Here's watching you, Big Brother

Despite the tabloid sleaze-fest, will the reality TV show survive its move to Channel 5?

Here it comes, whether you like it or not.

Big Brother is approaching for its annual cavalcade of fame-hungry stage-school kids fighting, shouting, crying and shoving wine bottles up their vajayjays - but this time, there'll be a difference. This is Richard Desmond's Big Brother now it's on Channel 5.

I wrote a short while ago about how Desmond's publications have turned into an incestuous circle-jerk of cross-promotion in which it's hard to work out where the plugging ends and the actual content begins. And BB is going to be all of that, but turned up to 11.

It has already begun.

"We're starting to get really excited about the return of BB," says New magazine, ahead of the usual rather predictable celebrity flimflam in which it's reported that Cheryl Cole zeugmatically lambasted her sometime beau Ashely Cole on the phone: "You'll never be in my life, my home or my heart again".

Meanwhile, Star magazine says "We're all talking about Big Brother's return!". Are we? Apparently, we are. Well, when you're in the Desmond universe, we are.

OK goes with "Big Brother presenters finally reveal their shocking new celebrity housemates" on the cover, introducing a story in which, surprise surprise, the new celebrity housemates aren't actually revealed. But regular readers know by now that the coverlines aren't so much a description of what's inside the mag as a series of long-range salvoes intended to hit as many targets as possible. Brian Dowling, host of the new show, reveals that he would love to see "Britney Spears and the Octomom".

So now we know.

As well as all that, there's a handily-timed celebrity coupling of former Big Brother contestants - Alex Reid, crossdressing cagefighter and onetime husband of Katie Price, has become smitten with Chantelle Houghton, the celebrity who wasn't a celebrity, but then she was, but then she wasn't again. Never let it be said, by the way, that I'm snooty about this kind of publication because it contains some delightful prose:

When these two heartbreak refugees, drowning in the shark-infested waters of failed celebrity relationships, clambered aboard their love life raft and bumped lips for the first time, the nation raised a collective eyebrow and tutted,

splurges the intro, rather joyfully anticipating the cynicism. OK is well worth a read, even if you have no love whatsoever for the parade of beaming physogs within.

The stage is set, then, for an all-out assault from Desmond's assets over the coming weeks. The Daily Star has always prided itself (if "pride" is a feeling we can, hand on heart, associate with that publication) on plastering its pages with Big Brother whenever it turns up; and this can surely only accelerate as the frenzy begins; the Daily Express will no doubt show a great deal more interest in BB this time around, due to the Channel 5 connection.

There's nothing wrong or unethical with any of this, by the way; it's just that I think it might be interesting to see the way in which the rival publications deal with it. How are the Star and Express's non-Desmond-owned tabloid counterparts going to cope with giving what is essentially free publicity to a competing business? On the other hand, it's going to be difficult to pretend that Big Brother isn't there, either. Is there going to be some way of covering it without covering it? Perhaps we'll start to see a slew of articles on how BB isn't what it used to be, how it should have ended with Davina, how it's all gone pear-shaped since it moved from Channel 4... and perhaps it's not beyond the realms of imagination to think that these kind of articles are already being penned in preparation for the battle ahead.

As for me, I've always watched Big Brother, and I suspect that isn't going to change any time soon; whether it survives the transition from Channel 4 to Channel 5 we don't know just yet. But I think that the move might actually be a chance, to use that horrible phrase, to "reboot the franchise" and clear out the clutter. If it does fail, I have a feeling it won't be because of a lack of support from Richard Desmond's other assets.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty Images
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Bomb Isil? That's exactly what they want

The government appears not to answer the nature of its enemy, warns Maria Norris.

As MPs are set to vote on further airstrikes in Syria, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that the government does not fully appreciate the complexity of the problem Isil poses. Just a cursory glance at its magazine, the pronouncements of its leaders and its ideology reveals that Isil is desperate for Western bombs to fall out of the sky. As Martin Chulov argues, Isil is fighting a war it believes was preordained since the early days of Islam. Isil’s obsession with the city of Dabiq, in Northern Syria, stems from a hadith which prophesises that the ‘Crusader’ army will land in the city as a precursor to a final battle where Islam will emerge victorious. Dabiq is also the name of its magazine, which starts every issue with the same quote: "The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify -- by Allah's permission -- until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq". Isil wants a war with the West. If we don’t negotiate with terrorists, then we also should not give them what they want.

Further, bombs are indiscriminate and will inevitably lead to the suffering of those trapped in Isil territories. Isil is counting on this suffering to swell their ranks. Civilian suffering from airstrikes only underline the narrative that the West is at war with Islam, which plays directly into Isil’s hands. And despite misleading headlines and the genuine government concern with individuals fleeing to Syria, Isis is supremely unpopular. It is no wonder that its magazine is filled with glossy adds begging people to move to its territories.  You cannot be a state without people. Terrorist attacks such as Paris thus have a two-pronged purpose: they provoke the West to respond with its military, and they act as a recruitment drive. The fact that fake Syrian passports were found around the sites of the Paris attacks is no coincidence as Isil are both seeking to stem the flow of refugees from its territories and hoping to provoke an Islamophobic backlash. They hope that, as more Muslims feel alienated in the West, more will join them, not just as fighters, but as the doctors, nurses and teachers it desperately needs.

In addition to this, airstrikes overlook the fact that Isil is a result of what Fawaz Gerges calls a severe, organic institutional crisis in the Middle East. In a lecture at the London School of Economics earlier this year, Gerges pointed out the dysfunction created when a region that is incredibly resource rich also is also deeply undemocratic, riddled with corruption, food insecurity, unemployment and poverty. This forms an institutional vacuum that is filled by non-state actors as the population does not trust its political structures. Further, the civil war in Syria is also the site of the toxic soup of Middle Eastern state dysfunction. Iran supports Assad, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, fund anti-Shia groups in Syria. Throw in the Kurdish conflict, Turkey’s ambiguous position and Russian bombs, it is difficult to see how airstrikes will solve anything.

Finally, it is crucial that Isil is seen as a direct result of the Iraq war. The American-led invasion destroyed the institutions, giving the Shia majority power almost overnight, creating deep dissatisfaction in the Sunni regions of Iraq. On top of this thousands of foreign fighters flooded Iraq to fight the invaders, attracting disenfranchised and angry Sunnis. The result is that since 2003, Iraq has been embroiled in a sectarian civil war.  It is in civil war, inherently connected to the Iraq War, that you find the roots of Isil. As even the Prime Minister concedes that ground troops are necessary, albeit it regional ground troops with its own set of problems, it is important to consider what further monster can arise from the ashes of another ill-thought out military intervention in the Middle East.
We have had decades of military intervention in the Middle East with disastrous consequences. Airstrikes represent business as usual, when what we actually need is a radically new approach. Who is funding Isil? Who is buying its oil? How to curb Isil’s recruitment drives? What can be done about the refugees? How to end the conflict in Syria? What happens to Assad? These are questions hopefully being addressed in talks recently held in Vienna with Russian, Ira, the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states. Airstrikes do not answer any of these questions. What airstrikes do is give Isil exactly what it is asking for. Surely this is reason enough not to bomb Syria. 

Maria W. Norris is a PhD candidate and a teacher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her PhD is on the UK counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 and its relationship with identity. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.