On one level, hapless corporate social media accounts that aspire to the monicker ‘customer service’ are simply one more part of the grey noise of the Internet that we simply tolerate. They exist because the companies have an online presence, we communicate online more and more, and so there is a box to tick.
However, the reality is that most of these accounts are worse than useless. More than just grey noise, they help condition us to accept mediocrity and ineffectiveness as normal when it comes to customer service.
They all follow a basic modus operandi, too.
A superficial sense that the company is listening is often created with a rapid initial public response, sounding concerned, and inviting a private DM so the matter can be properly investigated. Invariably, the person behind it at the time signs off with a cheery first name – ^^Dave or ^^Lisa or similar – in an attempt to affect a sense of informality and personal connection and that the company they represent really does care.
Having already invested time in airing the matter, the customer duly invests another ten minutes in setting out the concerns. This may well invite some security questions, to make sure they are speaking to the right person and intended to create confidence that this is ‘official’, and then various other questions to validate the information already provided in the initial tweet or DM (from recent experience, often simply a repeated request for the same information). Of course, at no point is it clear why any of this required any security whatsoever and couldn’t have been dealt with in public, other than to spare the company some blushes.
After lengthy exchanges (laughably, the most recent, with a well-known hotel chain about a broken coffee machine, and taking four days), the person behind the account, who may very well not be the person who started the exchange, explains that your comments have been passed on to the team concerned. A little more questioning and it turns out there is nothing else they can do (e.g. find out an ETA or why it’s been not functioning for three months). Then comes the excuse. It’s because they don’t hold the data, or because it’s the responsibility of the local team, or because they don’t have authority to access account details, or because blah blah blah.
In reality these corporate social media customer service accounts have a limited, very clear function and it is nothing to do with actually servicing customer needs. They are designed to present a facade of customer concern, while moving exchanges from the public sphere to the private, and minimising the human and financial resources put in to actually addressing customer concerns. They take advantage of an online culture of medicocrity and social management to ensure expectations are managed down. In doing so, they reinforce the sense you are wading debilitatingly through amorphous, pointless gloop. And of course, they get to tick the necessary customer service box for internal performance purposes.
It’s all fuel for a good chuckle down the pub or over dinner. However, it is also indicative of a certain corporate culture that is about cynically managing customers rather than dealing with the issues they raise. And it’s no surprise to see it in a country where public services are denigrated and run into the ground, meaning that even shoddy customer service compares favourably.
Anyway, here’s looking at you Premier Inn and Virgin Media.
We see evidence of Britain breaking under the strain of under-investment and neglect every evening on our news. However, it’s not just in the NHS, our railways and policing where services are broken. Less visible services are also dysfunctional. For instance, the quest to replace my car log, lost in my recent move, has been an eye-opening reminder of how poor and user unfriendly much of our public service bureaucracy is.
I started where most of us start these days, on the Internet. The government’s website explains that as I have both lost my V5C and changed my address, I cannot apply online or over the phone. I have to fill out a form (V62) and send it in. I decided to phone the DVLA to double-check that I had the procedure correct.
The woman I spoke to was friendly and helpful. She explained my choices are to download and print it out or to collect one from the Post Office and fill it in. Fortunately, I have a printer, though many people do not. There was no procedure to submit the form electronically. She also reminded me I needed to pay £25. I asked how that should be done.
“You can either send in a cheque or a Postal Order.”
I paused, incredulous.
I can’t remember when my bank last issued me with a cheque book. I’ve always thought them a useful way to send money to friends and family, but I have probably cashed less than one a year for the last decade and haven’t written one for almost two. As for Postal Orders, I can’t remember the last time I used them. I mentioned it all felt very 1990s and she laughed, awkwardly. Apparently, they couldn’t accept cash but it was perfectly okay for someone else to write the cheque on my behalf.
Really? You go through all this detailed bureaucracy but will take payment in anyone’s name?
Having printed and filled out V62 in my almost illegible handwriting, and having spent half an hour hunting inside the engine for the chassis number and made a couple of mistakes, I decided I would pick up a form from the local Post Office and copy out the details, hopefully in a neater fashion.
Arriving at the Post Office, the chap at the counter explained they were too small to have forms to do with cars and that I would need to go into the city or out to the next town. Never mind that this Post Office serves thousands of households, most with more than one vehicle. Cursing under my breath, I double-checked they could do Postal Orders and headed back home to print a second version of V62.
Finally, the second form in hand, I went back to the Post Office and ordered the Postal Order. It was a different guy who explained that I would have to pay in cash (!). However, they could do a cash withdrawal on my card (!!) and pay for the Postal Order with that. I needed an envelope and was ready to pay for one – but he said there was no need to pay. It was a Post Office envelope and therefore free. Finally, there was an administrative charge for my Postal Order – just over £3.
Reflecting on the process, there is so much that is broken or that doesn’t make sense, or that could be done so much more effectively.
Why can’t I replace my logbook and change my address online?
Why do I have to print a PDF or collect from the Post Office, instead of complete online?
Why does a government agency only take cheques or Postal Orders and make no facility for online or phone payments?
Why does a Post Office not have critical forms or at least the facility to print them for those with no printer?
Why does it cost £3 to print a Postal Order? (Why are we still using Postal Orders!)
And why are Post Office envelopes free? (You don’t need to lick them either, apparently, which – according to the chap at the counter – saves on spit.)
I’ve always wanted to be in awe of the London Underground, with its complex network of services and its myriad stations that take in incredibly varied landscapes. From the ‘little boxes’ suburbia of Upminster, to the east end of West Ham, with its rejuvenated twin in Stratford, to the eerie Bladerunner majesty of Docklands and Canary Wharf, to the lush countryside of Amersham, the lines of the London Underground go to astonishingly different places.
Frankly, though, the customer experience (I don’t dare suggest we are passengers) is appalling. A single example from a single day:
I made a visit to Amersham to see family on Friday. On the way home, I timed my journey to take a train selected specifically because it was going all the way to Aldgate. No sooner had it departed then the driver announced it would terminate at Harrow on the Hill as there was an issue at Baker Street. We were told we should board the Baker Street train at Harrow and terminate at Baker Street, picking up another train to Aldgate. We duly did so, trooping across the platform to an empty train (of course, that makes more sense than the one we are on continuing its journey). No sooner had that departed then the driver announced it would terminate at Wembley Park. We were advised to cross to the Jubilee Line (fine for those of us who could alter our routes and go south, but what about everyone else?). As we pulled in there was an empty Jubilee Line train waiting on the southbound platform. As soon as the doors open on our terminated Metropolitan Line train, the Jubilee Line train pulled out, before we could board. It left empty.
What kind of Kafka-esque service is this? Or is it run by people who really don’t give a stuff about providing a joined up service to those who pay for it? If that is my story, from a single journey, on a single day, what are the stories like of the tens of millions of other travellers through the year?
For me it was a minor inconvenience. Irritating, but I know my way around London and the Underground. For the old, the infirm, the visitor, this level of service is embarrassing and appalling.
Arbitrary changes of destination mid-journey. Unexplained halts for minutes on end. A lack of air-conditioning on many lines, with travellers becoming ill, hitting emergency buttons and so throwing travel into chaos. Appalling packing of commuters in sweltering conditions. Platform roulette, not knowing which train is leaving first. Bored staff who resent being asked questions about destinations. No help with heavy luggage. Only now a grudging acceptance of running some lines through the night.
In any other business where we are told we are ‘customers’ we wouldn’t stand for it. If we went to the cinema and they made us change screen three times, without explanation, and the third time put us in on a totally different film, part way through, I can’t imagine any of us sitting idly by. We would be – rightly – angry that the film was not what we paid for and not up to scratch and we would seek compensation – often willingly given by cinemas keen to maintain their reputation. Yet when it comes to the tube, we simply take the crap that’s dished out as part and parcel of the package – even though the ticket can cost more than going to the cinema! We buy the tickets in advance of travelling, on the basis that they tell us that we will be able to use certain services at certain times to reach certain destinations. Yet there appears to be no mechanism to hold them to account when it doesn’t work according to the ‘offer’. We are told we are customers, but don’t behave like them – and we aren’t treated like them. Perhaps that is because we know the language is a con and that, deep down, we realise we are still passengers.
Don’t get me wrong. The London Underground is a remarkable feat of engineering. It is still an incredible mover of people. But we shouldn’t let that blind us to its embarrassing deficiencies or make us feel guilty for challenging a level of service which should not be acceptable in a rich, world-leading city like London in the twenty-first century.
Note: this is a piece I began in 2013 but didn’t finished – until today
“When we lose our myths, we lose our place in the universe.” – Madeleine L’Engle
It meant little to me in substance. I knew it for cars, the home of the mighty Ford Motor Company. I was never a fan of Motown though I recognise its cultural significance for America. When my musical tastes broadened from the classical music I was raised on, I came across Kiss’s Detroit Rock City on the album Destroyer: an iconic American album from an iconic American band that incorporates the name of an iconic American city into its most iconic song (is it ironic that it was actually Beth, the b-side of the single, that caused Destroyer to sell?).
No matter that I had no real understanding of the reasons for Detroit’s iconic status. It’s name was enough.
Detroit, like other cities, simply meant “America” – a metropolis whose very name sounds hard on the tongue and conjured association with other “hard” words. Tough. Big. Violent. A place that I had no desire to visit but which part-reaffirmed the mythical status of America by simple fact of its existence – a fact which, to the casual observer, never had reason to be questioned.
So it was little more than a name to me in my childhood, another label pinned on a part of that vast country an ocean away that defined much of my cultural frame of reference. How much of cultural frame of reference? More than I am comfortable with, if I am honest.
America was prevalent everywhere, through film, music, television, brands, gaming and the 1980s proliferation of fast food joints and increasingly glitzy steak houses. And alongside the brash Saturday tea-time noise of Glen A. Larson and Aaron Spelling, the ruthless ambition of Dallas, the black humour of M.A.S.H. that re-wrote an American and Vietnamese foreign policy tragedy, the anime mash-ups of the likes of Battle of the Planets, voiced over with breathless Hollywood voices, the wonder of Spielberg and the crash of Guns n’Roses, Bon Jovi and Metallica, we could be forgiven, in our childish naivety, for being wowed and considering our own pop culture creations dull by comparison. We were youngsters raised on John Wayne’s gunfighters and left breathless by the iconic space operas of George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy, and, for those of us who bought the product, America was the place to go.
Of course, we were brought up to be contemptuous of this endless consumption and the excess we were witness to, both of which could be argued to have fuelled the supplanting of ambitions for long-term fulfilment with the desire for immediate gratification. That upbringing has, naturally, coloured our political, social and cultural filters. But despite paying lip service to European (and particularly English) superiority, we were still left hungering for this place that was vast and apparently advanced and where you could become a star – that ultimate Atlantic distillation of the American Dream.
Even in the spectacle of a society that venerates the bombast of celebrity over the tragedy of history, not least due to the relative brevity of its history, we could sense there was another story: of striving, of achievement, of endurance. There was another side that was not immediately apparent in the cartoons and toys and guns and end-of-episode gurning laughter.
Some of us became confused. We were not sure whether to be infuriated or envious. We were not sure whether to cheer or groan or howl with outrage.
This obsession with condemning, celebrating and coveting our cousins, coupled with the fact that transatlantic flights are out of reach for many of us, is perhaps why we have sought in recent years to bring the American experience to the United Kingdom. To attempt to remake it in our image. We see it in the way that Lakeside and Blue Water have recreated the mall experience of the Midwest in the chalk pits of south-east England. Perhaps we see it in the way a generation of architects, town planners and local councillors, raised on a diet of American cultural soup have created leisure parks like Bas Vegas, trying to capture the eating, drinking, dancing, bowling and movie experience we witnessed – or thought we witnessed – on screens big and small growing up.
I think this American fascination has realised itself in these conscious and unconscious expressions of architecture, art, music and both economic and social organisation. I also think it is reinforced by the near mythical qualities of the labels which we use to define its geography.
Los Angeles. San Francisco. New York. Philadelphia. Chicago. Seattle. Pittsburgh. Oakland. Washington. Atlanta.
All of these places have been part-defined in the European psyche by their portrayal in popular culture. We have an observers’ view of them, informed, also, by the way their inhabitants express their own identities. There is an uncomfortable truth in that. Our views are part-shaped by an expression of identity where historical accuracy is an unnecessary complication (see Mike Davis’s stunning City of Quartz for a ferocious dissection of the myths of Los Angeles) and the news industry, in the sinister forms of Fox and friends, has, in a post-ironic indulgence that subordinates accuracy to earnest prejudice, become a living, breathing Hollywood-imagined monster that renders parody redundant.
In my imagination, Detroit stood tall among these mythical giants. It was as powerful and eternal as any of its kin. I didn’t see the giant slayer of economic ruin.
I stopped in my tracks when I heard the report on the BBC. (It seemed ironic that I was on a footpath in a country park, looking out across the great vista of the Thames towards what had once been the site of the industrial powerhouse of the Shell Haven refinery, now levelled, and of which no evidence remains.)
Detroit was filing for bankruptcy.
The prospects are stark. It is the largest every U.S. city to file for bankruptcy, with an estimated $18.5 billion debt. (That statement brought me up short. I had missed the fact that others already had, including San Barnadino County and Stockton) . Court papers list over 100,000 creditors to the city. The story of Detroit’s decline is frightening – and sobering in that it started long before it fixed itself as an icon of American success in my juvenile mind:
Its population has declined over 60% since 1950;
Its unemployment rate is the highest of the 50 largest US cities at 23.1%;
It is the most impoverished of the U.S. Bureau of Statistics 71 rated cities, with rates for individuals living below the poverty level at 36.4% and the rate for families at 31.3%;
It has at least 70,000 abandoned buildings, 31,000 empty houses, and 90,000 vacant lots;
The average price of homes sold in Detroit in 2012 was $7,500; 47 houses in Detroit were listed for $500 or less, with five properties listed for $1;
More than half of Detroit property owners did not pay taxes in 2012, at a loss of $246.5 million to the city;
It some of the highest crime rates in the United States, with a rate of 62.18 per 1,000 residents for property crimes, and 16.73 per 1,000 for violent crimes (compared to national figures of 32 per 1,000 for property crimes and 5 per 1,000 for violent crime in 2008);
Nearly two-thirds of all murders in Michigan in 2008 occurred in Detroit;
A 2012 Forbes report named Detroit as the most dangerous city in the United States for the fourth year in a row.
Those figures are eye-watering.
How did we not see the potential for tragedy? Did our faith in the myths of America mean we paid less regard to the stories coming out of Detroit, unable to believe that the Motor City could be driven out of business?
Madeleine L’Engle’s prescient lecture to the Chicago Sunday Evening Club, the Mythical Bible, sought to set the Christian faith in the context of its myths and their relatively recent deconstruction. She points to the modern phenomena of literalism in Christian belief as the way that people have attempted to cope with fear, making faith less wild and wonderful and instead a practical answer to the problems that trouble them. In doing so, we denigrate the power of myth to help us live beyond ourselves, to be more than the sum of our possessions. It is, she says, why we tell stories about ourselves, to explain what we believe and who we are.
The question for me is how does that myth, of an invincible America, that perhaps in part laid the foundations for this unfolding tragedy, come to the aid of a city on the brink of catastrophe? Can it help its inhabitants live beyond the tragedy of the moment and build something from the ruin of Detroit? With our compulsion for telling stories about ourselves, will we write a new myth, of how an American giant was toppled by a file of paper, before rising to new glories? Or will we see it fade to legend, a lost city to captivate the imagination of two thousand years’ time? Or perhaps the new myths of Detroit are being written in the way we are capturing its decline in photographs and essays?
Can the story of Detroit help avert similar disaster in Chicago and Philadelphia?
Whatever the answer proves to be, the hauntingly beautiful photographs of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre below are part of the reality of Detroit, Michigan and the literalism of economic reality that is killing the American myth that captivated this writer as a boy.
I still recall from my childhood Fred the Postman, pulling up in his smart van, stepping out in his smart suit, smiling broadly as he stepped up to the front door and handed over a bundle of letters. He was older than many of his colleagues, more experienced, and he had the ‘prestige’ route, out in the countryside of Langdon Hills. He conveyed pride and importance, not in himself, but in a service that was vital in keeping us all connected. At that point, too, it was a single service.
Of course, Royal Mail and the Post Office are synonymous for me, just as I think they are for many people. 1986 saw Post Office Counters Ltd created as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Royal Mail, so we didn’t really notice the difference. We didn’t notice when Post office Counters Ltd became Post Office Ltd in 2001. We did notice when TPTB decided to rename the Post Office Group (Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd) to Consignia, but we soon settled back into a misplaced sense of cosy familiarity when that went disastrously wrong and the Royal Mail rose like a phoenix, in name at least.
It was only the contortions of government-imposed reform in 2011 that forced us to recognise that they are really quite different entities, with Post Office Ltd being made independent from Royal Mail (confusingly, Fred would still be a ‘postman’, even though he would be nothing to do with the post office anymore).
Today, Royal Mail post people pitch up in private cars, wear shorts and generally undertake a thankless task (‘I ordered this three days ago!’) in more comfort. Things move on and often for the better, though there is a part of me that hankers after the confidence and security conveyed by a liveried van and a smartly dressed individual walking to the door.
And herein lies the rub. The eternal tension between public service and private, profit-making entity. The demands of the latter are slowly strangling the services available in the former. So, for instance, from July 31st, savers will no longer be able to buy premium bonds in branches of the Post Office. A small thing. Most of us don’t own premium bonds. But it is another example of the service aspect being chipped away.
On Tuesday I went to town to post off – recorded delivery – some important paperwork. I used to be able to walk around to my local shops, but that option went a long time ago. You used to be able to go to the large Crown Post Office in the town centre. That has been closed and moved into a branch of WH Smith. I walked into Smith’s – scene of many childhood purchases – and noticed it was shrouded in darkness. The Post Office is at the back of the store. A handwritten sign on a cheap plastic chair announced that they were closed due to a power cut.
I asked where the nearest Post Office was. The two staff, still behind the counter, looked visibly irritated by the question. They debated for a while.
There was one in Tesco in Pitsea. Or at Stacey’s Corner. Or one at Whitmore Way.
From years delivering Focus leaflets, I realised after I left that the closest wasn’t any of those, but actually at a local newsagent. When I got there, situated, luckily, on my route to the gym, I asked about posting by recorded delivery. The person behind the counter mocked the difference between Royal Mail Special Delivery Guaranteed™ and Royal Mail Signed For® 1st Class (and I gasped at the price difference – over six pounds for a single sheet of paper for Royal Mail Special Delivery Guaranteed™). The other person, on the till, didn’t know how to work the machine. When I explained the Post Office in Smith’s was closed, they grumbled and complained it simply meant that everyone would come up to them and they would run out of money. (I didn’t have the heart to tell them the Post Office staff didn’t know they existed.)
I was struck by the contrast with Fred the Postman, and the pride he showed in an integrated service. The Post Office as a resolute symbol of our need to communicate, with the men and women of the Royal Mail, like Fred, out in rain and sun and snow and wind.
I could feel the spirit of Fred as he turned in his grave.
In Basildon, despite the loss of a separate Crown Post Office, something I find unconscionable in a town of over 100,000, at least there are options. There are plenty of places to bury post office counters behind sad racks of sweets and lottery tickets, staffed by shop staff who regret taking on the onerous burden of providing a service with limited resources, even if the Post Office don’t know where they are. In rural areas, however, the options are much more limited and the Post Office retains much more of its powerful symbolism of our need to be in touch.
In 2012, a ten year business agreementwas signed between Royal Mail and Post Office Ltd to allow the Post Office to continue issuing stamps and handling parcels for Royal Mail (and Parcelforce). Three years of that have passed and in seven years’ time we will be in new territory altogether. Will the spectre of mass post office closures raise its head again?
The Post Office, as a concept and an institution, deserves to be more than a bone, ripped at by the twin dogs of left-wing union militancy and right-wing privatisation dogma. Today’s world is a hard-line one of pounds and pence, where cash transactions are being supplanted by card and automatic payments, and where profitability is seen as a requirement of public service. Those who care about the future of their post offices should be organising now to prevent the coming decimation of a network that is critical to our rural communities and has the potential to be a first rate supplier of public services in our towns and conurbations. We need an investment of creative energy, as well as money, to ensure that the Post Office thrives and becomes a modern institution that embraces the challenges of the 21st century.
I should know by now that the Daily Mail is basically a cesspit that cynically trades on the base prejudices and curiosities of its readers. The link confirmed exactly that, with the first page a picture of Brigitte Bardot, firstly at the height of her popularity and fame, and secondly today. The caption read: ‘Brigitte Bardot was one of the most beautiful women that ever lived. Now she is crazy, old and looks like she smells of cat urine.’
It will come as no surprise that of the twenty-seven celebrities listed, twenty are women. Of course the likes of Axl Rose and Russell Crowe are included, but the list is largely another example of the casual misogyny that defines rags like the Mail.
It does cause you to wonder if this is what the great British free press is all about. After all, after the outrage about Leveson, particularly from the Mail, you might think they would use their platform to talk about things that really matter. But no – there’s more click-thru cash in promoting sites that mock women in their 80s for not looking as they did in their 20s.
‘Reality doesn’t interest me,’ said Leni Riefenstahl in a piece in Der Spiegel in August 1997 (Leni Riefenstahl über ihre Filme, ihr Schönheitsideal, ihre NS-Verstrickung und Hitlers Wirkung auf die Menschen Spiegel 18.08.1997).
Hitler’s favourite film-maker died in 2003 aged 101 and this quote, usually lifted out of context, did nothing to mitigate her notoriety. Her statement was an answer to the following question: ‘When you photograph a Greek temple and at the side there is a pile of rubbish, would you leave the rubbish out?’ ‘Definitely, I am not interested in reality,’ Riefenstahl replied.
My immediate reaction is ‘But wouldn’t we all leave the rubbish out?’
It is the sort of self-editing that most of us engage in when we are taking holiday photographs. We compose our shots to leave out the construction site that marrs the view of the old town, the unknown family that spoils our white-sanded beach, the cars that intrude into the sense of loneliness we want to capture on a coastal path.
My second reaction is ‘But what is the purpose of those pictures?’
If I am taking holiday snaps to remind me of how a place resonated with me, that allows me to be transported back there when I look at them, I am looking to take pictures that evoke an emotional response. I want to capture scenes that evoke memories of how beautiful a place was, how bleak it was, how peaceful it was. I am not looking to capture the essential truth of the place except in so far as that emotion is concerned.
Of course, there are other photographs I might be wanting to take – ones that document how disingenuous the holiday brochure was, how crowded the beach was, how the traffic crashed in on you at every moment. These may not evoke the same memories or feelings when I look at them, but they are ‘true’ in a way that those I self-edit aren’t. When we look at photographs in a newspaper, or we watch a documentary film, we place some trust in the film-maker that, whatever our emotional response, what we are seeing is ‘true’.
The power of Riefenstahl’s National Socialist propaganda film-making, as seen in the likes of Triumph of the Will, came from creating images and using soundscapes designed to evoke a powerful emotional response, whilst presenting them as documentary truth – even though some of the scenes were rehearsed fifty times, camera shots were distorted to create senses of scale and it allows a sense of party, state and people being a single united entity to emerge as unchallenged fact, exactly as her Nazi paymasters wanted.
Propaganda as a word is Italian in origin, taken from the modern Latin: ‘Congregatio de Propaganda Fide’ or ‘Congregation for Propagation of the Faith’. This was the committee of cardinals charged by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 with overseeing evangelical foreign missions and ensuring uniformity of teaching and interpretation – of ‘truth’. Its modern political interpretation emerged in the early twentieth century, encapsulating Riefenstahl’s style of film-making perfectly.
Yet bending the truth in film is not the preserve of dictators and repressive regimes.
War and lies
The Battle of San Pietro is a documentary film made by acclaimed director John Huston, apparently showing the Battle of San Pietro Infine as it happens, Huston claiming that the cameramen, who were attached to the U.S. Army’s 143rd Regiment of the 6th Division, filmed alongside soldiers as they fought their way up hill towards San Pietro. Later research by Peter Maslowski, in his book Armed With Cameras, demonstrated that this was false. Once again, those watching were led to believe that the events recorded were as they happened. And elements of course were true – the body bags, the distraught Italians coming home. However, crucially, large elements were re-enactment. Or, to put it less generously, made-up.
The viewer doesn’t know where truth ends and fiction begins.
More recently, Canadian Michael Jorgensen made the controversial film Unclaimed, seeking to substantiate the oft-repeated claim (reinforced by various Hollywood blockbusters including Rambo: First Blood Part II), that some troops listed by the U.S. government as MIA were actually POWs held long after the cessation of military action.
Jorgensen’s film seeks to tell the story of former Special Forces Green Beret Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson, who, shot down over Laos and listed as MIA, but who was allegedly actually imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese. After a year, it is claimed, he was released and married a Vietnamese woman, living in a remote village in south-central Vietnam. Robertson forgot how to speak English and forgot the names of his American children.
It is a powerful piece of film-making, including at-first-sight reunions and was intended as a device to reunite Robertson with his family.
Again, however, its central claim had considerable doubt cast upon it. The Independent newspaper carried an extensive report debunking the claims:
‘According to a memo sent to a UK news organisation yesterday evening, the man claiming to be Sgt Robertson is in fact Dang Tan Ngoc – a 76-year-old Vietnamese citizen of French origin who has a history of pretending to be US army veterans.
The memo, taken from a Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office report in 2009, apparently says Ngoc first came to the attention of the US military in 2006 when he started telling people he was Sgt John Hartley Robertson.
He was apparently questioned about the claims but quickly admitted he had been lying and was in fact Vietnamese.
In 2008 Ngoc apparently began claiming to be Sgt Robertson once again, and he was taken to a US embassy in Cambodia to be fingerprinted. It was quickly established that the fingerprints did not match those of the missing army veteran.’
Later in 2013, a DNA test conducted reluctantly by the family showed that the man who was presented as Robertson was unrelated to Robertson’s nephew.
Of course, questions remain about the story of John Hartley Robertson, and who the man in the jungle is, but the ‘truth’ is certainly not as presented in Jorgensen’s film, just as it may not be as is presented by the Department of Defense (this article explores those questions further).
It is an extraordinarily powerful piece of film-making.
It was Armistice Day. I had recently written about my great, great uncle. Every morning for a month I had disembarked at Fenchurch Street and seen the crowds building to see the incredible poppy installation at the Tower of London. I remember how I felt reading that story against a backdrop of reflections on war, evil and loss. This small victory of tremendous youthful bravery over evil created a sense of defiant hope. I remember thinking that I should find a moment to blog it.
The trouble is, it has emerged that not a single frame of it is true.
The millions of us who viewed that film, that reacted to it, who wondered on the fate of the two children after they escaped the sniper’s bullets, were duped by Lars Klevberg, a 34 year-old film-maker from Norway. In a piece for the BBC he said:
‘If I could make a film and pretend it was real, people would share it and react with hope,’ he said. ‘We shot it in Malta in May this year on a set that was used for other famous movies like Troy and Gladiator,’ Klevberg said. ‘The little boy and girl are professional actors from Malta. The voices in the background are Syrian refugees living in Malta.’
Were they comfortable making a film that potentially deceived millions of people? ‘I was not uncomfortable,’ Klevberg said. ‘By publishing a clip that could appear to be authentic we hoped to take advantage of a tool that’s often used in war; make a video that claims to be real. We wanted to see if the film would get attention and spur debate, first and foremost about children and war. We also wanted to see how the media would respond to such a video.’
Klevberg’s audacity is breath-taking and his intentions, surely, dubious at best. It is possible to generate a debate about war without faking footage and misleading people.
Zero Dark Thirty is a powerful piece of film-making which purports to show the events that lead up to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow often uses documentary-style camera shots to create a sense of immediacy and reality, reflecting the sorts of camera shots we see in contemporary news reports. At no point, however, does she claim that the film is documentary truth. The viewer is able to make a judgement as to whether or not the events were as depicted because we know this is a Hollywood film.
Klevberg’s clip is particularly insidious. It plays on the emotions that we have about children, especially children in war. It uses the sorts of footage that we have come to associate with documentary film-making and news reports. It depicts scenes that we imagine and that we have read about. Some of us have friends in Syria who are living this hell day in and day out. Yet Klevberg’s footage is entirely fake.
Who had heard of Lars Klevberg outside his native Norway before this emotionally-manipulative stunt? No-one beyond a small group of aficionados. Now he has trended worldwide on social media. For all of his protestations, it is difficult to see this as anything other than a cynical device for self-promotion, to register with a world hungry for some sense of hope in a conflict whose manifestations of evil affect us on a very primal level.
Deception and destabilisation
I think its effect is more dangerous.
It is a deliberate lie that reinforces our scepticism about everything we see. Many will argue that is a good thing. However, at a time when it hard enough to discern truth in the images we are presented with, when videos of IS terrorists committing murder for worldwide audiences of billions have to be ‘verified’, Klevberg’s actions seem utterly irresponsible, even to this liberal who instinctively distrusts power and questions constantly the evidence he is presented with. Scepticism built on a deliberate lie is as misleadingly useless as blind faith in authority.
Klevberg has done nothing to further confidence in documentary film-making and journalism. At best he has cast aspersions on his profession. At worst he has deliberately sought to manipulate emotion, mislead a worldwide public and construct events in a manner that fundamentally undermines trust. In doing so, he reinforces terrorist claims that what we see on our TV screens is nothing but Western propaganda.
The day after LBC hosted its Leaders’ Debate with Clegg v. Farage, the red tops carried the following front pages:
I fully accept that the complicated love life of two high-profile celebrities is going to be something of interest to the public. But is this front page speculation, at a time when mother, father and children will be coming to terms with the break-up of their family, justifiable in the public interest?
Last year, after runaway teenager Megan Stammers was found in France with her 30 year old teacher, Jeremy Forrest the BBC reported that Sussex police had stated the information which led to the discovery had come from a direct result of media coverage in France. After Miss Stammers and Mr Forrest were found, Mr Forrest’s parents released a statement expressing their thanks for the Sussex and French police as well as the British media for their assistance. On the other hand, however, due to the public intrigue and interest in this case both party’s names and intimate pictures were published and spread over the internet and Megan was forced to close down her twitter account following abuse on the site after her return to the UK. It can therefore be argued either way as to how the interest of the public affected the outcome in this case.
That excerpt alone reveals the complexity of questions of public interest. However, it demonstrates that a case can be made very clearly that there are circumstances for the reporting of people’s private lives, even if we should be alive to the consequences of such reporting.
At the same time, however, today’s front pages say something very depressing about us. They reveal that the tabloids would rather scream about the sad separation of a husband and wife – a story which fulfils none of the criteria of public interest – instead of reporting that, finally, two party leaders have engaged in a public debate on Britain’s future in Europe – an issue which is of maximum public interest. How ironic is that considering how vocally misleading at least two of these three rags are on European issues on a regular basis? How hypocritical is it when we have seen them allege institutional opacity and use misinformation as a basis for advocating Britain’s ‘conscious uncoupling’ from the European Union?
You would think that the debate would be a perfect hook for shining a light on an issue that they will each argue (rightly) is critical to Britain’s future. But no. Apparently, it is more important that we are treated to pictures of Gwyneth Paltrow kissing another man. Who cares what effect such stories have on Paltrow, Martin or their children? Who cares if we pile on the humiliation in order to satisfy a smug and mawkish hunger for ‘sleb chat’? Who cares if we force Paltrow and Martin, because of their celebrity status, to put strange labels on an ordinary tragedy experienced by many every day?
Some might loftily proclaim that Clegg and Farage are not Miliband and Cameron. Why should they be interested in what they have to say? Perhaps precisely because they are not Miliband and Cameron and the voices of the leaders of Britain’s two largest parties have so far refused to debate Britain’s place in Europe. Whether you wish to cover the debate positively or negatively, on what was said by whom, or who wasn’t there that should have been, it is unarguable that the European debate is in the public interest.
According to one relatively recent report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, engagement with political news in Britain is lower than in the US and in much of Europe. For a country that prides itself on its history of Empire, its fundamental role in bringing peace to Western Europe and its understanding of the complexities of international diplomacy, that is a sobering – and depressing – fact.
So why is it our red tops feed us crap? Because we – the public – buy them when they speculate on whether or not Gwyneth Paltrow is a ‘love cheat’ (which is about as much the business of you or me as whether your neighbour is seeing the Tesco delivery driver). Because we are less excited by attempting to get to the truth of the vital economic links that Britain has with the European Union.
I get that we all like to gawp. We all have a morbid fascination for the car crash as we drive by or the ambulance parked outside the house down the road. But we owe ourselves more than a medieval curiosity at those whose lives have fallen apart.
If we don’t engage with the important debates of the day, then surely the falling apart will happen closer to home. Some – many – of the 3.5 million jobs that depend on Europe could be lost. National law enforcement agencies trying to tackle terrorists and organised crime, such as sex traffickers, could find themselves hamstrung by national red-tape, unable to engage properly with each other. Border-less environmental disasters could be made much worse by lack of a common strategy and protocols.
We – the public – are the people who can decide if things that are of public interest become things that are of interest to the public. We – the public – are the people who can engage with the debates that affect all our lives and ascribe them the importance that they deserve. If we continually put money in the pockets of people who will feed us dross because it serves the purposes of an inflated circulation figure, then we only have ourselves to blame if we sleepwalk into decisions that have calamitous effects on us, whether personally or nationally.
Of course our media is riotous, anarchic, gloriously irreverent. Just as it should be. It is also the preserve of magnates with very personal commercial interests in international political outcomes. We kid ourselves if we present a romantic picture of our noble free press without drawing attention to the corporate small print.
“It is very strange, and very melancholy, that the paucity of human pleasures should persuade us ever to call hunting one of them.”
Samuel Johnson (1709-84), Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson
In October 2010, reports appeared in UK newspapers proclaiming that the Emperor of Exmoor, a giant stag given his name by photographer Richard Austin, had been shot. The red deer stag is the largest indigenous mammal in the British Isles and at almost nine feet tall, and weighing 300 pounds, the Emperor was a magnificent example of its kind. The Guardian reported that he was shot and killed close to the Tiverton to Barnstaple road at the height of the mating season and quoted Peter Donnelly, an Exmoor-based deer management expert, saying it was a disgrace the animal had been shot during the mating season: “The poor things should be left alone during the rut, not harried from pillar to post. If we care about deer we should maintain a standard and stop all persecution during this important time of the year.”
I’ve never been an absolutist on hunting. I understand the need for there to be management of herds and for vermin to be controlled. I worry, too, that so many children today have no understanding of where their food comes from. (In one recent study by the British Nutrition Foundation, 18% of primary school children thought fish fingers came from chickens.) However, I have never been able to reconcile myself to the pointless destructiveness of trophy hunting.
It’s more than a vague feeling or an intellectual opinion. It is a very physical and emotional response to the idea that man (and it is usually men, not women) has to prove himself by killing other creatures, for no other reason than the sheer hell of it. I first encountered that response as a child, reading Willard Price’s Safari Adventure, and it has remained with me ever since. To my mind, such testosterone-addled, adrenalised thrill-killing demeans us as human beings.
Fast forward to 15 March 2014 and in today’s Daily Mirror are two stories which reveal that our appetite for momentary glory at the expense of the animal kingdom is as great as ever it was.
First of all, poachers hunting for antlers have killed a New Forest deer known as the Monarch. According to the report, the poachers used a calibre of rifle too low to kill cleanly and instead the deer, badly wounded, drowned as it tried to swim to safety.
Spend a moment imagining the sequence of events. Spend a moment imagining the fear that magnificent creature experienced as the bullet crashed into its flesh. The pain as it tried to get away from violent intruders into its safe space, its fight-or-flight response leading it to crash towards a familiar stretch of water that had been a place of rest and refreshment for sixteen years. Think about its desolate coughing bleat as it limped towards death. And then those last, terrified gasps as it drowned, its exhausted body weakened further by blood loss.
All because greedy, vainglorious men wanted to hang its antlers on a dining room wall.
And then, across the Atlantic, the story repeats itself. A different country, yes, a different animal, yes, but once again actions that lead from that same ignorant bravado of inadequate men. Unlike the two deer, the protagonist has been only too happy to be associated with his ‘triumph’. A cretinous redneck who’d not be out of place in a North Carolina remake of Deliverance, Jett Webb is shown posing proudly with his ArmaLite AR-10, resting on his kill – a giant 36-stone wild boar nicknamed ‘Hogzilla’ that had become the stuff of local legend. He shot it in the Indian Woods area of Bertie County, having hid out in the woods at night, but there was no Hemmingway-esque poetic reflection on this particular kill.
Jett’s insightful comment?
“The sweet-tasting corn and a night-hunting light was too much for this oversized heap of pork chops.”
What ignorance. What pointless cruelty.
In the deaths of the Emperor, the Monarch and Hogzilla we have gained nothing and lost much. Gone are the chances for stories that make a place, that lend wonder to those exploring for the first time, the “what if…?” and the “perhaps we might…!”. Gone are the chances for a glimpse of nature’s magnificence made manifest in three animals whose unassuming majesty had the potential to induce wonder in inquisitive young minds.
And, as usual, greed will be excused as endeavour by those that celebrate and justify this pointless pursuit.
So Charlie Hague’s beautiful eco-home, which wouldn’t be out of place in The Shire, is to be bulldozed within two months on the instructions of Pembrokeshire County Council because:
“”benefits of the development did not outweigh the harm to the character and appearance of the countryside“
A lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges for young people today. Local authorities are often reluctant to build or facilitate it, preferring instead to take money from developers to fund future social housing developments. In a different place, at a different time. In a more ‘appropriate’ development. Rather than now, when people might need them.
We see this locally in Basildon with the proposals to build hundreds of “aspirational” homes on ancient pastures in Dry Street. Essentially, these will be unaffordable, luxury homes with a bare minimum of affordable provision. Neither the local council nor the developers have any interest in providing houses that local people can afford to live in. Instead, they are content to see greater and greater strain placed on local services and infrastructure by encouraging new people to move to the area.
Having been on a downward trend in the UK for years, the number of households in temporary accommodation has started to rise again. The long term impact of poor quality housing on health is well-documented. After four years of living in a damp caravan, Charlie Hague decided to act.
Charlie’s father owned a plot of land next to the pioneering Lammas Ecovillage. For around £15,000 he built a roundhouse out of straw bales, plastered with lime, and covered with a reciprocal roof (self-supporting, essentially). You can watch the story of Charlie’s house below:
I’ve served on local planning committees. The decisions are never easy. But retrospective planning permission is granted up and down the country all the time and for less considerate developments than this.
We should be looking to promote and support inventive and sustainable ways of building and living. This kind of construction should be championed as an example of how a new house can be sympathetic to its environment – not bulldozed out of existence.
Sign the petition to save Charlie and Megan’s house and please like, share and reblog to draw attention to the their plight.