Stephen Fry and Charlie Brooker: important television

I’ve done an unusual thing for me this evening, sitting in front of the television. Normally I’m glued in front of the computer, often to watch TV programmes from the previous week, or watching DVDs of TV programmes that I watched years ago, so I should perhaps not try to claim the mantle of an anti-TV purist.

This evening though I watched two programmes which fine examples of TV – and the BBC – at its best.

First up was the second part of Stephen Fry’s HIV and me. I haven’t seen the first part, but I’m pleased I watched what I did.

A mixture of horror and hope, what I found most striking about this programme were the shocking testimonies of HIV-positive people being discriminated against on a daily basis. The inclusion of HIV status in equal opportunities statements is something that has become increasingly common in recent years. At the back of my mind, I admit, I’ve always felt that was rather politically correct and meaningless in real life. As someone who has grown up with HIV, I sort of take it for granted that people know you can’t catch it from toilet seats and that gay liberation has meant that no-one really stigmatises the disease any more. Stephen Fry himself alludes to similar assumptions. Yet in making the film he struggled to find HIV-positive people who were willing to go on camera. One woman who did agree to talk spoke of how she was asked to leave someone’s house simply for being HIV-positive and how a new boyfriend had been advised by his mates to avoid her when he had told her. Well, that’s another bubble of ignorance burst.

The other side which angered me was the report from Uganda. A country that was finally getting to grips with HIV, their plans have been undermined by the US government’s decision to cut funding on safe sex projects in favour of abstinence policies. These policies have comprehensively failed in the US and now they are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands in Africa.

(Meanwhile the Archbishop of Mozambique is claiming that condoms are deliberately infected with HIV by Western Governments. And the less said about Thabo Mbeke and Yahya Jammeh the better.)

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. The overall message of the programme is that HIV-positive people can live full and fulfilling lives. Sensibly I thought, Fry concentrated on the social aspects of the disease rather than the medical ones: this is where we need to make real progress now. His conclusion that 80s style “AIDS: don’t die of ignorance” style campaigns simply increase the stigma of HIV was sound in my view. Overall, it was enlightening, inspiring but not mawkish television.

Having watched that, I quickly switched over to Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe. Now, I’m a fan of this programme anyway, so he was preaching to the choir here, but this week’s episode, looking at the degradation of TV news, was actually quite an important piece of criticism. It’s one of the most forensic attacks on TV news I’ve ever seen. His analysis of the Kate and Gerry McGann coverage and the way the media stoked up the Northern Rock “panic” while simultaneously marveling what had caused people to behave in such a way was absolutely spot on. And being Charlie Brooker, also bloody hilarious.

Add to that a short film by Adam Curtis about how the role of TV journalism has changed over the years and you have a masterful piece of television, making a very serious and important point while still being entertaining.

And then a bit later, I caught a glimpse of the latest brainless programme as part of BBC Four’s “Why democracy” season about “what would make you want to start a revolution?” and went back to my usual dry heaving and having to resist the urge to punch through the TV screen. Oh God, and that “politicians must tell no lies” bollocks is on Newsnight tomorrow. Arg!

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