mutual admiration piece without once saying that the problem with modern journalism is it isn’t about finding things out any more. And they certainly don’t use any phrases about it losing any balls it might once have had.


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