Centre for Media Research

Censorship is an assault on democracy, not on terrorism

by Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker


The government’s proposal to restrict appearances on TV by terrorists follows the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich last week, the bloody and gruesome aftermath of which was widely broadcast on TV and via Twitter. It reminds us of the broadcast ban that affected coverage of the Northern Ireland conflict from 1988 to 1994; and of the corresponding Section 31 ban in the Republic of Ireland. But censorship of this kind doesn’t work. In fact, it is an assault not on terrorism but on democracy.

The broadcast ban in Northern Ireland shifted the onus of censorship from the state onto the broadcasters, making it so troublesome to include interviews with proscribed individuals that it was easier to exclude them altogether. There is some evidence to suggest that it had an immediate impact on coverage. A study in 1990 by the Glasgow Media Group showed that in the first year of the ban, appearances on TV by Sinn Féin politicians such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness decreased by 63 percent from the year before. Some readers may take this as evidence that censorship works but they might also want to ask whether it had any impact upon support for Sinn Féin during this period. There was certainly no corresponding drop in the party’s vote.

But we should also look beyond the politics of a ban like this and consider its wider implications for democracy and free speech. Far from protecting democracy from terrorism and political extremism, censorship allows bad ideas and bad politics to go unchallenged and unexamined in public debate.  It stymies the free circulation of information, news and opinion – the lifeblood of a healthy public sphere. But perhaps its most far-reaching effect is that it sets a dangerous precedent. It makes the censorship of any form of controversial opinion suddenly thinkable and justifiable. The question any democratic government must ask itself in that eventuality is that posed by John Milton in 1664: “If you would have us slaves, you must be tyrants. And then, who will stand by you?” (Areopagitica)

Thatcher’s death and the media: ding dongs, sing songs and eulogies

Prof. Máire Messenger Davies reflects on this week’s coverage of the Margaret Thatcher’s death.


I’ve recently joined Facebook and I felt it was an appropriate medium to voice a few thoughts on hearing of the death of Margaret Thatcher. I wrote:

‘Need to acknowledge the death of Margaret Thatcher and the torrent of media comment.’ The prospect of trying to make sense of it all struck me as daunting, and I added: ‘Good luck sorting that lot out, pundits.’

It was revealing (to me anyway) that my first written comment on hearing of the death of a person with whose politics I deeply disagreed, was not ‘ding dong’, (nor ‘tramp the dirt down’, as offered by several other FB Friends). And, with due respect to grieving Thatcher relatives and friends, neither was my response sympathetic. My first response was to note the ‘torrent of media comment,’ which shows how thoroughly indoctrinated a career in Media Studies has made me.

It could be one of those moments when people remember where they were when they heard the news. On the morning of Monday 8th April, I had heard on BBC radio news that there had been a massive, almost 9/11 type explosion in Damascus, and I thought – that’s going to be the lead at 1 pm, make sure you tune in to find out more. So I did – and heard that Margaret Thatcher had died. On with the TV, to get the BBC TV News version of it and there was nothing about Damascus: the whole bulletin was devoted to Margaret Thatcher.

The initial TV coverage seemed flat and predictable; most of it, including live pieces to camera by reporters such as Nick Robinson, consisted of obviously pre-prepared packages. So we got childhood in Grantham grocery; Cambridge; Denis; election as MP, twins, first woman leader of Tories, first woman prime minister, St Francis of Assisi, Falklands, miners’ strike, Irish hunger strikers, Brighton bomb, City ‘big bang’, tearful departure, and so on – all with carefully selected archive footage. It was clearly acknowledged in these pre-prepared packages that it was her own colleagues, in her own Tory cabinet, who finally brought her down in 1990 – cue Geoffrey Howe and his broken cricket bat.

But no-one would think that this had been the case from the even greater torrent, the positive tsunami, of hagiography from Tory spokespersons and the right-wing press that has followed, and which continues.

Ding dong about the ding dong song

All I can do – since this is not a scholarly content analysis (and good luck to future scholars attempting that) – is to point out the highlights of the media coverage that most caught my own attention.  First, it’s impossible to ignore the ‘ding dong’ about the dingdong song – the song sung by the Munchkins in The Wizard of Oz (1939) to announce that Dorothy’s house, uprooted in the Kansas hurricane, has landed on the wicked witch of the west, and killed her. A group of anti-Thatcherites decided to organise a mass download of this song (written by Yip Harburg, a ‘left winger’ who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era in Hollywood, one of many ironic aspects to this affair), so that the song would get into the top ten of the download charts. This meant it would have to be played on the BBC’s Radio 1 Chart countdown on Sunday afternoon.

Daily Telegraph seized this opportunity to criticize the BBC:

‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, a song from the Wizard of Oz, has sold 20,000 copies this week …Friends of Lady Thatcher said the corporation would be guilty of a “serious dereliction of duty” if it aired the song.’

The Daily Mail front page was headed: BBC WITCH SONG INSULT TO MAGGIE and reported: ‘in a decision that will cause widespread outrage, the ding dong song will feature in Radio 1’s Sunday evening Top 40 countdown.’ Many on Twitter drew attention to the irony that ‘the Daily Mail that campaigned for press freedom over ‪Leveson wants the BBC to censor something’. The Sun even found 91 and 94 year olds, who had played Munchkins in the movie, to express disapproval, in a front page splash headed ‘Wizard of Oz stars speak:  MUNCHKIN FURY AT MAGGIE DING DONG SONG’.

The BBC, mindful of recent scandals, came up with a compromise, which like many compromises, doesn’t seem to have pleased anybody – but, as they’ve noted before, when both sides attack you, (cue Nick Cohen, The Observer, vs the Mail Online) you know you’re doing something right. The Radio 1 controller announced they would play a short clip from the song with an introduction from a newsreader explaining the context of the controversy. This seems to me to be an extremely astute move on the part of the BBC; the controversy is there, partly because the press are making so much of it, so they can’t ignore it. True to Reithian ideals of informing and educating, they decided to give listeners a short media education lesson, putting the song in context. Good for them.

‘All but a state funeral’

Plans for the funeral, with full military honours similar to that for the Queen Mother, were revealed; at the same time calls for ’personal respect’ continued. But if, as we are constantly reminded by her supporters, (and interestingly also Ken Livingstone, on PM on Tuesday) that she’s basically just ‘somebody’s mother and daughter’, many questioned the point of giving her a funeral so different from the average mother’s. The grandiosity of the funeral implies a great national leader – in which case, we have to comment on her effectiveness as a national leader, and, even for those who supported her, as such, she is found wanting. Peter Oborne, in the Daily Telegraph, 10th April, 2013, described the decision to have ‘all but a state funeral’ for Lady Thatcher, a worrying ‘constitutional innovation.’ He quoted with approval the Mirror’s description of her as the nation’s ‘most divisive prime minister’ and pointed out:

‘Defenders of next week’s funeral arrangements say that she was a “transformational” prime minister. This is true. But so was Clement Attlee, who introduced the welfare system and the National Health Service, thus fundamentally changing the connection between state and individual. Yet the Queen did not attend Mr Attlee’s funeral, a quiet affair in Temple Church near Westminster.… all one can do now is hope that next week’s funeral is not allowed to turn into a triumphalist Tory occasion that inflicts permanent damage on the monarchy and also our system of government.’

Oborne reminded his readers: ‘The dockers dipped the cranes when Churchill’s coffin came up the Thames in 1965. Would they have dipped their cranes for Margaret Thatcher?’  He knew the answer to this: No, they wouldn’t, not least because there are no dockers left in London’s Docklands; they have been replaced by the Canary Wharf financial district.

Many drew attention to the rewriting of history of the 1970s and 80s, including John Prescott in the Mirror, Saturday 13th April. But the best journalistically factual correction to this rewriting was a reprint of a Seamus Milne article from May 2009, the anniversary of her election in 1979. (And, on the point of effective journalism, what a curiously prominent silence there has been from her 1980s ally in helping to reduce media pluralism, Rupert Murdoch): Milne pointed out some facts and figures:

‘You’d never guess from all this fevered snobbery and retrospective catastrophism [about Britain in the 1970s] that average economic growth in Britain in the dismal 1970s, at 2.4% a year, was almost exactly the same as in the sunny Thatcherite 1980s – though a good deal more fairly distributed – and significantly higher than in the free-market boom years of the last two decades. Nor would you imagine that there was far greater equality and social mobility than after Thatcher got to work. Or that, while industrial conflict was often sharp in the 1970s, there was nothing to match the violence of the riots and industrial confrontations of Thatcher’s Britain.’

Thatcher the woman

Inevitably there has been reference to her feminism, or lack of it, and the undoubted fact that she was a very exceptional woman. Feminist Deborah Orr acknowledged:

‘she was the outstanding female politician of her generation, of any generation. Like it or not, that’s just how it was. Thatcher, the politician, was a nightmare. Thatcher, the woman, was more exceptional than any human being perhaps should ever dare to be.’

Self proclaimed feminist, ex-Tory MP Louise Mensch gave Twitterati a good laugh when she noted the almost perfectly equal division, rare in statistical polling, between 52% (pro) and 48% (anti) comments about Thatcher, as evidence that she ‘wasn’t divisive.’ There’s nothing you can do about this kind of idiocy except sigh.

Dancing in the street and leaping in the air

There have been celebrations and dancing in the street in Glasgow and in Trafalgar Square, which I felt no inclination to join. Quoting my own Facebook comments again: for me, the key moment when the ‘witch’ (if we must use the sexist labels of 17th century religious primitivism) ‘died’ was when she resigned, back in 1990, when many who are expressing authoritative opinions now, including members of the Government, were children, and could have no meaningful memory of her. Her resignation was the moment when those of us who had lived through the social depredations that she introduced, who had always opposed her politically, and who had disliked profoundly her personal, bullying style, felt it was appropriate to rejoice. And I did rejoice; I was teaching at Boston University in Boston, USA at the time; it was, aptly enough, Thanksgiving Day, and I was so moved by hearing the news on the 8 am bulletin on National Public Radio (it was 1 pm in Britain), that I tried to leap in the air and fell out of bed. Most of my American colleagues did not share my reaction. She was – and still is – a celebrity figure to them, the Hollywood Iron Lady, portrayed by Meryl Streep. Not to me.

But now, as a much older woman than my leaping self in Boston, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to rejoice at the death of someone who’d been in failing health for years, and who had undergone the awful tragedy of losing her once powerful memory, something that’s also happened to my own 94 year old mother, and a fate that could be awaiting the rest of us. An unexpectedly touching and sensitive piece by Russell Brand in The Guardian described seeing Thatcher in the Temple Gardens being helped to water the roses.

He concluded:

‘The blunt, pathetic reality today is that a little old lady has died, who in the winter of her life had to water roses alone under police supervision. If you behave like there’s no such thing as society, in the end there isn’t.’

Coming back to the personal theme of mother and child: my favourite media exchange has to be Glenda Jackson’s powerful, theatrical, oblivious (to braying Tory insults and to her Labour colleagues’ absence), speech in the House of Commons debate on Wednesday, and her more conservative son, Dan’s Hodges’ response to it in the Daily Telegraph.

Said Glenda:

“There was a heinous social, economic and spiritual damage wreaked upon this country, upon my constituency and my constituents. … not only in London but across the whole country in metropolitan areas, where every single shop doorway, every single night, became the bedroom, the living room, the bathroom for the homeless.”

Said Dan, responding to a barrage of critical tweets telling him how disapprovingly he should think about this:

‘I’ll tell you what I think. I think the House of Commons assembled on Wednesday to honour a woman of conviction. And like it or not, a woman of conviction was what it got to see. Am I Glenda Jackson’s son? Yes, I am.’

Good for Dan. And to conclude with the Munchkin theme, a last, more hopeful word to writer Frank Cottrell Boyce, in the Observer, 14th April, drawing attention to more positive aspects of British identity, as he and Danny Boyle had done in the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony:

‘It’s time to stop going on about the witch being dead and start imagining what might lie over the rainbow.’

The yellow brick road beckons….

Back to Belfast’s ‘dark old days’: newspaper coverage and riots

In the midst of the controversy over the fying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall, Ciaran Bartlett offers some historical reflections on newspaper coverage of political turmoil and riots in Belfast.


Currently, Northern Ireland is making headlines across Europe and America with Derry becoming the City of Culture for 2013. Simultaneously, however, protests in the greater Belfast area and elsewhere in Ulster, fuelled by the decision of the Belfast City Council to remove the Union flag from Belfast City Hall, have caused violence and tensions which have led the media to ask if we are indeed heading back to ‘the dark old days’.

This is a curious and, in my opinion, a much over-used and under-defined phrase. Seemingly, the term is used to refer to the very recent conflict in Northern Ireland, with some sort of mystical starting point around 1968. However, it is well-known that very similar problems existed in nineteenth-century Belfast when the city was expanding rapidly and becoming an extremely important industrial city in Victorian Ireland.

It may be possible to gain a deeper understanding of what and when ‘the dark old days’ actually were (and hopefully, our own times) by looking at the newspaper coverage of the riots in Belfast in 1886 in response to the Home Rule Crisis.

The history of public disorder, rioting and political unrest linked to cultural issues extends back far beyond the conflict that broke out in the late 1960s.  And we can detect similarities in the journalistic coverage of events in 1886 and 2012. To this end, Belfast’s newspapers, The Belfast Morning News (which exists today as The Irish News) and the Newsletter (which continues today under the same name) reveal how they reflected and influenced he city’s historic conflict at the time.

The Government of Ireland Bill (1886), known as the first Home Rule Bill was defeated in an early morning sitting the House of Commons on 8th June. It was defeated by 30 votes. Due to the time of the vote, the newspapers were able to report on the events in time for publication on the 8th. The report in the Morning News attempted to inspire a hopeful mood among its nationalist readers who had probably, as J. C. Beckett suggests, thought the passing of the Bill was virtually guaranteed after the 1885 elections. The Morning News feed its readers with references that they would easily understand, in this case, it used and referred somewhat rhetorically to history. It said that “from one point of view, the result is to be regretted”  and argued that the Bill was “the first time for 700 years that England was afforded the opportunity of solving the problem which her own misgovernment in Ireland had set to her”.  It concluded that England had missed the opportunity to “settle the Irish Question…once and forever”.

The writing in the Morning News was curt, expressing ‘regret’ and ‘disappointment’ on several occasions, stating that the Bill had the power to close forever the “little chapter of strife and friction” between Ireland and England.

Interestingly, the Newsletter’s coverage of the defeat of the Home Rule Bill is comparable to the Morning News’ jubilant reports of the overwhelming nationalist election victory in 1885.  It declared ceremoniously that “Mr Gladstone’s plot to sever the empire by granting legislative independence to Ireland was defeated”. Unlike the Morning News which carried a small table giving a concise break down of the voting results at the end of its reports, the Newsletter led with a large font headline: “VICTORY!” It went on to describe how “with feelings which we [the Newsletter] cannot doubt are shared by all our readers” that the “Home Rule scheme” which was “concocted by Mr Gladstone in conference with Mr Parnell has been defeated by a magnificent majority”.

With news of the defeat of the Bill in mind, serious rioting occurred in Belfast.  The Newsletter stated the following day that the rioting, which had been ongoing for five days, was to be “deplored”.  It described the veracity and increased intensity of the violence on the evening of the 8th, saying: “So outrageous did the mob become at more than one place, that the constabulary, after the Riot Act had been read, were compelled to fire upon the crowds”. These were very serious riots indeed. As a consequence of the defeat of the Bill, Gladstone had his government dissolved by Queen Victoria and further elections took place.

In my PhD thesis, I argue that the nationalist Belfast Morning News and the unionist Newsletter existed alongside one another in a sort of hegemonic struggle, each attempting to enhance the victories and soften the defeats of experience by their own political sides. When one newspaper’s politics was succeeding in Westminster, the editorial line could be reduced to gloating. However, when the same newspaper found itself at the sharp end of a political defeat, it would use politically strong, deliberate language and notionally invoke typicalities of various genres, including as I argue in my thesis, history, rhetoric and the gothic.

It is my contention that a similar model of explanation may be roughly applied to the modern counterparts of these same news outlets in Belfast. It must be noted that, in terms of language and inference, nineteenth century newspapers were (by and large) much more direct than modern newspapers. However, this case does make for some interesting comparisons. Though the hegemonic roles have been reversed somewhat in the reportage of the recent flag protests (with unionist politics being defeated so to speak in this instance), similar codes of journalistic practice, political hegemony and cultural exposition can be detected. Culturally, this may help us understand something of the much deeper historical roots of the so-called ‘dark old days’.

The Newsletter is producing a great deal of coverage of the recent flag protests focusing closely on the political reasons for protests and reaction to them, rather than on the violence itself. The Irish News focuses more closely on the violence and disruption caused by the protests and discusses the amount of women and children attending recent protests as a “calculated tactic to thwart police…and act as a buffer for loyalist paramilitaries”. While the Newsletter mostly refers to the protests as “demonstrations” or “flag protests”, the Irish News is inclined to refer to “loyalist protests” and “riots”.  This difference in language belies the subtle differences between the reportage in both newspapers; small but vital changes.

The struggle for political hegemony that characterised the behaviour of Belfast’s two main newspapers in the Home Rule Crisis in the 1880s can still be applied to those newspapers today, even when the ‘winner/loser’ roles are reversed as they have been in this example. While the modern counterparts are somewhat more guarded than their predecessors (in terms of language), I argue that the same tribal content can be detected, suggesting that the newspapers here both reflect and influence our society greatly.

As media scholars and practitioners, it seems vital for our understanding of the role of newspapers in our culture that we come to grasp the truer, deeper roots of the past in Belfast, lest we risk a return to the actual ‘dark old days’.


A date with Derry…

Eli Davies reflects on her time in Derry at the MeCCSA conference.


I am not a scholar of media or cultural studies, or a journalist or a filmmaker; I am a teacher and a writer, based in London. But, at the tail end of my longer-than-usual Christmas holiday, I found myself at Magee for the three-day MeCCSA conference, to help out with the general running of the event.

Discussion panel members at the Playhouse in Derry-Londonderry – Niamh Thornton, Richard Williams and Chancellor Dr James Nesbitt.

I was there as part of a fairly extensive team of other helpers, mainly students, all of whom, it has to be said, seemed far more expert than me at the whole business and had been preparing for it a day or so before I rolled up on Wednesday. For most of the conference, I was based at the registration table with two or three other volunteers; we welcomed delegates, handed out name badges and conference packs, directed them to the right rooms, and referred them to tech support, who smoothed over any last minute glitches with memory sticks and PowerPoints. The temperature seemed to drop quite suddenly in Derry as the conference kicked off and it was, at times, a draughty spot. But wrapped up in our cardies and scarves when necessary, it was a great place to sense the ebb and flow of the event.

I managed to sneak into the odd session over the course of the conference, a treat for someone who gets the occasional pang for her past academic studies. I am no stranger to critical theory – I’ve done my time with Barthes, Foucault, Butler and Zizek – but I am, I admit, a little rusty. So I had the odd panic before arriving, when I worried that it might just all go a little bit over my head. But the sessions I attended, which included a great panel discussion on the aftermath of Leveson, and the Friday plenary, featuring a typically provocative Terry Eagleton, were lively and engaging and left my head buzzing with thoughts and questions. It was fascinating also to look at the programme and see the amazing range of other topics covered in other panels, as well as chatting to PhD students about the papers that they were giving.

I first came to Derry ten years ago; back then I was a misty-eyed student of Irish literature, doing my masters at Trinity down in Dublin. I stayed with a friend who was living there while she wrote her Masters thesis about urban planning in the city. She walked me round, took me to all the places of note and told me the city’s story. Anne Crilly’s feminist tour of the city walls, which I went on the Thursday of the conference, gave a new angle to a walk I’ve done a fair few times since then. The walk included little-known tales of the local shirt factory workers and Anne pointed out the places in the city where they had met with Eleanor Marx and Mrs Pankhurst. On my first visit I became quite taken with Derry– with its walls, its history, its literary associations, its scenic backdrop. So it was nice, both on the tour and around at the conference, to hear other first-time visitors have similar responses to the place.

Several people on the tour, when walking past the Bogside and Free Derry Wall, remarked on how familiar these spots were from TV news coverage of the Troubles – a comment on media representation right there. Such questions obviously have very immediate resonance in Derry and several papers and discussions at the conference dealt with this. Other interesting questions are being thrown up by the Derry’s UK city of culture status. The aims of the City of Culture include regeneration and transformation – not unproblematic concepts, of course, something acknowledged and discussed by speakers throughout the conference.

Professor Roy Greenslade, City University, delivers his speech “Journalism post-Leveson” on the second day of the MeCCSA conference at Magee.

There seemed, overall, to be a great buzz about the occasion. The mood was serious and scholarly, yes, but also lively and convivial. On Friday I chatted to one of the women on the university catering staff as she laid out lunch, and she commented on what ‘a good bunch’ the conference delegates were (the catering team were a pretty great bunch themselves). There was a similar positive feeling in the Playhouse, site of the Plenary discussion with James Nesbitt, and the Custom House, site of a very tasty dinner.  On twitter there were posts about the conference from the hotels where people were staying and comments from delegates on how welcoming the locals were. When it came to Saturday morning, after the whole thing had finished, I actually felt a bit sad to leave.

Conference volunteers get ready to assist at the MeCCSA Conference (Spaces & Places of Culture). Photographed here are Gina Straney, Peter Stewart, Sabastian Akehurst, Paul Blackburn, Aimee Reid, Peter Stuart, Hannah Strain, John Davies, Matthew Breen, Elinor Davies, Shelley Culbertson, Victoria McCollum, Daniel Brown, Kate McAuley, Bronagh Goudy and Curtis Worrell.

The Magee campus was the venue for the three day MeCCSA conference.

Photographic History Research and Practice: Selective, Subjective: The Historical Photograph as a Trace of History

Professor Martin McLoone offers a review of Professor Sarah Edge‘s Photographic Exhibition: Selective, Subjective: The Historical Photograph as a Trace of History, which has just closed. The exhibition ran in the Riverside Foyer Gallery at the University Of Ulster, Coleraine from December 7th – January 12th 2013. 


In his account of the making of Robert Flaherty’s film ‘Man of Aran’ in 1932-4, Pat Mullen describes one of the difficulties Flaherty encountered in finding local subjects to co-operate with him. Apparently the islanders feared the camera and before they would agree to being photographed they sought assurances from the local parish priest that they would not lose their souls along with their likenesses. In a completely different context from the early days of photography, Arthur Munby records in his diary for 1862 encountering a similar fear – this time among the urban working class women in London. Munby, as Sarah Edge’s research confirms, bought, rather than commissioned, photographs of these women from various photographers at the time and in his diary he records that one of these photographers told him of the difficulties he had in getting the women to pose for him. ‘…they thinks it’s witchcraft or somethink o’ that’, he is reported as saying and by way of explanation adding, ‘Many of them are Irish, you see.’ These two incidents, separated by a period of seventy years, raise a number of interesting points about the art and practice of photography. First, there is clearly a problem here with photography’s capacity to capture and record reality – its documentary function – and the implication that it somehow delves deeper or reconstructs, reconconfigures or otherwise changes the object of its look – its representational function. This has been and continues to be a central concern for photographic studies. As Sarah Edge says here, the photograph turns the subject into an object and perhaps there is an instinctive understanding of this in the responses of subjects to their first experience of the camera. Indeed, it is this dynamic that renders photography’s documentary purpose extremely problematic. ‘The camera never lies’ runs the old adage but it is clear that from the moment of selection of subject and by the application of various techniques – composition, framing, lighting, setting and other extraneous factors the camera manipulates and constructs so completely that it might rightly be deemed the most mendacious machine ever invented. Even the evidence of the archive itself is suspect. Someone chooses what is kept and what is discarded and there is evidence that Munby’s own archive is a carefully selected set of images that tell his story rather than history. There is a supplementary question raised here also about photography’s role in nineteenth century anthropology and its status as historical record. Flaherty and his more accomplished photographer wife, Francis, approached their subjects through the filter of the nineteenth century. ‘I’m an explorer first’, Flaherty once said, ‘and only incidentally a filmmaker’. Like Munby before him, Flaherty was a flaneur of the primitive, wandering like an explorer from one remote location and society to the next, capturing endangered and unusual peoples on film before they are washed away by the filthy tide of modernity. Here, the Irish dimension is interesting.

In both these accounts there is an implication that the Irish represented a particular form of pre-modern primitivism and the camera, still or moving, represented the high point of modern sophistication in contrast. However, we might just as easily say that the photographs and films that resulted from the encounter between modernity and the primitive tells us more about the photographers and their ideological perspectives than it does about their subjects.

In the case of Munby, the subject of Sarah Edge’s study, there is a complex weave of ideological assumptions. First, of course, there is the problematic of race, ethnic identity or nationality. This is signalled in passing by the photographer’s remark about Irish girls but is central to the whole world of nineteenth century images of Ireland and the Irish, especially as these have developed from woodcuts and illustrations through political cartoons and on to photography itself. One of the ironies of the situation is that because of patent and copyright issues, photography actually developed more rapidly in Ireland than it did in Britain and, as Sarah Edge has pointed out elsewhere , because of the political tensions in late nineteenth century Ireland, photography developed a more clearly political and surveillance role there earlier than it did elsewhere. The surveillance potential of photography is already implicit in the voyeuristic tendencies clearly implied in the practice of the flaneur and the ethnographer and this aspect of the history of photography is central to the Sarah Edge’s work.

Munby’s photographs raise a second important ideological question. He photographed and bought photographs of mainly working-class women. In fact there is a double category at work here and Munby’s photographs raise very interesting questions about the construction in the nineteenth century of both gender and class identities. Sarah Edge is interested in this in terms of Munby himself – the voyeur and the dispassionate observer. Munby, she argues, represents a moment and a practice in the wider Victorian project of defining and circumscribing femininity and marking it off from Victorian masculinity. Central to this project is the question of power. Munby represents dominant patriarchal and bourgeois power and the photographs he collected tell us as much about this power relationship as they do about the life situation of the working-class women he collected. Munby removed himself from the material world of these women – the hardships and the poverty that they endured – and sought a kind of safety in the dispassionate security of the patriarchal gaze provided by the photographic image.

Sarah Edge is interested in the theory and practice of photography and her research findings are presented as both theoretical and practical or, to be more precise, through a theoretically informed practice. In her own practice she returns to the location of many of Munby’s original photographs. Her own contemporary photographs attempt to locate the materiality of these women – to find traces of the lived experience that Munby was anxious to contain. In her analysis, she argues that it is impossible to divorce the meaning of the photograph from the practice in its historical setting. She has devised a photographic practice that itself attempts to explore the deeper meanings and broader constructions of Munby’s photographs. In a metaphorical sense, she has set out to rediscover the stolen soul in the frozen likenesses of Munby’s women. The exhibition of images presented here attempt to reinsert these ghostly traces while at the same time asking pertinent questions about historical memory and the truth of the photograph.


What is a photograph?

Sarah Edge offers some thoughts on a round table discussion at Birmingham City University set up by a wider AHRC Networking Grant to investigate ‘The Application of Non-Representational Theories to the Digitally Produced and Circulated Image’, (27th December 2012)


I like the idea of a blog it allows for a kind of quick informal response to events where ideas, ruminations, questions can be put out there without the worry of, ‘Oh no, I might make a mistake’.  So here I go.

I was recently an invited guest to the Centre for Fine Art Research (CFAR) Birmingham City University at what was billed as, ‘An international roundtable event responding to the simple question ‘What is a Photograph?’ The day was chaired by Prof. Johnny Golding and advertised as an ‘intense, curious and experimental one day micro-laboratory which will include a series of presentations from invited speakers on the networked photograph.’ It lived up to its label.

All participants were requested to reflect on their own response to the question ‘what is a photograph?’ – thinking it through in relation to the recent work of Francoise Laurelle’s Non-Photography (2011), Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking with Whitehead (2012) and Sloterdijk’s Bubbles/Spheres (2011). (This was ‘homework’, I am afraid, that I did not manage to do but have certainly decided to now read Laurelle’s Non Photography)

What is a Photograph? Was organised as part of a wider AHRC Networking Grant investigating ‘The Application of Non-Representational Theories to the Digitally Produced and Circulated Image.’ The project aims to establish and facilitate a trans-disciplinary academic network in order to produce new insights into and understandings of the relationship between the photographic image and the Web.

So what is a photograph? A good question. But is it one with an obvious answer?  No, it seems not. It is a strange question and one which I find myself coming at from a slightly different position which is to ask is it a useful question? What do I mean by that? Well, what motivates the asking? Why are we asking ‘what is a photograph’?

I do not think we ever quite got around to addressing that at the roundtable. The combination of fine art practitioners (photographers), a curator and those who ‘study the subject’, primarily from a philosophical tradition, was unusual, and as the day progressed the participants shifted the question away from ‘what is a photograph?’ to ‘what can a photography do?’ … ummm, a shift which was getting closer to my interests. If we can work out what it can do, then could we also consider its effects? This all brings me back to my cultural studies tradition. But I have stumbled at the first hurdle with this question. How can I find out what it does if I do not know what it is?

A philosophical question perhaps … but I am not a philosopher. There’s plenty here in the room with me and I am fascinated to hear what they have to say. As a cultural studies person (and sometimes an artist, when I get time) I feel slightly like an outsider (this is an interdisciplinary event) but I know there is something important being considered here and if I can order my thoughts… theirs and mine, and think, I am pretty sure I will have something that is useful to me.

What is a photograph? The answer must surely lie in determining what are the photograph’s defining characteristics; what aspect of this form of visual communication marks it as unique from every other?

Of course it shares things; perspective, an imitation of perception, flatness, and all its cultural codes. But we can return to them once we can define its differences. Because by defining its differences maybe we can understand how this difference acts upon its sameness to other forms of communication.

So what is it that we see ‘persisting’ in the networked photography? It is, I would suggest, its stillness and its ability to capture information about the world through a physical link… a ‘trace’. Whether that trace was recorded chemically or electronically for me is not the issue. I do not care if the ‘latent image’ is there caught in the camera waiting to emerge through the printing process or caught in the space between me and the electronic sensor before it materialises on the screen for me to see. It is only a matter of time, I think.

The debate at the roundtable made me think about such terms and the need for my own clarity.

Indexicality is not just a matter of being linked to the object the sign represents (e.g. a piece of Christ’s cross can take on indexicality through an added narrative. When I tell you that this wood is a piece of the cross, it is only through this meta-discourse that the wood becomes linked with Christ). In photography it is also about a physical link to that which it represents. For example, the fingerprint is a physical trace of me. It cannot exist without me pressing my inked finger down on the paper, while the footprint of the bird in the sand can only be made by the physical presence of the wading bird. In its purist form no additional narrative is required to link the sign with the referent. If I was an ornithologist I would be able to read the trace of the bird and identify the species it belongs to but probably not the actual bird. If I were a criminologist I would have the training and knowledge to read the fingerprint for the exact human being it came from. (Indeed, they use to use a print from the ears).

Since returning from the day these thoughts have stayed with me and I have found myself pondering on them and their significance to the persistence of photography (as a still, indexically traced image on the web). A photograph is a still image linked to the physical world. A photographic trace of my mother was made by my mother when the instrument of the camera recorded (traced) her difference to every other human being on this planet. It is this that I see when I look at it. While I have leant to read the photograph I do not need to learn to read the trace of my mother, her uniqueness is there. Of course for all other viewers I must offer a narrative to locate its personal indexical quality for me but nonetheless what they can all see is the physical trace of another human. This is what dictates its persistence in the digital age. (The pre-Christmas rush for online published family albums bears testament to that).

Thus the photograph is not like the wood of Christ’s cross. It is not dependent on an external narrative or discourses to link it to the physical world. The automatic process of the photographic image does that itself. The uncanny of indexicality is in every photograph we view but none more so than the photograph of the human.

Why does it matter to me? It is because I am someone who studies photography in its ordinary everyday usage, part of networked culture in which the persistence of these two defining traits – a trace and stillness (take a look at Facebook) –  ‘speaks’, I believe, to a social, cultural and ‘human’ need that can only be fulfilled by the photograph. (Why was it invented in the first place?). If it didn’t it would have mutated, away from index and stillness into something else …perhaps a moving portrait of the kind familiar to fans of the Harry Potter films … long ago.

Once defined we can add these to all the other shared traits it carries and wonder how these act together thus asking what does the photograph do? Now the question meets my concerns, as a cultural studies feminist activist. I am not interested in what a photograph is in an abstract sense but for a purpose what does it do? How does it do it? And to what effect? Basically is this theoretical examination useful to me in understanding unequal relationships of power…a surprisingly old fashioned position nowadays… but making a comeback.  For me this is the place where photographic artistic practice meets theory.

Artistic photographic practices have, of course, always defined themselves against the normal everyday uses of photography.  This is nothing to do with photography itself but rather in order to signify its difference. Nonetheless there have always been artistic photographers who have sought to engage with the question of what is a photograph and what does it do? These photographers do what critical art should do; they test the boundaries of their subject. They expose, undermine, make visible or mobilise the inner workings of the photograph. This was the case made by the photographers who participated in the roundtable event whose creative work opened up the question ‘what is a photograph?’ and the fascinating, engaging artists who reveal there is a connection to be made here between these dense detached academic critiques and these experimental emotive and challenging photographic practices.

But again I find myself slightly uneasy I have clearly needed a definition of differences to mark out what is exclusive to the photograph. Artistic practices often work with the conventions of photography as its subject matter and to me it was no surprise how many times during the event, a film whose visual code reveals the patriarchal voyeurism of the camera – Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom – was referenced to say something about photograph. Many artistic works employ aspects of the moving image – animation, sound, etc – to say something about photography, to perhaps even answer the question ‘what is a photograph?’ They borrow from the visual codes and cultural conventions of the photograph but, under my definition, they are no longer a photograph. Does this matter? I think not. But there existence should also not be used to undermine what we see around us, which is the very persistence of still photography in everyday networked culture.

To sum up then the CFAR roudtable was fascinating, engaging and a pleasure to attend as the beginnings of an interdisciplinary exchange about what is a photograph? I enjoyed myself, as all could see, I think.

I have never quite mastered the external posture of the serious male academic and find myself overflowing with excitement, enthusiasm, things to say, thoughts to quick to hold in my mind that need to burst out. I think it might be a feminine thing.

As an aside before I joined everyone at the event, I went to see an amazing painting housed in Birmingham City Art Gallery. I am currently researching; Work (1852–1865) by Ford Madox Brown. I am writing about photography and signs of Irishness, in particular a certain style of beard – the ‘Fenian beard’ – ‘traced’ in Irish prison photographs in the 1860s. In Ford Madox Brown’s painting it is in all its glory caught in the painting of the Irish navvy… a comment on the continuity of our cultural concerns across different mediums perhaps.


Cuba on the BBC

The CMR Twitterverse was alive with comments and retweets discussing the BBC programme The World: Cuba (BBC2 11 December 2012) with Simon Reeve’s multiple flaws, shortcomings and crass assumptions, writes Niamh Thornton.

Click here to read more…

The day after Leveson

 Prof. Máire Messenger Davies on Leveson


The buzzword is betrayal’

Well, the report is written – 2000 pages and four fat volumes – it’s been presented to the world in measured, sober tones by Lord Justice Leveson, and, in the words of one tweeter, the Prime Minister David Cameron has ‘bottled it.’ In a statement to the House of Commons after the Report launch, he rejected Leveson’s recommendation of legislative backup to press regulation reforms. ‘Nothing is going to change’ claimed Michael Portillo, speaking on BBC’s The Week later on Thursday night. Many of the phone-hacking victims feel the same way; Hugh Grant tweeted midway through Thursday afternoon: “With a group of (non celeb) victims including Hillsborough families listening to PM. Buzzword is betrayal.” (Guardian) After so much time, effort, expenditure and major revelations about the ‘culture, practices and ethics of the press’, there is a strong sense of disappointment among victims and many commentators, and a sense of triumph among the perpetrators. According to Michael Wolff, Rupert Murdoch’s biographer, in a comment piece for the Guardian, Rupert must be feeling like a winnerThis is surely not what was intended.


Why care? Standing up to ‘raucous’

As an ex journalist, one of a family of journalists, as a media scholar, as a teacher of future journalists, and – as I’ve recently discovered, as a ‘victim’ (my phone was hacked because I was a friend and colleague of Professor John Tulloch, the 7/7 victim) – I’ve been following the Inquiry from the start with fascination and concern. Simply as a media event, it’s made great viewing, with people usually far from the public gaze being, as the press likes to claim for itself, properly ‘held to account’: Rupert & James Murdoch; Piers Morgan; Paul Dacre; Rebecca Brookes; Andy Coulson; senior police officers; muckrakers like Paul McMullan. (See a clever mashup of some of these people’s dire statements, at ‘Forgetful Editors’ on the Hacked Off website at ) Utterly absorbing to watch. All of this material is available on the Leveson website – and is a priceless resource for media research and teaching.

Some of the offenders – the so-called ‘raucous’ press – are having a curiously conflicted response to the report and its reception. On the one hand, Tim Shipman of the Mail tweeted proudly that ‘the whole furore yesterday was read by fewer BBC website visitors than ‘Germany Moves to Ban Bestiality’’. On the other hand, all the papers have devoted pages to the report, with the Mail itself giving up 10 pages of pre-report rubbishing of the Media Standards Trust and its ‘leftie’ connections. Well, which is it? Does it matter or does it not? If papers publish what the ‘public is interested in’ as a definition of ‘the public interest’, then what they are doing with their acres of space devoted to Leveson, is a better indication of their true view than what they say. Of course the public is interested.

And this word ‘raucous’. Nick Clegg was not the only politician and commentator to use it as a term of approval in his speech in Parliament on Thursday. But what’s so special about being ‘raucous’? Raucous is rude, noisy, in-your-face, smoke-and-mirrors stuff, designed to stop people from thinking about what’s being said because they’re too busy recoiling from the clamour. ‘Raucous’ is a way of stopping, not promoting, freedom of expression. If you know that somebody is going to bellow insults every time you ‘put your head above the parapet’, as Anne Diamond described her decision to give evidence to Leveson, you’re going to keep quiet. Diamond herself has already been crudely dismissed as a ‘has-been journalist.’ Luckily she’s a feisty performer who will keep answering back – but ordinary members of the public can’t easily do that. The ‘raucous’ bullying hasn’t ended for Diamond; it seems unlikely that it should end for Mr and Mrs Average.


Challenging sexist stereotypes

Diamond and Jacqui Hames, former police officer and victim, were two of the brighter moments of yesterday’s rather dreary coverage of Leveson, which was dominated by grey-suited, middle-aged white men. Another bright moment was the sparkling, articulate, well-researched performance of Charlotte Church on the BBC’s Question Time. How terrific to see a smart young woman explaining in clear language how the rise of printing in the 16th century enabled widespread freedom of speech, and how social media are a modern parallel. Even her co-panelist Neil Wallis, formerly of the News of the World, currently on bail, had to admit that she was impressive. Indeed the shocked response of many people in the media to Charlotte Church’s QT performance was a depressing indication of how the public’s views of young women have been corrupted by tabloid coverage of their sex lives – ‘Wow, she’s got a brain’. For teachers of young women (and young men) who want to work in the media, challenging these stereotypes should be a major issue.

Which brings me to training. Different people have different reasons for being concerned about Leveson and the issues raised by the Inquiry. My reasons are both personal – my journalistic family background and the recent discovery of what happened to my friend – and professional. As someone who works in a Media Studies department and teaches young people who want to be journalists, I’ve never met a student whose ambitions were to spy on other people’s bedrooms, to bribe the police, or to print raucous insults about those who have the temerity to be well-known for the job they do. Most students are almost excessively idealistic; they do want to ‘hold power to account’, and the students where I currently teach, in Northern Ireland, have further strong reasons for being concerned about ‘press bias.’ Perceived bias in the press, towards one Northern Irish ‘community’ or another, is one of the commonest choices of topic for student research projects. Yet the Inquiry has revealed that, once these idealistic young people find themselves in some national newsrooms (the local press is different, as Leveson acknowledged) they find themselves asked to behave in ways totally opposed to the idealism with which they embarked on their training and careers. How can they be protected? It’s important – and this seems to have been accepted by Cameron- that they do have protection. In section 64 of the Executive Summary Leveson writes:

I was struck by the evidence of journalists who felt that they might be put under pressure to do things that were unethical or against the code. I therefore suggest that the new independent self-regulatory body should establish a whistle-blowing hotline and encourage its members to ensure that journalists’ contracts include a conscience clause protecting them if they refuse.


Employees’ rights

He might also have added, that their right to join and/or form a union should be protected too. For many of us, the expulsion of the unions from Wapping in the 1980s, removed one of the ‘bulwarks’ (Cameron’s word) of opposition to unethical practices from News International, with results we now see. There is a case for a balance of power in any powerful organisation, and effective unions are one part of this balance. I also believe in change from the bottom up, rather than it being imposed from above; really, we should never, or hardly ever, get to the point where victims of unethical practices need to sue, or claim redress because of the way they’ve been reported. These bad practices wouldn’t happen so often in properly and professionally run institutions, who did their self-proclaimed job of ‘holding power to account’ and who employed people acting according to well-established and explicit professional ethical standards, as in other industries. Another perhaps unnoticed brighter point of this affair is that the NCTJ, at last, is going to include ethics modules as part of its required training. Good, about time. In-service ethical training would be a welcome part of this reform too.

There’s much more to be said – and more will be said at our media conference in Derry/Londonderry in January 2013. Media academics have been central to many of the debates and campaigns surrounding the Leveson Inquiry, and will continue to be so. Watch this space …


Learning to Love: My growing admiration for David Harvey

Dr. Robert Porter on Prof. David Harvey


It really is a rather curious business isn’t it: affections, feelings and emotions. They can come and go in a flash. They can endure, being the product of a continual labour, or even a hard-earned wisdom. They can become less intense, more intense, sometimes both at the same time. That is to say, they can get mixed up in all sorts of ways at various junctures. Perhaps what gives our emotions, feelings and affections real resonance (and what subsequently gives the actions that follow from them their meaning and significance) is their mixed quality, the way they continue to confound, confuse and provoke us to think, and then to think differently, and then…

It might seem odd to speak of affections, feelings and emotions when thinking about engaging with the work of intellectuals. But only if we are determined to lack the (very little) imagination required. When I think of the work of David Harvey, the now very well known cultural and economic geographer, the overwhelmingly feeling I have presently is one of respect and admiration. But this was not always the case. As an undergraduate student in the mid 1990s, I first became aware of Harvey through what is still, in my view, his best or most interesting book: The Condition of Postmodernity. Of course, now I say it is his best book, but then I thought of it rather differently.

To my twenty-something self, Harvey was a Marxist, and being a Marxist was bad, very bad. Why? Marxists were economistic (i.e., they tended to reduce interesting cultural and political questions to economic ones), resentfully doctrinal (i.e., they religiously clung to a philosophical and political meta-language that was outmoded and this made them resent the innovative movements in contemporary theory I was interested in – ‘postmodernism’, ‘poststructuralism’ and the new and important forms of ‘identity politics’ that followed from them). Marxists also tended to be old (i.e., at least 40 or even older) and not the kind of folk you would want to go clubbing with (they wore BHS round-neck jumpers and tweed jackets with patches on them, whereas ‘poststructuralists’, and I wanted to be one of them, wore cool black jeans, black polo-neck jumpers and heavy-rimmed, Woody Allen, glasses).

I guess you get the point, or can no doubt see it coming. The vices associated with being a Marxist like Harvey (and not just Harvey, I would also include Althusser, Adorno, Horkheimer, and even second generation Frankfurt school thinkers like Marcuse and Habermas – not to mention Marx himself), are no longer vices in any clear and distinct sense in my mind. They have a more mixed quality, and can indeed have a virtuous quality. In one sense, Harvey is cool in my book because he has remained unfashionably committed to Marx’s ideas over a very long period, irrespective of Marx’s popularity inside or outside the academy. That is to say, in pretty much every year since 1971 Harvey has taught his now very famous course on Marx’s Capital at least once (check it out for free online). This shows a real intellectual, political and pedagogical fidelity that now inspires me and is worthy of our respect. Alain Badiou (another Marxist, of sorts, though I suppose we are all Marxists, of sorts, now) would refer to this kind of endurance, commitment and fidelity as a particular kind of ‘event’; what he calls, ‘love’. Harvey ‘loves’ Marx because he endures with him, continues to show his commitment and fidelity in re-enacting or bringing to life Marx’s ideas. This is real, deep learning.

If I said that I’m trying to learn to love Harvey, then this obviously entails commitment, endurance and fidelity to his ideas and work. But it also presupposes that the ideas can be brought to life, re-enacted in a particular context and related to a specific political and cultural situation. Well, over the last four years I have been thinking (thankfully not alone, and thankfully with others who have made me smarter) about the specific political and cultural situation of my home town, Belfast. I have been trying to think about how the city (particularly its built environment) has been shaped, reshaped and dramatically changed since the mid 1990s by various economic and political forces, and what may be the lasting political and cultural consequences of those changes. Harvey has proved vital in this regard; vital in understanding what Althusser would have called the current ‘conjuncture’ that is Belfast. One example will suffice for quick illustrative purposes.

In a relatively recent work, Spaces of Global Capitalism, Harvey outlines his ‘theory of uneven geographical development’. Now, during the course of outlining this theory Harvey begins to talk about the ‘production of regionality’. To cut a very long story short, Harvey argues, indeed shows, how regional spaces get defined or produced through their built environment and how the built environment functions to spatialise capital in the region. Put simply, investments in the built environment define regional spaces for the circulation of capital. This, in my view, has been the defining and (until very recently) accelerating tendency in Belfast and across the region since the mid 1990s. Reading Spaces of Global Capitalism about three years ago really made me begin to see this for the first time.

What also struck me forcibly (and what continues to hit home) was the fact that Harvey mentioned Northern Ireland specifically here, pointing to the historical problem of capital accumulation in the region (the fact that it has historically been made difficult in the context of conflict). To overcome such problems, Harvey argues, ‘regional class alliances’ need to emerge and establish a ‘pattern of governance’ that focuses on the general ‘economic health or well-being of the region’, thereby minimising political antagonism (whether class, sectarianism or whatever). Further, this class alliance will be led by what Harvey calls ‘landed capital’ and ‘developer capital’, backed up by ‘finance capital’ (as the redevelopment of land and the built environment is heavily dependent on the credit system, debt financing etc). Key also, here, are ‘local bourgeoisies’ and how they convince not only the political classes, but all classes, that the developing economic well-being of the region will ‘provide spillover benefits for them’.

In an important sense, the work I have been doing on Belfast over the last few years has been defined by a kind of fidelity to the resonances, provocations and the many questions implicit and explicit in Harvey’s remarks here (and in his work more generally). And it has been, and will continue to be, a labour of love.

‘Brighter from the off’: Stacey Dooley and the Mexican-US border

Dr. Niamh Thornton takes issue with the stereotypical depiction of the Mexican-US border, arguing that the BBC can and should do better on this issue.


This week BBC3 screened Stacey Dooley in the US: Border Wars (thanks to Victoria McCollum for drawing my attention to it).  The documentary follows Stacey Dooley, a young investigative reporter, who speaks to people on both sides of the border: those who want to travel north, on the Mexican side, and those who want to stop them on the US side.

It sets up a fairly well explored representation of the impoverished Mexican and Central Americans (ahem, not South American, as the BBC synopsis suggests), who risk life and limb to cross the border in order to get low paying jobs in the US. She also meets a few border control guards and NRA supporting, gun toting individuals who want to stop immigrants from entering the country. She empathises with the immigrants, gently tuts at the illegality of what they are doing, identifies with the guards (at one point she says to camera, “but Stacey, be realistic, we do need borders, you can’t just open the doors willy nilly, and let every single person who wants to come to America in. Because, then maybe Americans will start to suffer. You know, you have to think about it more broadly”), and strongly disapproves of the actions of the vigilantes.

‘we do need borders’

There is a long list of films that deal with this dangerous crossing. Fictional representations include one of the first of this genre, the US and Mexican government sponsored Espaldas mojadas [Wetback] (Alejandro Galindo, 1955), a doomed tale of a migrant who loses his way and his selfhood by going up north; El norte [The North] (Gregory Navas, 1983), a tragic story of two siblings who flee army controlled territory in Guatemala for a better life;  the more recent violent portrayal of displaced Central American gang violence, Sin nombre (Cary Fukunaga, 2009); and the quirky, poignant tale, A tiro de piedra [A Stone’s Throw Away] (Sebastián Hiriart, 2010) of a man with learning difficulties who traverses multiple states to return a key to its owner; to name but a few. Most of these present the transit as dangerous or the consequence of the border crossing as either extremely negative (Espaldas mojadas) or an interlude in an otherwise mundane life (A tiro de piedra). Loss and trauma are fundamental to all of the films.

As for documentaries, there is a similarly long list including the HBO production, Which Way Home (Rebecca Cammisa, 2009). Part funded by the US government, it relates the story of the Central American and Mexican children and adolescents who ride on the roof of ‘la Bestia’ [the Beast], a freight train that takes them through Mexico and into the US.  This is obviously a very hazardous journey fraught with risks of losing life and limb(s). The New York Times provides a useful summary. In this film, few are successful and many are seriously injured, robbed, raped and returned to their cities, towns and villages distant from the dream of crossing borders. In this way it’s reminiscent of Espaldas mojadas. A similar account of the same transit is related in La Bestia [The Beast] (Pedro Ultreras, 2010), except this time sympathy lies with the migrants. La Bestia contributed to a wider debate that took place in 2011 in Mexico that saw internaccompany migrantsational and local volunteers mobilize to give them safe passage through the country, protecting them from corrupt police, gangs and opportunistic criminals. The fight has as one of its fiercest proponents Padre Solalinde, a Catholic priest and peace and justice activist. La Bestia calls to the Mexican government to protect rather than criminalize the migrants and for Mexico not to act as border patrol on behalf of the US.

So, against this backdrop, what does Dooley contribute?  She provides the point of view of a young, Englishwoman who presents herself as largely ignorant of the geopolitical forces that contribute to the conditions of the people in Mexico.  Therefore, the programme rarely goes beyond the surface.  She claims never to have met such poor people as those she interviews for the programme.  There is no denying that they are poor.  It is a challenging journey that only those desperate to cross will do. They risk not only their lives, but also that of an unborn child in the case of one heavily pregnant woman, or that of her infant child as a young Guatemalan woman plans to do.  These are desperately poor people.

Dooley speaks to people about to cross over or who have just been deported.  She cries along with them, hugs them and exclaims when she finds out some new, startling information about them or the journey.

We are told about her (understandable) fear at being in the border territories, which are largely controlled by drug cartels. These emotional expressions may be authentic, but they read as performative.  The problem with this documentary lies not in her tactile, emotional style, but that  this doesn’t amount to much analysis of the situation. We get little more information about the migrants other than their name, their country/state of origin, an expression of their terrible poverty and their hope for a piece of the ‘American dream’.

Her contribution may add to the BBC3 viewer’s understanding of disadvantage. This is assuming that they are as ignorant and inclined to a surface understanding of the distribution of wealth, the haves and the have nots, old first world/third world modes of thinking, as Dooley presents herself to be.  Dooley, herself, concludes that she will never look at a migrant back home in the same way again. Nor should she, as the recent play Juana in a Million attests. But, shouldn’t we ask for more of the young audience, who are the projected viewership of this channel? Should there not be more to this vision than: look at us who have it all, and woe are they who don’t?  Where is the cultural activism? The debate? The basis for social change? The acknowledgement that we are an integral cog in this system? Otherwise, what is being presented is just poverty porn that, at best, will inspire charitable giving, at worst, will breed cynicism.

A key exemplar of this, which reinforces the us/them divide, is the closing sequence of the documentary.  Dooley speaks to camera on the Mexican side of the border having just visited an area which is occupied by men in transit, living in squalor in concrete tunnels, who are waiting to cross over.  They are at the border, able to see the car park of a clean and unidentified collection of buildings, possibly commercially or publicly owned, which is in an area loosely identified as California.

‘that’s California’

We see a busy motorway and much activity, which contrasts with the shallow riverbed and homeless people on the Mexican side. No 360 degree shot shows us the busy city beyond the in-between space where the men reside.


Visually, we are being led to conclude (in case we hadn’t already decided as much) Mexico=poverty, whilst US=modernity and progress.

In her soliloquay Dooley talks about how, if you are born on one side (Mexico) “the chances are life will be very, very, very difficult and you are going to struggle for most of it”, whereas, if you are born on the other side (the US) “you’ll have way more opportunities, things are certainly going to be brighter from the off, you can travel, you can do so much more on that side and it’s luck, it’s luck, that’s all it is”.

‘You can do so much more over there’

This is not the moment to do a cross-comparison of infant mortality, talk of child poverty, mass incarceration, the military-industrial complex that props up injustice at home and abroad, or even consider the armies of unemployed in the US, nor go into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and its consequences for both economies.  Sufficed to say, that some in Mexico are extremely lucky whilst those in the US are not, and, unfortunately, there are many more who live in dire poverty on both sides. It’s more than just luck. There is a complex ecology of micro- and macro-economic conditions in which we, at this distance, are also implicated and to reduce such complexity to ‘luck’ does the people she hugs, kisses and cries with a disservice, and speaks down to an audience rather than asking them to think. The BBC should be supporting programmes that do more than reinforce stereotypes, support the now well tarnished myth of the American dream, or peddle binary notions of us (the rich) and them (the poor).  I’m sure Dooley and the BBC can and should do better.