Home Page Once you film something, will it ever be more than an illusion? 11/08/14

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Hart of the Matter

Returning from a few days away tramping Welsh hills steeped in history from Neolithic burial cairns to Offa’s Dyke, it comes as something of a culture shock to be preparing for (probably) the first Haverhill Town Council meeting to be filmed.


Of course, it is a great tragedy that the video camera was not invented at an earlier stage of history. Just think of what an archive of meetings historians would have had to work with.


Instead of trying to speculate on what Julius Caesar actually said to the Senate, or to extrapolate from the Bayeux Tapestry exactly to whom Edward the Confessor bequeathed his kingdom on his deathbed, it would all have been there in the record, ready to view.


And so, presumably, it will all be from now on. We can see most of the world’s parliaments in action nowadays, if we want to – and mostly not to their advantage.


I think I have only once seen a session of a parliament from the former Soviet Union countries. I can’t even remember which one it was – Ukraine, Belarus, Russia itself, one of them – but I do remember that it ended up in a fight between the members.


My impression of these parliaments, therefore, is that they generally descend into physical brawls, which is clearly nothing like the truth. It may be this is the only one which has done so and that is why we got to see footage of it on the news.


The same is true of our own beloved Westminster. If it had been filmed the day when Michael Heseltine swung the mace around, that clip would be on Youtube now with hundreds of thousands of views all around the world in each new generation, forming that opinion of the British House of Commons, which we like to call the Mother of Parliaments.


So filming of elected assemblies is fraught with dangers and difficulties. Nevertheless this Government has, in its wisdom, decreed it can and should take place. No resources have been earmarked for this (surprise, surprise) so it will be down to volunteers, at least to begin with.


These volunteers might come from any political spectrum. In fact, it is likely that rival filmings will take place from different political perspectives, each editing in and out the bits they want to put forward, especially as elections approach.


Sooner or later, this will become a problem somewhere in the country, and a smaller council will decide it has to film its own proceedings, rather as some counties, like Suffolk, are already doing, devoting a small amount of cash to setting the system up.


But that doesn’t stop anyone from going along to a Suffolk County Council meeting and making their own film, editing it how they want and putting it on line. The possibility for satire and various forms of comic creativity here are boundless.


It may be that some councils are not prepared to pay out for filming. Perhaps there is a niche here for someone to set up a company devoted entirely to filming minor council meetings, which can be funded by sponsorship from local or national advertising.


On a countrywide scale this might well be viable, but would create a huge conflict of interest as far as councils are concerned. They might, for instance, be seen discussing the death of their high street shops in a video sponsored by Tesco.


Parliament itself is only broadcast thanks to the BBC, which is publicly funded. If the BBC were disbanded or turned completely commercial, would anyone take up the Parliamentary channel? I doubt it and I’m not sure I’d want them to.


Given this Government’s track record (and those of its immediate predecessors) in creating legislation without thought to the laws of unforeseen consequences, it is not impossible that this latest move will need a little tweaking at some point.


We have seen a process in many areas of life down the centuries, where complex structures which had been disseminated to ordinary people via a third party of trained experts, were forced to become open to direct scrutiny. It seems a no-brainer, because it is so self-evidently right.


However, it also usually ends badly for the monolith concerned. Consider the example of the Church. Prior to the Reformation ordinary people were not allowed to read the Bible in their own language, or form any thoughts of their own about the nature of God.


Trained experts, known as priests, were there to interpret to them. Then along came Martin Luther and the Protestant movement telling people they didn’t need all that. It would never have caught on that quickly if it had not been for an amazing new technology becoming available at that time – printing.


Translated Bibles became available to ordinary people, and the Church could not stop it. This takeover by the People has, eventually, for good or ill, massively undermined the power and credibility of the Church. Only that part of the Church which stuck to many of the old ideas, Roman Catholicism, is materially powerful still and growing apace across the world.


Many strongholds of Protestantism, such as Britain, have become almost entirely secular countries. Once the People took apart the mechanism and saw its inner workings they lost faith in its effectiveness and thus in its whole raison d’etre.


The same is happening now with the medical profession and with the system of Parliamentary democracy – and, by extension, local democracy. Churchill quite rightly stated that democracy is the worst form of governmental system until you look at all the others and find they are even worse. It is quite possible to see democracy as just the sort of illusion that Richard Dawkins finds in the idea of God.


Once the People, casting aside the priests (ie journalists), scrutinise it minutely, aided by the amazing advance in technology known as the computer, they will see only its flaws and lose faith in its overall effectiveness. It hasn’t happened yet because the People are too bored with the whole idea of it to bother. But the potential is there. We shall see.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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