Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.

Film

Raindance Film Festival, Apollo Piccadilly Circus, 26 Sept – 7 Oct

Notable for having repeatedly premiered next year’s most talked about films (cf. The Blair Witch Project, Memento, Old Boy), Raindance returns this week with its signature array of new movies from across continents, provocative new documentaries and live events. The Piccadilly Apollo and Haymarket Cineworld will lay on everything from a far-Eastern adaptation of The Tempest set in near-future Japan to an Irish horror mockumentary: Portrait of a Zombie. There will be a new Mexican Cinema strand, and as ever, short films will form an essential element of the line-up which debuts over 200 shorts on average each year. This year’s festival winner will be automatically shortlisted in the Best Short Film category at the 2013 Academy Awards. The full programme can be downloaded by clicking here.

 

Literature

The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, 5 – 14 Oct

Cheltenham’s Imperial Square will hold more marquees and Times readers than usual next weekend as the town’s annual literary festival gets under way. Big names involved in talks and debates include the world’s best-known “left-leaning demagogue” J. K. Rowling, recent memoirists Salman Rushdie and Paul Auster, screen stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul O’Grady and Clare Balding, and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, talking about his new book Interventions: A Life in War and Peace. The festival’s theme is apparently People: Power, and even if it barely needs the word “literature” in its title, the line-up is broad enough for everyone to find something of interest.

 

Music

Darbar Festival, Southbank Centre, 27 – 30 September

Darbar is a festival of Indian classical music which brings concerts, talks, food and yoga to the Southbank’s Centre’s Pucell Room once a year. At fourteen concerts across four days the programme boasts a selection of India’s best musicians, many of whom are sixth or seventh-generation instrumentalists, appearing in the UK for the first time. Ones to watch include the tabla master Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri and sitarist Ustad Shujaat Khan. Music is drawn from both the Hindustani (north Indian) and Carnatic (southern) traditions and for those who want to know more, the curators run an Indian Classical Music Appreciation Course, enabling newcomers to get their heads around the subcontinent’s ancient musical forms. After London, many of the concerts will tour to the rest of the UK.

 

Theatre

Our Country’s Good, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 2 – 6 October

In 1789 a young lieutenant named Ralph Clark was charged with directing inmates interred at the (new) New South Wales penal colony in a performance of the Restoration comedy the Recruiting Officer, commissioned to celebrate the king’s birthday. Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally (of Schindler’s Ark/List fame), Timberlake Wetenbaker’s play sees the lieutenant struggle with a morose cast, critical fellow officers, two damaged script books and a leading lady threatened with the gallows, to find out what theatre is really made of. First directed by Max Stafford-Clark in the late 80s and revived this year by the same director for his Out of Joint Theatre Company, the play will tour nationally before joining the opening season at London’s new St James Theatre early next year. This Tuesday’s performance will be followed by a post-show talk with the cast and crew.

 

Art

Open Studio Weekend, Gasworks, Vauxhall SE11 5RH, 28 – 29 September

A south London contemporary art organisation, Gasworks has studio space for eleven resident artists, three of whom have arranged a series of events for an Open Studio Weekend. Starting tonight Cécile B. Evans will premiere new works generated by an open call for rejection letters from artists and curators between 6-9pm, including a full studio tour at 7pm. The weekend continues on Saturday with Sunoj D., who will discuss his research for a commission by the National History Museum about the experiences and values of modern farmers (2pm, bring a plant pot), ending on Sunday (12pm) with a walk through London, exploring sights of protest and conflict from through the city’s history with Francisca Benítez.

The "left-leaning demagogue" J. K. Rowling will appear at the Cheltenham Literary Festival next week. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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