Distance

Raymond Williams

The most arresting image on television, in recent weeks, has been the stylish map of the world which introduces Newsnight. It does not show the Falkland/Malvinas islands.

The problems of television during this crisis can be referred to familiar frames: the issues of control and independence; of the quality of reporting; of access and balance in discussion. All are important, but underlying them are some more difficult questions: latent for many years but made very sharp and specific by these events and their representation. They can be summarised as problems in the culture of distance.

The central technical claim of television is that it can show us distant events. The hybrid name selects this quality, following telescope, telegraph, telephone, telepathy, with tele as the combining form, from the Greek for ‘afar’, related to telos, ‘end’. Yet in most everyday television, distance, in any real sense, is not the leading factor. We are in one place, usually at home, watching something in another place: at variable distances, which however do not ordinarily matter, since the technology closes the gap to a familiar connection. The familiarity can be an illusion, but the qualitative change when we see really distant events is usually obvious. We have been shown men walking in space and on the Moon. We have seen our whole planet from outside. And from time to time, indeed often, we have seen men fighting in wars.

The strangest quality of these last weeks has been an absence. That is why the incidental omission of the now famous islands from Newsnight’s diagram map sticks in the mind. Certainly it reminds us how selective, and then how differently selective, the television picture of the world can be. But what is much more significant is the revealed distance between the technology of television, as professionally understood, managed and interpreted, and the political and cultural space within which it actually operates.

Of course from the beginning there were two linked factors which changed what had been understood as the ground rules of television news. The great distance of the islands from Britain, and the fact that in all its early stages this was a naval and long-distance air campaign, led to almost insuperable logistical problems. At the same time there were genuine security requirements: disclosure of the identities and positions of various forces could have exposed them to attack. Yet these factors were then extended. The Ministry of Defence, which has more press and information officers than any other government department, produced a spokesman of such stunning formality that televising him seemed in itself a new form of communication. Deprived of its actualities, television stood its reporters in the streets outside closed doors, constructed models and panels in its studios, and showed film from Argentina.

This strange and protracted sequence was in itself a novel representation of the culture of distance. It has led to much impatience, but then it may eventually be seen that the systematic exhaustion of patience has been part of the inner history of these events. The long, slow approach to the islands was a material reality. But then: to go all that way and do nothing? To hear those discussions night after night, as in an unusually extended pre-match analysis? To want at least something to happen, as in the ordinary rhythms of television?

‘We have been discussing this now for six or seven weeks.’ The Zimbabwe negotiations lasted six or seven months. Behind both issues there had been argument and attempted negotiation for many years. But then, in the absence of more familiar rhythms, a new and particular rhythm was eventually established. Its principal elements were slowness and inevitability. Its supporting factors were that for many different reasons, and enclosing many different opinions, most capacities for long-term attention and for any substantial patience were indeed exhausted. The slow movement reached its bloody climax. ‘Let’s get it over with,’ many were saying and had been effectively rehearsed to say.

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