News Of The Skews
This issue's look at national media skew-whiffery focusses on 'Expert Witness - The Bomb Maker', concerning animal rights activist Keith Mann shown on ITV in May.
Squall 13, Summer 1996, pg. 14.
George Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future, 1984, predicted, among other things, a culture of mass media manipulation.
Entitled The Bomb Maker, the Expert Witness programme broadcast at peak time on May 31st, is introduced by the actor Michael Gambon thus:
“George Orwell once wrote: ‘the more you are in the right the more natural that everyone should be bullied into thinking likewise’.
“His definition of a fanatic paints a perfect picture of the central character in tonight’s case. A man whose passionate belief drove him to a campaign of violence and terror”.
“Here was a man who had a deep concern for the well being of animals. But this was in contrast to his disregard for the lives of human beings.”
It is deeply ironic that Orwell’s words should precede one of the worst examples of media manipulation he so astutely predicted.
Expert Witness is a “Docu-Drama” portraying “real life” crimes. It takes a Hitchcockian format, with the portly Gambon (best known as Dennis Potter’s Singing Detective) introducing the dramatisation to camera from a living room. The programme portrays Keith in a typical, cliched fashion. He wears leather para boots, combat trousers, sports a shaved head with mohican, has a face full of piercings and chain smokes broodily. He has a beagle called Alf (geddit?).
In reality, Keith doesn’t wear leather, does not possess a pair of combat pants, has never smoked, has two earings and never possessed a beagle called Alf. These are just a few of the basic factual errors in the programme.
More disturbing is the obvious attempt by the programme to ensure Keith is seen as a dangerous terrorist.
The dramatisation begins with Keith in a supermarket where he frightens a little girl by describing an account of animal slaughter. Every text book example - from shocked faces staring into a moving camera, to chilling background music - of the thriller genre is employed. At first, we only see glimpses of Keith’s boots and hands before his face.
We then move on to Keith as ringleader. After a skewed account of his sabotage of vehicles at Striven’s article in Oldham “Keith” and his mates are in a meeting. “We’ve got to keep the pressure on,” says a harmless idealist. “What we need is maximum publicity. We’ve got to hit the butchers and the fur shops picketing and handing out leaflets.”
“Child’s play,” says Keith, menacingly - moving out of shadow. He is seated apart, drawing heavily on a cigarette. He picks up a fire bomb - to gasps - and suggests a fire bombing campaign.
“But you could end up killing someone,” says a shocked female compatriot.
Keith turns his icy stare to her. “You’re either committed or your not,” he says.
The programme continues in like manner: “You can forget about students setting bunny rabbits free,” says a police inspector, “this bloke’s started a fire bombing campaign.”
When Keith is arrested: “You had bigger plans than that, didn’t you Keith? I’m talking about blowing up people.”
After his escape: “This is a very dangerous young man we have out there.”
The most insidious part of the programme comes in a voice over by Gambon: “In the months after Mann’s escape animal rights activists sent 36 incendiary devices to targets nationwide. A parcel bomb injured a fur trader and his daughter - a three year old child. It was only a matter of time before someone was killed.”
Without actually stating so, the clear implication is that Keith was responsible for this campaign. He was not.
The only grain of truth comes from a speech by his mum to the police: “You’re wrong about my boy,” she says. “He told me he was the one in danger because he’s campaigning against some very powerful people.” Keith’s mum did say words to this effect.
Keith’s mum, Doreen, tried to prevent the programme being screened. LWT refused to let her see a preview or the script. The High Court refused an injunction on the basis that, having not seen the programme, she could not be sure it was libellous.
The programme was made before Keith’s appeal in November last year. At the time there was much publicity surrounding his case and its inconsistencies. The programme-makers have obviously garnered all their information from the police.
Doreen Mann had not heard of the programme until five weeks before its broadcast. She is now instituting proceedings for libel and malicious falsehood against the programme-makers.
News of the Skews - Newbury hysteria at the Daily Mail - Squall 12 - Spring 1996.