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.

Yet this is still only part of the culture of distance. Suppose, for contrast, that this had been an American operation. There can be little doubt that the film would have been got back, quickly, and would have filled our screens. But film of what? It is said that what was eventually the nightly exposure of ground fighting, and of fires and corpses, turned public opinion, in the United States and elsewhere, against the war in Vietnam. There is no certainty that this is true. That war lasted so long that patience was exhausted with quite other political consequences than the present action is likely to give rise to. But it was in any case the representation of a close-up war: physically distant on the earth but physically close in the lens. What has been happening in the South Atlantic, up to the point where British troops went back on the islands, has been a war of technical distance: of buttons pressed and missiles fired from distances often beyond the range of normal vision; moreover, in many cases, of missiles programmed to direct themselves to their targets. It is the kind of destruction which many of us have been trying to think about in a nuclear exchange, but with two effective differences: that it is on a comparatively small scale, and that it is (as the long slow rhythm had assured us) at a very safe distance.

At a reputedly safe distance, but the precise images of this war of distance had been strongly built into the culture. In every games arcade we can press buttons and see conventionally destructive flashes on targets: ‘the invaders’. Television already has, in its library footage, film of excitingly named missiles – sidewinders, rapiers, sea wolves – streaking towards exercise targets, which flash and disintegrate and fall. If (but more strictly when) the film of the South Atlantic fighting gets back, it will be important to ask what difference there is, what difference is represented, when the flash of a hit can be remembered to contain and to be destroying a man. Deprived of actuality film, television has been inserting film of these exercises, intermittently subtitled. Is it second best? Who can say? The representation of spectacular destruction may already, in many minds, have blurred the difference between exercise and action, rehearsal and act. For it is one of the corroding indulgences of the culture of distance that to the spectator the effect at least offers to be the same.

Some of us will therefore be cautious in supporting the merely professional complaints of some people in television. Already the language of certain reporters indicates an impatience for colour and action, the prepared modes of filing a war story. Then can any of us be sure there is no television director waiting to say ‘Cue Harrier,’ ‘Cue Marines’? Watching the studio war-games has already indicated that this is more than a technical problem. There has been a model of the islands with ships and planes on stalks surrounding it. The proportional size of the ships and planes, and of the dark shadows they cast under the studio lights, has been so exaggerated that it is obvious that the discussion is being controlled by the culture of distance, and indeed at times reaching its morbid last phase, in the culture of alienation. The television professionals, in these constructions, have been so deeply integrated with the out-of-action military professionals they have been interviewing that it felt like suddenly entering another country. Yet it was already there in the flow: programmes such as Sailor and Fighter Pilot had laid in the view that war is a profession. The Army’s own advertising slogan had been taken over, as routine, when troops were used in a labour dispute: ‘with dustcart drivers still on strike, Glasgow Corporation called in the Professionals’ (23 March 1975). In these and other ways there were the elements of an integrated viewpoint: a good clean shot; well-ordered sequences; professionals understand professionals.

It happens that I came in on the current run a little late, after the programme had started. When the Argentines invaded, I was in Ireland at the Festival of Film and Television in the Celtic Countries. I heard the first House of Commons debate on a transistor above Killarney. Distance in that form had particular effects. Every contradiction seemed heightened. The invasion had been ordered by a brutally repressive military regime to which Labour and Conservative governments had supplied advanced weaponry. The use of force to resolve a long-standing problem was being countered by the threat or use of force to resolve it back again. The rhetoric of an expedition against a fascist military government did not exclude the possibility of active co-operation with Chile. An enterprise to restore the democratic rights of the islanders was being launched with the means and symbols of old imperalist actions. The cynical culture of late capitalism, which had used a national flag for underwear or for carrier bags, switched, as it seemed overnight, to an honorific fetishism which at the same time, though in different colours, was on the streets in Buenos Aires. In a culture which had celebrated Monty Python, heroic stances and ripping yards were being played or at least offered for real.

While I still read the cool and informative Irish newspapers, and watched Irish television, I got some supporting sense of the real complexity of the events. These seemed to hit every contradiction at its most exposed point, making any simple opinion or position impossible. In this peripheral problem which had suddenly become central, everything was off-balance. The House of Commons debate confirmed rather than recognised this. It was only when I got back to Wales, and saw the English papers, that I heard the screeching. Turning away to cool, low-voiced television, I found the long slow rhythm – the professional presentation of a dragging but limited time, the long march to the models – that I have been trying to describe. After several days of it, feeling the rhythm soaking in, I happened to pass a bonfire of rags and oil in the village and suddenly, in an overwhelming moment, I was in a field in Normandy and the next tank, with my friends in it, was burning and about to explode. I think I then understood the professional culture of distance. Its antiseptic presentation of the images of war was skilled but childish. This sense was deepened by the fact that, in the perspective of my generation, the professionalism being offered was not of fighting but of exercises and models. Throughout the crisis, across different opinions, I have not heard any talk of that distant calculating kind from friends who had been in actual battles.

This seems to me the determining issue. There have been some genuine attempts to present some kind of balance in discussion. It is too early to offer any precise account: that will come later. But such interviewing of dissenters and doubters as there has been has taken place within the general unreality of the presentation of war. Moreover even the important and sustained discussion of negotiating positions and possibilities, which in the early weeks played in counterpoint to the war-games, was vitiated by the absence of hard information. Did a television reporter fly to Peru to interview its President on the precise terms of his proposals, and to question him and then others back home? If so, I missed the report. Speculation flourished in the absence of precise terms. When at last some were finally published, and the opposed positions seemed to some of us no more irreconcilable than in most serious international disputes, including many which eventually get settled, it was already the eve of the climax of that long slow rhythm. The patience of all those who, to be frank, had never sounded particularly patient was said to be exhausted.

Was said to be. One permanent element of our kind of press and television came very clearly into view during these weeks. We can call it the Corps of the Briefed. ‘The feeling in Whitehall’. ‘Sources close to Ministers’. The steady feed of these official/unofficial indications occurred alongside numerous official interviews and recordings. It is then necessary to ask what function they serve. Is it only a discreet nudging, beyond attributable public statements? Or is it also a way of enrolling parts of the media, on mutually acceptable terms, in a sense of being inside, being privy? Hopes might rise from some report of a rewording of a formula, but before the details, and before even the opportunity to consider the report with any care, ‘it is felt in Whitehall that this in no way meets Britain’s requirements’ (my italics). ‘It is understood that the basic problem is one of the credibility of the people we are trying to deal with.’ Indeed.

Yet some people in television, as in a few newspapers, did more than sit up and beg to be privy. One of the most ominous moments of the crisis was the angry, loose-mouthed reaction to such programmes as Panorama and other BBC reporting of alternative views. It is interesting that subsequent inquiry, by opinion poll, showed this reaction as the view of a minority. But it takes its place in a lengthening history of such incidents, most of which have hitherto concerned reporting and discussion of the conflict in the North of Ireland. It is as if, each time, the basic terms of an understanding of programming independence have to be reinvented. Yet the film from Argentina, and the television clips, which were also complained about, were showing quite clearly what a ‘patriotic’ model of television looked like. Galtieri spoke, on a triptych of stone-faced generals. Flags and leaders were paraded. Authorised voices interpreted and exhorted. Or, later, when fighting started, favourable news was rushed, unfavourable news delayed or discounted. Can this be really what anyone openly wants? Yet several of the incidental arguments apply. When our boys are in danger, can we tolerate voices which doubt what they are doing?

This problem also is affected by the culture of distance. If those crowds in Buenos Aires are only a flag-waving mob, looking remarkably like the rougher kinds of football crowd, if that nation and that people are only that uniformed Junta, perhaps it is not really patriotism. There was at least one telling interview with a mixed Argentine-British family, in which the son was just going to military service. For a moment the conflict became real, past the coarse official confrontations. Yet when David Frost repeated one of his characteristic programme models, with a British studio audience and several Argentines present by satellite, no communication of any value occurred. There was jeering from some in the British audience, before arguments were fully got out, while the mainly Anglophile Argentinian bourgeois at the far end of the line offered familiar national arguments in the accents of misunderstood old friends. For that was another of the contradictions which came out so painfully in the gyrations of American government spokesmen. These Argentinians were and plainly felt themselves to be ‘our kind of people’. To excitedly patriotic British members of that audience this didn’t apply. From a different class level they were seeing enemies engaged in doubletalk. Meanwhile, for myself, the official Argentinians I kept seeing on the screen were the enemies of my Argentinian friends: friends who at the same time would not for a moment accept the official British presentation of the dispute and of the war.

The war. But is it a war? At the time of Suez a government spokesman said we were not at war: we were in a state of armed conflict. All that is happening again. It permits the obliqueness of British television reporters still speaking from Buenos Aires, even since the fighting began. It allows legal loopholes for what can still be said and done at this end, beyond the more general arguments for the free expression of opinion in any crisis; the worse the crisis, the more the need for free information and opinion, subject only to direct security concerns. Yet it is not only in this respect that it may be necessary to consider this crisis and its modes of presentation as a rehearsal: a rehearsal which then demands detailed appraisal.

The distancing of war has been the central mode: indicated by the physical distance but confirmed and developed by a specific culture. The absence of any return fire, except at those directly exposed on our official behalf, distorts the imagination and permits the fantasties of models and of convictions without experience. But beyond the specific circumstances there is a more general question of what is being rehearsed. It is a direct question about the culture of contemporary democracy. Parliament is debating and we listen. Yet none of the representatives, it seems safe to say, could have been directly given the views on this unforeseen crisis of those they offer to represent. This is especially true of that decisive first debate, which inaugurated the whole sequence. What then followed was the unique modern combination of a Cabinet with absolute sovereign powers, acting within a complex of Parliamentary parties, opinion polls and television. It has been extremely powerful. On a neglected problem and an unforeseen crisis it has been able to set the agenda and the terms of public response and argument. The attempts of some television programmes and some Members of Parliament and others to express alternatives, to broaden the agenda, come already placed as dissident. The sovereign power to order war operates within the cultural power to distance. General discussion and voting are replaced by television discussion and opinion polls. The modes interact, for the war is fast or is made to appear fast, and there can be no hanging about when the threat is urgent and the blood is roused. Modern systems, in television and opinion-polling, alone correspond to this induced urgency. It is a new political form, latent for many years but now at least temporarily made actual. Its name is constitutional authoritarianism.

If it is a rehearsal, will there be a performance? That threat hangs heavier than even these bloody events. And that perhaps is the real shock. Certain assumptions about the political culture of Britain, which has been seen since the Sixties as relaxed, tolerant, peace-loving, sceptical, contemporary, have been shown to fail to hold. The distance between either the most serious or the most fashionable bearers of these attitudes and a latent and organisable majority of our people has been quite suddenly shown to be very wide, on issues that matter. In the early weeks dissidents claimed to be speaking for a majority. The opinion polls, within the whole operation, relentlessly refuted them. Volatility of opinion, the prospect of the morning after, may be cited for comfort. But there is very little that is tangible to give any reassurance. An unnecessary war has been arranged and distanced within a culture that had already distanced mass unemployment. The sinking of a ship shocks and grieves, but is then sealed over by the dominant mood. The argument about this war is difficult enough, and will of course continue. But the larger argument that now needs to be started, with a patience determined by its urgency, is about the culture of distance, the latent culture of alienation, within which men and women are reduced to models, figures and the quick cry in the throat.