In which The Author reads between the lines
Last night, I watched Sidney Lumet’s Oscar-winning 1976 film Network. I’d been planning to watch it again for a while, but last night it seemed especially relevant.
Network is the story of a washed-up, burnt-out TV news anchorman named Howard Beale (Peter Finch.) He’s been reading the news on the fictional American station UBS for two decades; the news division president Max Schumacher (William Holden) has just told him that his services are no longer required. His ratings have dropped and the programme is losing audience share. He’s become a victim of corporate competition. The following night, at the end of his regular slot, Howard makes this announcement:
A week later, he returns to the studio and, surprisingly, doesn’t go through with his threat. Instead, he decides to use his valedictory broadcast to rail against the network, the television industry, the state of the American economy, the government, and – above all – the audience themselves. In a desperate appeal to his viewers, he issues this anguished rallying call…
Max, watching the news at home with his family, is convinced that his old friend is losing his mind. It only dawns on him that Howard might actually be on to something when his daughter opens the window of their apartment. One by one, their neighbours are taking up Howard’s cry of ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to this take any more.’ They are not alone – the programme is being shown on 67 stations across the country. Howard, it seems, has touched a raw nerve with the American people. Meanwhile, the head of network programming, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) watches from the control room and realizes that she’s stumbled on the makings of a much-needed hit show.
Howard embarks on a new career as ‘the Mad Prophet of the Airwaves’, aided by a fortune-teller and a couple of investigative reporters. But he’s unaware that, behind the scenes, he’s being manipulated for the sake of higher ratings and increased audience share. His own cynicism and world-weariness with the whole business of TV cut across his righteous indignation at one point:
It’s a pivotal moment in the film, and it’s the main reason why I returned to it last night.
On Thursday, David Cameron’s rush to war with Syria was halted in its tracks when some of his own MPs joined the Labour Party, the Nationalists, and a fair number of Liberal Democrats in voting against military intervention in Syria. The BBC and all the print media in the UK had been delivering consumers of news (for that is what we are, ultimately) the unequivocal message that President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people. Last week, the mainstream media had presented us with harrowing images of mass casualties after a ‘chemical weapons attack’ that is thought to have claimed some 1,400 lives and injured countless civilians.
On Tuesday, Mr Cameron announced that Parliament would be recalled to debate the possibility of joining the United States in military action against the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, United Nations weapons inspectors were on the ground in Syria, searching for President Assad’s caches of chemicals. Those of us with long memories no doubt thought back to the invasion of Iraq, where Weapons of Mass Destruction were ‘definitely’ available to Saddam Hussein. History, it seemed, was about to repeat itself.
However, the British people are cleverer than Mr Cameron gives us credit for. We remember the ‘dodgy dossier’ and the imaginary Weapons of Mass Destruction that took us to war in Iraq a decade ago. Fortunately, so did a fair number of MPs, including (most notably) the former Tory leadership candidate David Davies. The motion was defeated by a mere thirteen votes.
Almost nobody in the mainstream press carried a story from Associated Press correspondent Dale Gavlak, which first appeared on Thursday, on an Internet news site named Mint Press:
EXCLUSIVE: Syrians in Ghouta claim Saudi-supplied rebels behind chemical attack
This story was picked up by the radical American news presenter Alex Jones and carried on his InfoWars website, where it quickly went viral. Shortly afterwards, the Mint Press website crashed under the sheer weight of traffic. By that time, Paul Joseph Watson had put this report on InfoWars.
I shared the story on Facebook and Twitter, and even sent the link to the BBC in the vain hope that it would get reported in the national media. I’ve been told that The Daily Telegraph alluded to Ms Gavlak’s story, but I’ve just looked at the print editions for Thursday and Friday and haven’t found any mention of it. Maybe it was on their website. Who knows for sure?
Indeed, ‘who knows for sure?’ could well be the motto for the past fortnight, ever since the news of the tragedy in Ghouta first broke. We’re never going to hear the definitive account of events from the mass media, whether in the UK or the United States. President Obama (a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, remember) is determined to go to war with Syria, with or without Britain’s help. For his sake, it’s vital that the managed news networks present the approved version of events, otherwise the whole agenda falls apart.
All of which brings us back to Howard Beale, the beleaguered ‘Mad Prophet of the airwaves.’ In this powerful scene, he is summoned to a private audience with the station’s new head, Arthur Jensen (Ned Beatty), who gives him an outline of the situation in the real world:
Having reluctantly accepted his new ‘mission to explain’, Howard finds himself at the mercy of events, and is carried headlong to the film’s inevitable conclusion.
Network is both a moving story of one man’s battle with The System, and an uncompromising satire on the commodification of the news, made two decades before dumbing down was invented. Paddy Chayevsky won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay; Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway won Best Actor and Best Actress; and Beatrice Straight won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. (Playing Max’s wife, she’s on screen for just over five minutes. It’s still a record for the shortest performance ever to win an Academy Award.) Have a look at the film when you’ve got a couple of hours free. It’s probably on Netflix somewhere.
Sympathize with Howard during his slow descent into madness. Empathize with Max (‘a craggy middle-aged man’) as he embarks on a doomed love affair with Diana. Laugh at the 70s fashions and hairstyles, and chuckle at the hopeless radical group, torn apart by their own internecine squabbles.
Then read Dale Gavlak’s story for yourself, and watch the film again…