It’s been argued that one of the things which propelled Donald Trump to power was the media’s treatment of him as a celebrity rather than a political leader. If The Trump Show was anything to go by, that lesson still hasn’t been learned.
fter a three-part profile of the outgoing president, the BBC brought the story to a close this week with an extra episode entitled ‘Downfall’, detailing Trump‘s final months in office.
There was some mildly interesting behind-the-scenes footage from the White House; a few semi-insightful interviews with disillusioned former insiders; but there was no attempt at serious analysis. It was classic Disney villain stuff, with clips chosen to make Trump look equally absurd and sinister, including shots of him playing golf to the strains of ‘The Great Pretender’.
The reality, TV silliness wasn’t surprising from a director whose previous credits include a programme dramatising the mock execution of Gary Glitter, and Jade: The Reality Star Who Changed Britain; but that didn’t make it any more defensible.
The credits rolled to the backing of a country and western song whose lyrics left no doubt as to the lesson that programme-makers wished to convey: “Long ago he gave his soul for the guns and gold/Now there’s nowhere he can turn that’s going to save his soul.”
This isn’t journalism, it’s activism. There’s a place for that, but it isn’t on a publicly-funded BBC.
Some faith in the value of old-fashioned reporting was restored by Yemen: Coronavirus In A War Zone, which followed BBC Arabic’s Nawal al Maghafi as she travelled the Gulf state to assess the impact Covid-19 has had in recent months, six years into a brutal proxy war being fought between Iranian-backed forces in the north and a Saudi-controlled government in exile in the south.
In both jurisdictions, secrecy and neglect have been the order of the day, with Facebook pages cataloguing hundreds of deaths a week as authorities continue to deny there is even a problem.
A cemetery hastily opened in the main seaport, Aden, in April was full by August, and doctors, who haven’t been paid regularly since 2016, struggled to cope without protective equipment or medical supplies. Many were too afraid to come to work.
Dr Zoha described being left alone with one nurse to care for every Covid patient in the city. For a month, they couldn’t save a single one. “I still think about their prayers, their screams of pain,” she said. “They’re imprinted on my mind.”
In the north, where videos showed bodies being dumped in the street, things were just as bad. One man whose home was destroyed in a Saudi air strike had flu symptoms, but didn’t want to be taken away into isolation because there would be no one to feed and look after his 17 children. Two million children already suffer from malnutrition.
This harrowing film proved that it’s not only possible to make passionate documentaries whilst maintaining journalistic standards, but is all the better for it.
RTE Investigates: Stuck In The Rough was a similarly searing, but self-restrained, study of the plight of the homeless in Dublin, which began with the shocking statistic that 57 people sleeping rough had died in the city in the first 10 months of 2020 alone.
The production values were superb, which perhaps oughtn’t to matter, but does if programme makers wish to have viewers tune in out of more than a guilty sense of duty. It helped give the starkest figures a human face.
Dan is 20 years old, and first found himself on the streets last August. He’s now struggling with heroin addiction. “It makes you feel better… it’s easier just to use drugs, have a laugh, and forget about everything for a couple of hours,” he explained. One woman put it even more bluntly: “I tried to drink and drug myself to death without success.”
The programme put forward an unanswerable case that the homeless are being let down by a system which has beds available, but, for various unconvincing bureaucratic reasons, is not offering them to those most in need. Joe was refused help and told to go back to his native Carlow even though there were 75 beds available that night. The 59-year-old ended up sleeping in an underground car park.
It was on less sure ground when suggesting solutions. The programme’s panacea was the Helsinki model, which offers all homeless people a place of their own to live in as a basic human right, and it could be that it would work in Ireland too. But the differences in housing supply and population growth between the two countries, not to mention the contrasting role the State plays in building houses, would require major changes in Irish politics, not just tweaks. If so, they should be unpicked too, not just treated as minor details.
An antidote to global and homegrown misery was to be found, as always, on Winterwatch, now back for a ninth season apparently, though it feels like it’s been around much longer, and will, like Match Of The Day, no doubt continue for donkey’s years to come, having no particular reason to end.
Michaela Strachan’s not part of the line-up this year, being stuck in her South African home because of Covid restrictions, so it’s left to other familiar faces such as Chris Packham and Iolo Williams to stand around in the dark and freezing rain, following the progress of various animals.
“Nature has the power to heal,” declared Packham early on, explicitly pitching this season as a balm for current traumas, even if it is just the unexpected sight of a string of mistlethrush poo sparkling like jewels. It hasn’t come a moment too soon.