An installation at the Channel 4 building in London. Photo: Oli Scarff, Getty Images
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The Secret Life of Students: a Channel 4 documentary or an episode of Jeremy Kyle?

Channel 4's new documentary series The Secret Life of Students once again fits into their trend of perpetuating stereotypes and vilifying social groups. 

One of the first shots of The Secret Life of Students, Channel 4's latest documentary series which follows the first weeks of a group of students at Leicester University, is a scroll through one fresher’s Facebook profile. In between a picture of a drunken student sat in a trolley and a pixellated clip of a fresher streaking, a patronising voice-over chirps “you can tell Josie is popular from a quick peek at her Facebook page, she’s got over 1,200 friends!”. Later, they ask another subject why he actively seeks more followers on Twitter and his awkward stammering response “Just- I don’t know why- it’s weird... Probably competition” perfectly and hypocritically captures Channel 4’s own thirst for viewing figures. The pervasive theme of fame-hungry students, each of which have given Channel 4 access to their Facebook messages, texts and tweets throughout freshers’ week, reflects Channel 4’s own greed for shocked reactions from audiences.

The documentary teams are uninterested in accurately representing social groups – epitomised by My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Benefits Street – when they have selected outrageous subjects who will give audience the response they crave to incite. This response is shock and Channel 4 has perfected their formula for it:

1. Include a provocative title such as Gypsy Blood and My Social Network Stalker which could easily be confused with a headline from Pick Me Up! Magazine.

2.  In the style of Big Brother contestants, choose subjects who can perform in front of the cameras and play up the stereotype they have been carefully selected for.

3. Inspire viewers to tweet about their despair for humanity to create further publicity.

This agenda is the result of Channel 4’s systematic search for documentaries which cause controversy instead of seeking to portray social groups in an accurate and considered way. The current trend of “scripted reality” seen in Channel 4’s export Made in Chelsea, which follows the elite 1 per cent, has shaken up what the channel think their audiences want. Do viewers desire aspirational television or depictions of the reality of lives under crippling government cuts?  The ‘Cutting Edge’ segment of their documentary strand defies the gloss of Made in Chelsea (although just out of shot of the skinny lattes are council estates, but that would ruin the soft focus glow of the product placement) yet the effect is a jeering condemnation of groups in society which are already demonised.

Earlier this week Ofcom decided against an investigation into Channel 4’s documentary Benefits Street despite recieving nearly 900 complaints about the “negative and offensive” portrayal of the lives of those on benefits. The programme raised concerns over the welfare of the children who appeared in the programme and questions of whether the detailed portrayal of criminal activity would inspire viewers to use the subject’s shoplifting techniques. Although Ofcom let Channel 4 off the hook, this perfectly encapsulates the way viewing figures are sought to the detriment of quality. These series have the potential to be hard-hitting reports from the front line of society where people are struggling to make ends meet. In Benefits Street there are juxtapositions such as one inhabitant of James Turner Street in Birmingham declaring the importance of family, with the optimistic sentiment “you could have the whole world and still nothing compares to what we’ve got around here” cruelly followed by a man staggering past the street sign, swearing at the camera and clutching a can of lager.

These are not cutting-edge documentaries. These are production teams hunting down stereotypes and filming them in their natural habitat, cutting them together so as to reinforce as many stereotypes as possible. In one scene in The Secret Life of Students one fresher finds out they have chlamydia and texts her friends saying “LOOOL”. In another a group of students play the drinking game Ring of Fire, with a Nazi twist and when one history student whose idol is Anne Frank, complains at the students using their fingers as moustaches to mimic Hitler, she is ignored. Scene after scene includes more shock value. There is no ground-breaking or even relatable footage about the struggles of leaving home for the first time and the awkward stage of meeting new housemates and instead Channel 4’s aim is to gain viewing figures by provoking outrage, an angle similar to BBC3 ‘s exports Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents.  A far cry from the Louis Theroux's unassuming interviewing technique of asking insightful questions at a distance, these programmes are part of the Jeremy Kyle school of thought, depicting predictable narratives which vilify groups which are already looked down upon by most of society . With The Secret Life of Student’s omniscient but off screen interviewer, the audience sat at home on their sofa assumes the role of Kyle sneering down from his moral high horse.

The Channel 4 website outlines what they want from prospective film makers, stating that “If you have ideas that are agenda setting, risky, controversial, and could never have been made before, we want to hear about them”, adding “our strongest commissions are often ones that, at the outset, feel the most dangerous”. Their rallying cry for producers to deliver them “the most daring and controversial ideas” inevitably leads to programmes equally as hyperbolic.   When Aiden, the fresher who lists his interests on Facebook as the Kardashians, Nek Nominate and Right Wing Conservative views is questioned about his “banter” he answers “I just love pushing the boundaries”. A line which, ironically, could easily appear in the Channel 4 documentary manifesto.                                                  

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder