Channel 4 reminds me of the Scandinavian fashion store Cos, by which I mean it used to be great and now really isn't

Why Am I Still Single and Eye Spy is my evidence for this.

Why Am I Still Single?
Eye Spy
Channel 4

Lately, Channel 4 reminds me of the Scandinavian fashion store Cos, by which I mean it used to be great and now really isn’t. Nothing seems to fit; everything feels just a little bit cheap and tatty. I visit only rarely, if at all. The other evening, I watched two of the channel’s latest shows – Why Am I Still Single? (26 June, 10.35pm) and Eye Spy (27 June, 10pm) – back to back. Afterwards, I felt precisely as I did the last time I was in a Cos changing room: a slight headache, low feelings, a crazed desire for alcohol and cake.

Why Am I Still Single? is a more prurient and less witty version of that old Channel 4 hit Wife Swap. Two singletons who’ve never met switch lives. They live in each other’s homes, meet each other’s friends and exlovers and visit each other’s workplaces. At the end of this, they hook up and unveil their “findings” face to face, a bit of tough talking that is supposed to help them date more successfully in future.

I’m guessing the film I watched is a pilot (it was screened as part of Channel 4’s “mating season”) and all I can say to those who might green-light a series is: please don’t. Thanks to reality television, we’ve gone as far as we possibly can with this kind of documentary. In front of the cameras, people no longer react; they perform, like over-sexualised monkeys.

Lex worked in advertising and Naomi was the world’s least-funny stand-up comedian. I loathed them both on sight. He was a manchild, reduced to hysterics by the sight of her vibrator (strange how quickly he found it). She was a gurning drivel-head who imagined she could tell how well endowed (or not) he was simply by examining his boxer shorts. You might think that from this low base things could only improve – but no. Down the hill we rolled, my queasiness rising with every tedious bump along the way.

Naomi was obsessed with masturbation. Did Lex indulge at work, she asked his colleague? Lex, meanwhile, was telling Naomi’s girlfriends about her vibrator over a pizza. He was so struck by this piece of pink plastic that, later on, when he confronted Naomi’s on-off boyfriend over a pool table, I half expected him to whip it out and use it to beat the recalcitrant fellow over the head.

Anyway, to cut to the chase, the upshot of this mutual “investigation” was that Naomi would do well to quit the smutty talk and Lex should lower his expectations a little (and, perhaps, learn not to rifle through the knicker drawers of potential girlfriends). Well, woo-hoo.

Eye Spy is Candid Camera for the tabloid age. It’s presented by Stephen Fry, who believes that most people behave less badly than the tabloids suggest. As it happens, I agree with him. But is the best way of trying to prove this to put them in difficult (and, to be honest, highly unlikely) moral situations and then secretly film them? I can’t think that it is. What do these stunts prove? Nothing.

In the first episode, an actor pretended to be a racist waiter abusing a couple in a restaurant (also actors, one of them was white and the other black). Naturally, the other customers at first took their lead from the couple, who, for the trick to work, had to remain mostly quiet and compliant throughout the waiter’s loopy and increasingly over-the-top attacks on them (though ultimately many of their fellow diners did weigh in on their behalf). Not only did the film fail to acknowledge this, it was impossible to judge how it had been edited and how audible the actors’ voices were.

Another test involved a boy in a wheelchair with a fake plaster cast on his leg. I wasn’t surprised that people walked straight past him – as one of them pointed out, the cast was so obviously bogus – and I felt sorry for the two poor saps who did offer to carry him up several flights of steps, only for the gleeful camera crew to appear, release forms presumably in hand.

I strongly dislike the feeling of judgement and entrapment that hangs over this series, a sententious and slightly creepy mood that persists even when people behave well. Given how much real injustice there is in the world, I’d have thought that Channel 4’s considerable resources could be put to far better use than on such a trashy, pernicious experiment as this.

Trading places: singletons Naomi and Lex. Photograph: Channel 4.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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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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