The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the voyeur

Forget about television as education, writes Ziauddin Sardar, the name of the game is reality TV and

Hell is other people, said Jean-Paul Sartre. He could have added that there is no escape from other people determined to show just how hellish they really are - on television, on the web, in the video store, on every security camera. Everywhere, they demonstrate how banal and dumbfounding they are, how unthinking and how willing to be manipulated for deplorable ends. The hell they are creating is called voyeurism. Or, if you prefer, life, the universe and everything as The Truman Show.

Voyeurism was once a minority pastime: the sad men in dirty raincoats who visited strip joints, the village "peeping Toms", the perverts gratifying their perversions. But technology has redefined voyeurism. Give a man a video camera and see his voyeuristic instincts bloom. Your most private moments could this very instant be playing on someone's VCR. If you have a penchant for exposing yourself, you can, without much bother, get on voyeurcam.com or mybedroom.com. That man in the restaurant with a new miniature camcorder could be shooting up the skirts of the waitresses. If you have made a particularly saucy video, or have a freaky tale to tell, you can always get on television. There is a burgeoning market out there. If medium is the message, then the message is voyeurism.

The pandemic of voyeurism reaches its peak on television. In the US this summer, I found myself immersed in Survivor, a CBS show that is a cross between Big Brother and Castaway 2000, with survival and interpersonal duplicity presented as a game show. The episode I watched had the contestants eating squirming live grubs. When I returned home, I found the BBC's A Life of Grime which provided more insight into the repulsive nature of one's fellow citizens than is strictly desirable to maintain a civil society.

All this is in addition to the regular, overgenerous diet of freaks, deviants and sad losers one meets on imports such as Jerry Springer, Sally Jesse Raphael or Ricki as well as home-grown rubbish such as Esther and Trisha. These shows are sacrificial baying fests. The guests present their grotesque character traits - women who marry transvestites, men who sleep with their mothers, this sort of thing. The studio audience ritually responds with gasps, guffaws, hoots and hollers, mixed with some chosen questions. It is not a narrative event, it is a stream of consciousness interlude; the angrier it gets, the more inarticulate and confrontational, the nearer to chewing the scenery and throwing things, the better the entertainment.

It is all so distant from the 1970s, when daytime talk became established in the US as the filler par excellence. In the hands of a Phil Donahue and, often enough, an Oprah, ordinary people discussed issues that affected their daily lives with genuflection towards educative purpose. The sleaze and voyeurism came stealthily to attract audiences, and then became the only reason for the existence of such programmes. Donahue left the industry, publicly expressing disgust (he is currently working for the presidential campaign of Ralph Nader). Where the discussion programmes just occasionally brought bizarre, dysfunctional behaviour before the cameras, now it is only by being bizarre, and lacking in function of any ordinary kind, that one can get in front of the cameras at all.

The success of sleaze talk whetted our appetite for a more overt form of voyeurism. It arrived in the form of reality television. In Britain, the documentary tradition has always been strong. It was a structured and controlled way to meet, observe and be engaged by various types of people. Then, by an amazing trick of dissembling, the fly-on-the-wall style was born. Instead of pre- packaged stories containing messages, coded or explicit, the entire panoply for making programmes was supposedly swept away. We were to take an unvarnished look at people, being - well, people. Banality was born with a great deal of high purpose and portentous self- congratulation from the broadcasters.

When reality steps in, when cameras strain to catch the unscripted and the unexpected in jerky movements, suddenly all of television looks exactly what it is: stage-managed, produced, researched and edited to a polished, glossy sheen. The deception, however, is that as much planning and connivance goes into reality TV as any other kind. There is nothing ordinary about these "ordinary people"; they have been carefully selected, selectively edited and expertly packaged. It is the greatest artifice of the media.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw reality TV sweep all before it. Americans succumbed to the lure of vicarious experience as shows with titles like America's Most Dangerous Rescues, America's Most Inept Criminals and America's Funniest Home Videos proliferated. Britain followed, as she always does, with drivel such as Airport, City Hospital and Pet Rescue.

The genre came to dominate prime-time television not only because of our insatiable appetite for gawking at other people but also because of our total mistrust of them. Look carefully at these programmes and you will see that the proliferation of CCTV cameras - reflecting the need of officialdom and employers to record everything on video - is responsible for as much of the content as the general public's love affair with the camcorder. It is all a lot cheaper than conventional programme-making.

The ultimate example of voyeurism is a forthcoming programme featuring true confessions of murder. It is the idea of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of Maricopa County in Arizona, and it could soon be on a channel of your choice. In the meantime you might want to check out Sheriff Joe's website, where you can view, for four minutes at a time, due to heavy internet traffic, live pictures from inside the jail that show prisoners in their cells or going about their chain-gang duties. The media-savvy Sheriff Joe is himself a regular guest on numerous television talk shows, which is where he floated his great idea: broadcasting the full, videotaped confessions of actual murderers, describing exactly how they got to be the inmates you can see on his website.

From reality TV we move forward, at the dawn of the mil-lennium, to peep-shows. Big Brother originated in Holland, where peep-shows (in the traditional sense) are a national institution. What is common to both Big Brother and its American derivative Survivor is that both shows are a re- enactment of Lord of the Flies. The audience is most fascinated by the participants who display the most beastly character traits.

In the not too distant future, our small screens will be graced by The Bus. Currently enjoying runaway success on Spanish pay TV, it puts nine strangers on a specially built double-decker wired from top to bottom with cameras and microphones. As they travel through Spain fighting, shitting and otherwise displaying compulsively deranged behaviour, their every move is broadcast 24 hours a day via a digital channel. Viewers can choose different cameras and camera angles. The winner is the last person left on the bus after 100 days.

Shows like this, as well as sleazy chat shows and reality TV - collectively dubbed "water-cooler TV" - play on our suspicions that ordinary people are always up to no good, being naughty and wicked at every opportunity. One of its main selling points is that it inspires people to talk to each other. In other words, it makes us all as sad as the willing subjects who consign themselves to the experiment before the cameras. We are led to believe it is all about bonding, when in truth it's about human bondage.

Consider Big Brother, the lineal descendant of Candid Camera, Beadle's About and Surprise! Surprise!. A bunch of cliched, not very interesting people are put together under the most artificial of circumstances. They are asked to do idiotic things like making sculptures of themselves to fill in the total boredom of their days, as the only alternative to sleeping all day, every day. We are asked to believe these meaningless activities have purpose because their rations will be cut if they fail, in situations where there are no criteria for either success or failure. They are encouraged to talk about themselves, their feelings and their bonding experiences. When the inmates are not talking about themselves, psychologists are drafted in to talk about them talking about themselves. It is a game show, but supposedly it is real, and a practical psychology-cum-sociology course.

What Big Brother demonstrates is how gullible we have become, how ready we are to be duped. Unmediated Big Brother would mean watching 24 hours a day. What we actually watched was heavily censored, cleverly edited, structured, selected, predetermined vignettes of a structured and controlled situation. Or, to put it another way: rats trapped in a very public maze.

People have always been interested in people. But voyeurism is a close cousin of narcissism. When we turn our lurid gaze towards dysfunctional others, leer into their private moments, or watch them engaging in banal acts, we are actually looking at ourselves. Voyeurism seduces us by projecting our own inner hell on to other people. And what this breeds, feeds and spawns is a dehumanising process that actually lessens our regard for other people. Our desire to see more dull, sorry and dysfunctional people than ourselves on television means we are prepared to demean anyone to make ourselves feel better about our own less than wonderful, isolated lives. It is all so dehumanising because it objectifies individuals, requiring us to marvel at their exhibitionism, mock their stupidity and laugh at their dysfunctions. We are not there to understand them, to feel for them, to care about them. Voyeuristic television makes people the ultimate commodity. We consume them to fill in a boring evening.

I acquired this insight from none other than Jerry Springer, the master of voyeurism. What, in the name of hell, is this thing called Jerry Springer, he was asked on Larry King Live. "This is a TV show," he replied repeatedly, as if this were total explanation. It was just "chewing-gum TV", he said. In other words, it cannot be held responsible or accountable for any untoward consequences; it exists only to fill a void in the schedules and the sad lives of those who appear and, by inference, those who watch. It is a freak show, unashamed, unabashed, and no one should have any qualms about anything. Pontius Pilate has washed his hands.

Callous is a mild word for the world according to Springer. His innocence depends on the implicit argument that we have neither right nor reason to be unaware of the conventions by which his success has been achieved. No one is forced to go on his show and make a public, humiliating spectacle of themselves. Violence, murder (which has actually occurred) and unforeseen eventualities are the fault of the participants and the audience. Unmediated television exonerates at all levels those who continue to mediate and manipulate. Springer is content with the reflection that only 10 per cent of the American population, people who deem themselves outside the mainstream, would be prepared to go on television and discuss their life, blow by blow. That makes 25 million people. Clearly, Springer expects to be in work for a long time.

This interview was recorded after the murder of Nancy Campbell-Panitz, who was bludgeoned to death in July. She appeared on the "Secret mistresses confronted" episode of Springer's show, taped in May. Nancy revealed that she thought she had been asked to appear so that she and Ralf Jurgen Panitz, her ex-husband, could reconcile. On the programme, where Ralf also appeared, she learnt for the first time that he had remarried. The resulting violence within the studio moved effortlessly to the "real" world and ended in Nancy's murder. Panitz has turned himself in to the police and is awaiting trial.

In another case, in 1995, Jonathan Schmitz appeared on the Jenny Jones Show, invited to learn the identity of a secret admirer. It turned out to be another man, the homosexual Scott Amedure. A few days later Schmitz shot Amedure; he is now serving a 25- to-50-year sentence for murder. As Springer says: "It's only TV."

We have returned with a vengeance to Roman circuses. We are no better than the barbarians who watched and bayed for blood as the victims were fed to the lions. But this return to ancient amorality has been greased by two very postmodern traits.

First, it owes a great deal to a new human right: your entitlement to 15 minutes of fame. Everyone wants to be famous, and that means getting on television by hook or by crook. The new forms of voyeurism emerged because television, broadcasting our narcissism, has become internalised and is now an integral part of our psyche. If exercising this right means reducing ourselves to the base level of beasts, so be it.

Second, the predominance of narcissistic individualism has turned hedonism into a fashion statement. We compete with each other - as demonstrated so well in shows such as Ibiza Uncovered - to express our belief that the pursuit of undiluted pleasure is the highest and the only goal of humanity. Having exhausted the conventional channels of pleasure, we turn to, and return to, the barbarian forms. What is a holiday in Ibiza but a Bacchanalian orgy? Our ideas on pleasure remain limited. The pursuit of novelty often leads us back to the spectacles of history. Voyeurism, in all its multiple forms, has reduced us all to objects - dehumanised, unreal sources of meaningless entertainment. Broadcasters produce ever more bizarre forms of unholy alliance between the willing subjects and duped audiences. Thus, subject and audience connive in total manipulation. Truth becomes indistinguishable from untruth, illusion from delusion - we simply see everything as actuality.

The savvy consumer is consumed, Big Brother is Us, the guards have locked the gates of the asylum and Elvis is in the building - so are we all.

So on with the show and forget any talk of values, good taste or understanding of our fellow human beings. The fruits of voyeurism come in the form of callousness, indifference, dishonesty, ratings and vast profits. What else is there?

The writer's Introducing Media Studies is published by Icon Books (£8.99)