Essays: Going with a bang |
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Going with a bang

WHILE the Special Air Service covered itself with glory, the viewing public gloried in the coverage. Both the BBC and ITN were there in strength throughout the siege — which, for those of you with short memories, occurred at the Iranian Embassy in Knightsbridge.

The BBC gave you the front of the building and ITN gave you the back. All the cameras were plugged in on a semi-permanent basis while their crews settled down to the daunting task of consuming the meals provided for them according to the rigid specifications laid down by their unions. Days went by, then everything happened in a flash, not to mention with a bang.

Unfortunately for the news-gatherers most of it happened inside the building. When the stun grenades went off a certain amount of flame and debris emerged from the windows. You could hear the bop-bop-bop of automatic weapons being fired. Afterwards there were ambulances, fire engines and a press conference.

The next group of terrorists to try this trick will probably have the sense to invite the cameras inside. The news crews, unless the law tells them not to, will probably do their best to accept the invitation. For the terrorists, publicity is half the point. For the media, a siege is just too good a story to pass up. The television news-teams were drunk on adrenalin for days afterwards. When Constable Lock got home, he found ITN waiting for him. ‘No, no,’ said Constable Lock politely. ‘Another time maybe, but not now.’ ‘WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WHEN YOU GET INSIDE?’ ‘Well, I’m going to see my children...’ ‘HOW DO YOU FEEL?’ ‘No, no. I’ve got to go now. Later.’

On Newsnight (BBC2) the BBC sound technician who had been caught up in the nightmare told his story at length. As a sound technician he is not required to possess the gift of vivid speech, so it would have been foolish to expect that the scenes he had lived through would come alive. That he himself was alive, along with all the other hostages except two, was something to be grateful for. But I think the time has now come to be a bit sceptical about the role of television and the Press in these matters.

While the siege is on, the media give it stature. When it is over, they help prepare the stage for the next one. The ecstatic articles about the SAS currently appearing in the newspapers are a case in point. Next time the rescue might not come off, whereupon the SAS, owing to the expectations of infallibility which have been built up, will be held to have failed.

The cold, dull truth is that when self-loading weapons are fired in confined spaces, even if they are being wielded by trained men firing single, aimed shots, innocent people can very easily get killed. The thing to do is to avoid sieges in the first place, not indulge in wild fantasies about camouflaged supermen licensed to wipe out wogs.

It is only in civilised countries that this kind of terrorism can hope to succeed. To leave the terrorists unpublicised would be to render them ineffective, but the terrorists are able to count on the likelihood that in a civilised country the freedom of information will not be restricted. Yet there are many freedoms which a civilised country must restrict if it is to stay civilised, the classic example being the freedom to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. The time might now have come for the freedom to report certain terrorist acts to be restricted.

The problem would be one of definition, but need not be insuperable on that account. The present voluntary code of media conduct might, for example, be improved if it could be agreed that the public interest may require certain terrorist acts, involving the seizure of hostages, to be reported only after their release. Normal access to information would be allowed, but its dissemination would be delayed. As things stand, we can expect London to become a vast TV studio with ambitious performers heading towards it from all over the world. Nor will the prospect of being blown away by the SAS prove much of a deterrent. I have hung around television studios long enough to know that there are people perfectly ready to commit suicide in order to star in a show of their own, even when they have nothing to say.

‘Such lips would tempt a saint.’ In ‘’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (BBC2) Cherie Lunghi had a mouth to match the line. One could easily imagine her brother falling prey to a forbidden impulse. Updated from the time of John Ford to somewhere about the time of Shelley (whose ‘The Cenci’, it should be recalled, touched on similar happenings in the time of John Ford), the taboo intrigue took place within a country house lavishly appointed. Settings, costumes and lighting could not have been bettered. In an atmosphere of luxurious decorum, innocent sin fought it out with law-abiding evil.

The piece works if you believe in the lovers. Kenneth Cranham’s Giovanni would have got more of my sympathy if I had not been so busy casting myself as his rival. Annabella was enough to bring out the brotherly instincts in any man. Anthony Bate, as the suavely powerful Soranzo, was understandably disappointed to find his attentions rejected. Little did he know that it was because brother and sister had already acquired the habit of collapsing regularly into the cot. Eventually the inevitable happened and Annabella married Soranzo to save the situation. He was displeased to find that she was pregnant. His boy assistant, Vasques — the reliably threatening Tim Piggot-Smith — got the job of finding out who had been responsible.

Vasques was hard to like. For one thing, he had already murdered one of the play’s star attractions, namely Hippolita, wonderfully played by Alison Fiske. In fact Alison Fiske was so wonderful that I rather resented seeing the back of her. Vasques saw the back of her too, since that was the angle from which he preferred to slake his fell desires. Then he killed her. Then he killed someone else. Then he killed Giovanni, but not before Giovanni had killed Annabella.

Sex and violence were aspects of each other. The text was played straight, which helped ensure that the comic relief (Rodney Bewes as Bergetto, the thick suitor) was actually comic. Having seen the play twice on stage, I had made my mind up about it too long ago to change. I really think it is not much of a play. But this was a great interpretation.

Nixon popped out of the woodwork again, this time on The Book Programme (BBC2). Previously he had been on Panorama (BBC1), where he had attempted to flatter his hosts by suggesting that the problem about the hostages in Iran might be solved more quickly if the British were appointed as brokers. On ‘The Book Programme’ he was equally eager to please, but his immediate audience was less receptive.

Nixon was plugging his new book, ‘The Real War,’ which apparently advances the thesis that World War III is already on. Nobody else in the studio really concurred with this and indeed Professor Taylor was prepared to say that the whole notion was actively mischievous, but Nixon for some reason carried on as if they were all agreeing with him.

The Observer, 11th May 1980
[ This piece also appears in Glued to the Box ]