IN the 1970s, British journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge insisted that television news involved deliberate deception.
During lectures on the media in London in 1976, he stated:
I remember once returning to my hotel in New York and noticing on the way that a crowd had assembled outside what was obviously an embassy or consulate of some sort — I found out afterwards that it belonged to one of the Arab countries. There were the usual students assembled — bra-less girls, bearded men, holding slogans with placards on them; also a police van in attendance, and a number of cops standing by with their truncheons — everything set for a demo. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked, and was told, as though it should have been obvious, that the cameras hadn’t yet turned up. I lingered on, until they came, and watched them set up and start rolling. Then, ‘Action!’ whereupon, placards were lifted, slogans shouted, fists clenched; a few demonstrators were arrested and pitched into the police van, and a few cops kicked, until, ‘Cut!’ Soon the cameras, the cops, and the demonstrators had all departed, leaving the street silent and deserted. Later, in the evening, in my hotel room, I watched the demo on the screen in one of the news programmes. It looked very impressive.
Muggeridge, who died in 1990 and had worked for newspapers, television and radio during his long career in journalism, was a media prophet.
His writings on the Age of Television anticipated some of the events of 9/11, such as the moment when a BBC correspondent reported the collapse of World Trade Center Building 7 before it happened, and the explosion of awareness brought by the Internet.
BBC correspondent Jane Standley reported the fall of WTC 7 fell before it collapsed.
Muggeridge was pro-Communism in his youth (his father was a founder of the Fabian Society), but changed his views after he visited the Soviet Union. He reported on the famine in the Ukraine in 1933, in which an estimated 7 million died. Some of his writings on the subject were suppressed by The Manchester Guardian, the publication for which he wrote at the time. He called Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer-winning journalist who denied the famine in the pages of The New York Times, “the greatest liar I have met in journalism.” Muggeridge became a Christian in his 60s.
His lectures on the media, which later became the book Christ and the Media, fell mostly on deaf ears. Executives at the BBC, where he worked, were not impressed with his view that television production by its very nature, regardless of the good intentions of journalists, involved fantasy and propaganda, not reality.
Muggeridge said he had spoken to the famous novelist George Orwell:
He told me something that I never tire of laughing at and repeating whenever a good opportunity occurs — when he was devising the Ministry of Truth in 1984, the BBC was his model. He worked there in the war, and his Ministry of Truth bears unmistakable traces of this experience — all those long chilly corridors are unmistakably Broadcasting House.
Perhaps Muggeridge is less known than the media critic Marshall McLuhan, who was of the same era, because he was so openly Christian and never resorted to the opaque bloviations to which McLuhan was prone.
He wrote clearly and simply:
I don’t myself in any way equate the invention of printing with the invention of television. There are enormous differences between the two, and one of the most obvious ones is that the printed word — which I hold in veneration — is not subject to the same centralised control as television. In other words, many people can print clandestinely and openly, with flat-bed presses or with rotaries, and so on; but in the case of television, you have to have, by the nature of the technology, a centralised control. What has not been worked out is whose control, or in what terms that control is to be exercised.
Words, printed words, are words that have arisen in a human mind. They are connected with thought and with art. But photography or filming, is a completely different thing. It is machine made; … it is seeing with, not through, the eye; looking but not seeing.
If you set up a camera and take a film, that is not considered to be anybody’s views; that is reality, and, of course, it is much more fantasy than the words.