Vice magazine recently interviewed one of my all time favourite filmakers Adam Curtis. I love that in his stories he makes totally original and creative connections and parallels, like no other journalist. It helps that he’s funny too.
VICE: So, as you see it, there is a basic failure in the way news has been reporting on the modern planet. Is there something inherently difficult about this?
Adam Curtis: Well, yes, what I’m talking about is three things: finance, computers and management theory. They shape people’s lives these days, yet they are absolutely unstoryfiable – you cannot turn them into a story. No one’s really found a way to describe this odd world we live in. I mean, I live in Holborn and every day I go to the BBC I see these waves of people going into offices and I know they’re going to spend their time in front of their computers being told, “If you like this then you’ll like that,” and being managed by all these systems. No one’s really found a way of describing that world to those people. And that’s what journalism should be doing. It really should.
Can you give me an example of how it’s failed?
There was this enormous financial crisis in 2008, which I’m sure we haven’t seen the end of. I don’t understand it. I don’t believe I’ve been told what has really happened because all I’ve heard are stories full of jargon about “collateralised obligations”. So I just feel lost. I’m lost in a world built from the jargon and terminology of the system of thinking that actually gave us the crisis in the first place, which is economics.
And this has neutered the abilities of journalists to explain the world to us?
Yes. I think it’s a real phenomenon of our time. The way power works has shifted into areas that journalism hasn’t found a way of explaining. It hasn’t found a way of pulling back and showing it to you in ways that haven’t been captured by the mindset of the people who are inside that thing. We did it with politics very well from the 1960s onwards. Starting with the New Journalism of the early 60s, which you would call immersionist journalism, people got in and found ways of describing what was going on in politics in a way that the politicians couldn’t capture.
How do you mean?
Well, you could pull back as if in a helicopter and look at them and go, “Look, they’re like that.” People sort of did the same with science, so you can pull back and still see it in a social context. But now it’s almost like we’re inside the machine and we can’t pull out and see it. I think news is really stuck.
OK, so when did this all start happening?
The early 90s. I’m quite interested in researching this at the moment. It’s partly due to the rise of 24-hour news in the 80s and it’s partly down to one married couple, Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. Jane Fonda is responsible for the VHS revolution through her workout videos and Ted Turner invented 24-hour news [with CNN]. Turner’s big idea was that he would get rid of those posh BBC reporters, who spent two weeks putting together pieces on what’s happening in Cyprus or wherever. He would get rid of that because it was boring and he was absolutely right. He exchanged it for this sense of immediacy, that stuff just happens. And that’s the thing of our time, stuff happens – it just does. No one has a sense of what’s coming these days, no one has a sense of the future. Turner openly said that what he wanted to shift news away from is the idea of packaged analysis and move it towards a sense of immediate experience. CNN did this very well at the beginning, then the Cold War came to an end and it all got a bit complicated.
You’ve talked before about how the end of the Cold War destroyed news narratives to such a point that everything got confused.
All the institutions that grew up within the Cold War, like the spies and the security agencies and the politicians, they suddenly didn’t know what was going on. So you get a simplification of the world, which comes from this lack of comprehension. You get these two-dimensional villains like Saddam Hussein or Colonel Gaddafi, these dark forces. And the journalists begin to describe the world as being full of rogue states, sadistic dictators, drug smugglers, paedophiles and human traffickers. You get this simplified but frightening world where all these shadowy figures just make things happen. That takes you through the 90s and then what happens is September 11, which seems to prove that all of that is absolutely true, and that there really are dark forces out there. And that’s why the VICE generation are apocalyptic and frightened. They have a vision of a dark, shadowy world which they can’t quite explain.
So how does the way the news is reported reflect my generation?
Well, the great wonder of our time is also a disease of our time: the desire to experience things for ourselves. It’s just the thing at the moment, what we don’t want is to be told stuff. We don’t like elites any longer because we’re all like each other. We want to know it ourselves, we want to feel it. It’s partly due to the rise of individualism. But what we get to is what I call the “duchess paradox”, where everyone is now a duchess in society. The real problem with that is that if you’re all duchesses then what’s the point of being a duchess? Everyone’s a celebrity now. Everyone wants to be a celebrity, they want to be treated like celebrities. They want to go to spas, they want to get married in big, posh houses. People will pay for VIP tickets to concerts. It’s extraordinary. Everyone is desperately searching for where it’s at. The point is there is nowhere it’s at – “it” simply just doesn’t exist. It’s the great tragedy for that generation: they just want to experience something.
There’s a compilation of his scarce interviews over the past few years here.