The Hour: series 2, episode 3

So many storylines, you won't know where to look.

WARNING: This blog is for people watching "The Hour" on Wednesday nights on BBC2. Don't read ahead if you haven't watched it yet - contains spoilers!

Catch up on last week's instalment here

Thematic unity, that's what this episode lacked. Last week the script so perfectly tied together the personal and the professional, with our characters struggling to cope with the actions and ideas of fascists both at home and at work, that this week's attempt to move on several different storylines all in the space of the hour (geddit?) felt somewhat choppy and unsatisfying.

But then, feeling unsatisfied is really what The Hour is all about - the longing glances, the unspoken rules, the desire for freedoms that don't yet exist. And in this instalment, we discovered that in the case of Randall and Lix, portrayed once again so superbly by Peter Capaldi and Anna Chancellor, their unsatisfied longing stems from the brief period during the Spanish Civil War when they were in love and had a child.

They have A PAST. Who knew? Photograph: BBC

I always knew Lix was going to turn out to be more than just the older female character who has a ready stash of witty put downs and is never without a bottle of whiskey in her desk. Now, it has been revealed, she has A Past she'd rather forget, but Randall (in what we can only assume is a middle-aged onset of sentimentality and guilt) is going to force her to confront said past by relentlessly hunting down their daughter. I'm not going to lie, a part of me hopes that the missing daughter (implausibly) turns out to be Bel (after all, surely Randall and Lix's child has to be some kind of groundbreaking journalistic wunderkind?) As a coda to the whole plot, Anna Chancellor’s distraught, swallowed sobs in the lift after her confrontation with Randall were beautifully portrayed. Give the woman a Bafta, stat.

Elsewhere in this fragmented episode, Hector made the return journey from the low point he arrived at last week. Sure, his wife now can't bear to be touched by him and he has an embarrassingly drunken altercation with his only powerful government source at a Christmas party, but by the end of the episode he does his first decent on-air interview since the second series began – interrogating his former army colleague-turned-police-chief Commander Stern.

Stern-faced Comander Stern appearing on The Hour. Photograph: BBC

Which leads me to the strangest decision in this episode – the unmasking of Stern, who was the real culprit of the beating that put Hector in a police cell for a night. I was all set for a few episodes of the viewer gleefully knowing whodunit, while Bel and Freddie charged around closing the net around him. Except that Freddie put it together in about fifteen minutes, and five minutes after that had flattered Stern into appearing on The Hour so that Hector could stick the knife into his brother in arms. I sincerely hope that the writers have got a couple more decent plot twists up their sleeves – otherwise, it was absurd to give away so much so soon. I will, however, say that having Stern’s unmasking hinge upon the provenance of the ugliest ornament I’ve ever seen (which he won at random in a BBC raffle) was supremely elegant. I did feel sorry for Stern’s mistress, Kiki, though. Bel got chips and roses from her ITV beau – an ugly ornament and not getting beaten up seems like a poor offering by comparison.

It wouldn’t be The Hour if they hadn’t managed to cover the taboo-breaking social issue of the day – this week, it was the Wolfenden Report and the debate - or lack of it - about decriminalising homosexuality. As Lix put it, voice dripping in sarcasm, "An actual homosexual on The Hour. That would be... novel." In the same discussion, Bel firmly nailed her liberal colours to the mast, saying “Adultery, fornication, lesbianism are all considered sins. But male homosexuality is considered both a sin and a crime... It falls to us to ask why" while Hector the alcoholic curmudgeon weighed in with "no home secretary wants to go down as the man who legalised buggery". Quite. And so they did try and debate it on The Hour, although the attempted discussion about blackmail and private sexual liaisons was rather overshadowed by the aforementioned interrogation of Commander Stern by Hector. I have hopes, though, that this issue will return to be dealt with again in a later episode – perhaps with slimy government apparatchik McCain at the centre of his own scandal, for a change.

Bel and her ITV opposite number got friendly after the Christmas party. Photograph: BBC

To my fury, Freddie’s wife Camille appeared only in her knickers and a large jumper yet again, even after she’d done some excellent detective work of her own in Soho. Sort it out, costume department - we get that she's supposed to be French, gamine and bohemian now. To my utter delight, though, Bel is finally getting some action of her own, snogging her ITV admirer in the stairwell after the BBC Christmas party. Although if he succeeds in stealing away her presenter, their budding relationship might not bloom... One day, I'd like to see Bel have a relationship with someone who isn't intimately involved in her work. One day.

A classic mid-series episode, then. I can only hope that our patience with the criss-crossing storylines and somewhat exposition-heavy dialogue in this episode will be rewarded in weeks to come.

I'll be blogging "The Hour" each week - check back next Thursday morning for the next installment, or bookmark this page

Bel Rowley, producer of "The Hour". Photograph: BBC

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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