This is another archival repost of something posted on the old blog in 2007.
What is it with Channel 4 and the examination of excretions? During How Toxic Are Your Kids (C4, Thurs 8pm) I had to check the television guide to make sure that Armando Iannucci (The Day Today, Brass Eye) wasn’t the producer. Apparently, this is episode two of two, and I’m so disappointed that I missed the first episode. The programme opens with presenter, Sarah Beeny, telling us that “on an average day alone, I’m exposed to over a thousand chemicals.” This is episode two: we’re onto the advanced level stuff. A token ounce of sense — “… natural chemicals (some good and some bad)” — is voice-overed in at one point, but mostly, “chemical” is a synonym for “toxin” and “natural” is a synonym for “healthy”. Indeed, the disclaimer comes after telling us that “prior to the 1950s, we only used natural chemicals.” There’s no evidence for this obviously nonsensical statement, but it’s a fact.
As is standard for mid-evening television “journalism”, we meet some wonderful characters. It’s so much easier to talk to some ordinary people — who are all very willing to play along, in return for their fifteen minutes — than to do some research, or find out some facts. There is the Scottish woman whose interior decoration mimics a neoclassical museum, and who has a selection of air fresheners in every room. “Some people might think it’s a bit excessive,” she tells us. The voice-over comes in with the fact that people who use air fresheners are more likely to suffer regularly from headaches, but the science behind this fact is never explained: do the chemicals in the air fresheners cause the headaches, or are headaches another symptom of the psychoses that these people are clearly suffering from? Journalists these days are so thorough in their investigating that they conduct studies and experiments. The data point in this experiment is a teenage girl who has her make-up and shampoo taken away, in return for some “natural” products. “Everyone’s looking at me like, ‘she’s so ugly’.” No, dear, they’re looking at you like, “look at that girl being exploited by that film crew.” This is a scientific experiment, remember, and so an objective measure for results is required, and since it’s Channel 4, it has to involve analysing waste. But this crew is amateur: they stop at urine, rather going the whole Gillian McKeith. Then there’s the family that won’t eat any cooked food. “Don’t you ever just think, ‘oh, I really want some soup right now’?” Wow, yeah, soup. That’s exactly what I’d miss most if I gave up cooked food.
Pick a light-factual television programme from the archives and it should be possible to date it to within five years of its production merely by looking at the graphics. Graphics go through fashions, influenced by the latest technology. This one makes wonderful use of the virtual studio to create an amusing series of split screen scenes, for example. Either they just had so much to say and so little time that they had to resort to having two streams of information running at the same time, or it was simply the case that the presenter (left) was just so bored by what the scientist (right) was telling us that she had given up and was putting on her make-up instead. Another ubiquitous gimmick is to deliberately make the picture look bad. Bad picture quality is a way of immediately telling us “this is an informal ‘diary’ scene”: they’re the quality you’d get from cheap cameras of the variety one would use for home videos, or outside broadcasts from a cash strapped production company. Except they’re not. Cheap cameras have moved on since the early 1990s, but apparently, our expectations of picture quality haven’t kept up.
Everyone knows that alongside spectroscopic analysis of bodily productions, the way to do research is to conduct surveys. To the street! We get a montage of the people, who, after telling us that they never read the shampoo ingredients label (no shit, really?), all tell us that what they really want is more “natural”, “pure”, “essential oils” and “organic”. “It says 100% pure, therefore I know everything in there is going to be beneficial to me.” The presenter tells us: “nature is powerful stuff.” Yeah. As powerfully capable of harming us as synthetic chemicals. Still, it’s no good just telling us how bad chemicals are, clearly there is a demand for alternatives! “Although the levels of these chemicals aren’t considered dangerous, I’m going to see if I can reduce them.” And so, we get Aloe Vera for breakfast, and salt & lemon juice toothpaste. This is not science, it’s not journalism, and it’s not consumer advocacy. It’s classic infotainment. If Channel Four News is The Guardian of the television medium, the mid-evening slot is the Daily Mail. It’s not just health scares; it’s health scares with “kids” in the headline.