28 November 2016

"Maybe reality is a simulation"

I don’t watch that much television, news and politics shows mostly, and I’m certainly outside the target 16-34 year-old audience of comedy programmes on UK’s Channel 4, which even one of its former Chief Executives considered had an "obsession with adolescent transgression and sex". Nonetheless, when this week’s New Yorker ran a long article by Giles Harvey about “Charlie Brooker, the British satirist who is now a television auteur” I thought I should read it. (In versions of the magazine his article’s title is Worst-Case Scenario, and on-line The Speculative Dread of “Black Mirror”).

Harvey concentrates on Brooker’s showrunning of the “prophetic TV show”, Black Mirror, which Harvey describes as an “acclaimed and eerily clairvoyant series about the unintended consequences of technological innovation”. Its interest to most of the New Yorker’s readership probably derives from the fact that:
The show, which first aired in Britain, on Channel 4, in 2011, became an international hit, with licensing rights sold in more than ninety territories. In 2014, Netflix acquired exclusive U.S. streaming rights for the first two seasons. Last year, Brooker and his longtime collaborator Annabel Jones signed a contract with Netflix to make twelve new episodes. The deal was reportedly worth forty million dollars.
But my British eye was caught by this passage:
In “The National Anthem,” the show’s début episode, set in a fictional Britain, Princess Susannah, a popular member of the Royal Family, is abducted. Her release hinges on a single demand: the Prime Minister must have unsimulated sex with a pig on live television.
Harvey goes on to describe the origins of this episode, how Channel 4 came to give it the go-ahead and a description of some of the story of how this imaginary story ricochets around the media, for example:
Throughout the episode, the screen pulsates with news crawls and graphics, polling results, tweets.
For me, as no doubt as for other UK readers, there was something familiar about all this, as Harvey reveals later:
“The National Anthem” first aired in late 2011. Last year, an unauthorized biography of British Prime Minister David Cameron quoted an anonymous member of Parliament who claimed to have witnessed Cameron during his student days at Oxford placing “a private part of his anatomy” inside the mouth of a dead pig during a hazing ritual for an exclusive social club. Twitter did what Twitter does with such material, but the BBC and other traditional news organizations initially resisted covering the story. The situation plays out in an almost identical manner in “The National Anthem.” Even the Twitter hashtags that appear in the episode—“#PMpig,” “#trottergate”—showed up on the actual Web. 
“Who’d have thought the pig-f****** [my *’s] episode would be the most accurate one?” Brooker said. “I didn’t know anything about that, by the way. I’d never heard the rumor. So when that story broke I was quite weirded out and genuinely worried for a short period that maybe reality is a simulation designed to confuse.” He exhaled. “I hope it doesn’t happen again.”
The unauthorised biography Harvey refers to is Call Me Dave by Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott, published in October 2015, and the passage he describes is on pages 73/74. The “anonymous member of Parliament”, described by the authors as “a distinguished contemporary of Cameron's at Oxford” is their only source for the story. He is reported as having made the allegation on three occasions in 2014, finally claiming that photographic evidence was in the possession of a named individual. “This person failed to respond to our approaches.”

In the absence of anything else, the authors conclude possibly a little lamely that:
Perhaps it is a case of mistaken identity. Yet it is an elaborate story for an otherwise credible figure to invent. Furthermore, there are a number of accounts of pigs' heads at debauched parties in Cameron's day. …
Though they name only one:
The late Count Gottfried von Bismarck, an Oxford contemporary of Cameron … reportedly threw various dinner parties featuring pigs' heads.
So it seems that Brooker’s reputation, at least as seen by Harvey, for prophesy and clairvoyance depends largely on the National AnthemCall Me Dave succession (putting the differences between a live pig and a dead pig’s head as sex objects aside as too distasteful to pursue). This does seem to raise two points to bear in mind:

Cameron graduated from Oxford in the summer of 1988, 26 years before the reported date of the MP’s allegations in 2014. Are New Yorker and Call Me Dave readers right to assume that Ashcroft and Oakeshott would have made reference to any rumours prior to 2014 if they had heard of them?

There is no mention in Call Me Dave of the Black Mirror National Anthem episode which had been screened less than three years before the MP’s allegations.

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