We will never tire of good stories, but we can't predict how we will absorb them next. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing TV dramas for HBO

I remember my parents’ friends telling me that if Shakespeare had been alive in the 1960s, he’d have been a pop star. Now, it’s more likely he would be writing television dramas for HBO.

Kevin Spacey’s James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture on 22 August at the Edinburgh International Television Festival was a fine example of effective speechwriting. It had charm, wit, a strong argument and spectacular anecdotes – delicious titbits from the conversations of A-plus celebrities. As with all good speeches, the ideas and the stories merged into a single effect. Who can resist a primer on cultural history when it is peppered with talk from Hollywood’s high table?

Mainstream television, Spacey said, has stopped taking risks, stopped backing talent. It seeks easy winners and commercial certainties. He argued that creative industries become sclerotic when the balance of power swings away from creative talent and towards executive bean-counters. It started in film. He quoted from David Lean’s 1990 speech bemoaning the state of Hollywood: “We don’t come out of many new holes any more. We try to go back and come out of the old ones . . . If we don’t [give new storytellers encouragement], we’re going to go down and down and down and lose it all – to television. Television is going to take over.”

The same problems soon afflicted television. Spacey recalled how NBC sent a memo to the writer Steven Bochco just before the first season of Hill Street Blues aired. It listed the company’s concerns following focusgroup testing: the main characters had “flawed personalities”; they were never completely successful at work and their lives were a mess; there were too many loose ends. In other words, the show veered towards art, whereas the executives wanted fantasy. But execs don’t know what people want. The “flaws” that defined Hill Street Blues provide the explanation for the success of The Wire, Mad Men and Spacey’s series House of Cards (recently streamed by Netflix). As Henry Ford said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”

I would add three points to Spacey’s. He describes a world in which original talent is thwarted by executive philistinism. Yet often that situation, whatever the creative sphere, is supplanted by a subtler but no less depressing status quo. Creative talent, disappointed enough times, begins to self-censor, to think along permissible lines of inquiry. It starts to “go native”. Writers become conditioned by what they know – or imagine they know – their bosses will like.

So a bleak mutual reinforcement of risk aversion develops, trickling down from above but also seeping up from below. That’s why there is a strong case for writers not to spend much time around executives, editors and producers. Being an outsider protects essential naivety. If you don’t know the boss’s tastes, you are protected from pandering to them.

Almost as depressing as the cynical, riskaverse, focus-group-led sequel/prequel/re - make is film or television that is more determined to be edgy and original than it is to be good. This danger was captured in C S Lewis’s broader warning: “No man who bothers about originality will ever be original; whereas if you simply try to tell the truth . . . you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”

Finally, Spacey doesn’t allow for the reality that declining creative industries cannot always be rescued by greater risk-taking. All art forms have a natural life cycle; talent realigns itself to follow opportunity.

Golden ages are not always mythical. In the late 19th century, opera towered triumphantly over the rest of the arts. Debussy’s remark that Wagner’s operas were “a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for dawn” proved brilliantly prescient. Both Wagner and Verdi were born 200 years ago this year. Even the most devoted fan of classical music would struggle to argue that the two men would be writing musical dramas if they were alive today.

Art forms can wind up frighteningly fast. Film once enjoyed a magical dual frame of reference: it looked back to the stage play while pointing forward to something new. Whenever I watch films such as Rear Window and Dial M for Murder, I’m struck how much it feels like I’m watching a play in my living room, albeit a play with special tricks. (Dial M for Murder was adapted from the stage, Rear Window from a short story.) In contrast, because today’s viewers are more used to effects than theatre-style dialogue, film directors usually serve up scenes lasting only a few sentences.

Remember the singer-songwriter? It is no coincidence that a single generation produced the clustered greatness of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Paul Simon and Jackson Browne. They could express themselves in a new artistic medium: the album. Most consumers don’t even recognise the word today, let alone the idea of a sequence of songs that has a particular atmosphere and artistic unity. I remember my parents’ friends telling me that if Shakespeare had been alive in the 1960s, he’d have been a pop star. Now, it’s more likely he would be writing television dramas for HBO.

This shows how art forms can be brought back from the dead, often through technological good luck. “Fifteen years ago . . . television was considered a lost cause,” Spacey admitted. “I wouldn’t have been up here lecturing you because my agent would never have allowed me to even consider being on a television series after winning an Oscar, much less something ‘streaming’.” What happened? Television allowed for intelligent characterisation, while the DVD box set, which united the immediacy of the screen with the narrative sweep of the novel, made The Wire and its ilk a staple of civilised conversation. We could feast on one episode after another, the characters becoming part of our lives.

Technology is the headless horseman of history, galloping through our lives without intention or care. We will never tire of good stories, as Spacey pointed out. But no one can predict the next form in which we will absorb them and how that will change the storyteller’s craft. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era