The social acceptability of fake goods

There is something false in the outrage about deception by television. Mostly we turn a blind eye to

In the midst of the current controversy over factual television that isn't factual, a report has been published about the market for fakes. A law firm, Davenport Lyons, looked at the people who buy counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags, Rolex watches and the like, and made some interesting discoveries.

One in five buyers, it seems, come from households earning more than £50,000 a year, so it's not just something poor people do. And perversely, a lot of people who buy the real thing also buy fakes, even though they agree that fakes cheapen the authentic items.

What most concerned Davenport Lyons, however, was that very few people object to the trade. "The social acceptability of fake goods," it concluded, "is a deeply concerning shift in consumer behaviour."

I read that and wondered, was social acceptability a factor in the television deceptions revealed in recent weeks? In other words, did these things happen partly because those responsible had the idea that the public didn't mind fakery?

The idea may seem laughable when you consider the outrage we have witnessed and the tarring and feathering administered to the BBC's Mark Thompson in the press, but inevitably this isn't quite what it seems.

For one, the loudest critics have been the usual suspects, the papers that attack the BBC whatever it does. For another, so far as there is real outrage, I suspect the public is trying to have its cake and eat it, in a manner that resembles our attitude to the market-stall Rolex. Of course fakes are wrong, we say, but hey, this looks good on my wrist, it only cost £25 - and where's the harm?

Consider The Apprentice. At the beginning and end of every show, and often in the middle too, we saw glittering film of Canary Wharf, and any normal viewer would have understood that this was the location of Sir Alan Sugar's headquarters and the setting for many key events in the series. In fact his HQ is in Essex and the so-called boardroom was a TV studio.

You may already know that, because it was pointed out in the press, and that is why I mention it: we were all told, and nobody seemed to care. This was, in other words, a socially acceptable fake - not the real thing but it looks good, and where's the harm?

And when Bear Grylls stays in hotels when viewers believe he is roughing it in the Sierra Nevada, or when Gordon Ramsay pretends he caught some fish that he didn't, where's the harm? If the producers of those shows did something that Sugar's producer didn't, I'm damned if I can see what it is.

So there is something false in the denunciations of Grylls and Ramsay. In fact, had their fakeries been uncovered six months ago and not now, the chances are that they would have been reported as jolly diary items, or at most as one-off news stories, forgotten the next day. There would have been no scandal and no apologies, because, sadly, faking in the interest of entertainment is socially acceptable, and the people who complain are normally shrugged off as killjoys and fusspots.

So why the scandal today? Some fakes are not socially acceptable, and by chance two arose at once. First we had the phone-in affair, which can't be tolerated because it costs viewers money. And then we had a case of dodgy film editing whose victim was not some instantly forgettable working-class mother, but the country's most popular and politically sensitive personality: the Queen.

Were it not for those flagrant breaches, all the routine ones - not just the Grylls and Ramsay stories, but Newsnight, Wife Swap, David Attenborough's polar bear and no doubt more to come - would have attracted fleeting attention at most, and precious little criticism. That's telly, we would be told - or worse, we would tell each other. It's just how it works.

And as soon as the current controversy dies down, they'll be at it again (though steering clear of the Queen and the phone-ins), so expect more Canary Wharf in the next series of The Apprentice.

The lawyers are right: the social acceptability of fake goods is deeply concerning. But the trouble with that sort of message is that nobody wants to hear it.

Caught in the rain

"Ministers were warned", declared the headlines about our wet summer. Perhaps, but this much is certain: the features and magazine editors had no inkling.

The Observer gave us a "Chefs' summer recipe special" and a "Free summer cocktails guide", which I bet they lapped up in Tewkesbury - once they had popped out to buy their pick of the Independent's "50 best picnic accessories".

The fashion editors were most exposed: "It's time to blossom in florals" (Observer); "The ultimate summer frock" (Times); "Safari-inspired clothes are hot" (Express). The Telegraph even told us: "Indulge your maritime fantasies, the yachting season is here." Sou'westers all round, then.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?