Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Wednesday 20/10/2004We're a disparate lot at ZDNet UK, which means we don't tend to watch the same TV programmes. The sports fans -- ok, nearly everyone except me -- get to talk about the latest match or whatever, but there's not much overlap otherwise.

Wednesday 20/10/2004
We're a disparate lot at ZDNet UK, which means we don't tend to watch the same TV programmes. The sports fans -- ok, nearly everyone except me -- get to talk about the latest match or whatever, but there's not much overlap otherwise. Today is different: loads of us turn out to have watched The Power of Nightmares last night, the first of a three-part BBC series exploring the theory that there's been a conscious and prolonged effort by American neo-conservatives to find -- if necessary, to create -- threats that can be used as an excuse for power. You can see why that might interest people.

It's a fascinating area, and one that finds much resonance in a world of invisible WMDs. Although two more parts remain to be shown, it's already attracted furious criticism from the US -- the staunchly neo-con National Review is almost beside itself with rage at the "ludicrous, bizarre and preposterous" programme. Apparently, British producers are hooked on a Chomskyite vision of Amerika as the fount of all evil. Golly! And we, the British public, are so steeped in this that we can't even tell we're being corrupted (a theme that was fascinatingly reprised in Nightmares as one of the underlying engines of Islamic terrorism).

It's still quite shocking to find large numbers of American intellectuals convinced that the BBC and friends are so stolidly, institutionally consumed with hatred for America that every word they utter is liberal propaganda. The same people laugh off Fox as at worse harmless fun, at best the true voice of the American people, so perhaps this is a bridge that's uncrossable.

However, as the discussion of Nightmares continued at work, the usual mix of URLs and clippings flew from desk to desk as the conversation developed. It turned out that a lot of us had also watched Jon Stewart on Crossfire: er, who? What? Stewart is the frontman for a US comedy/satire show called The Daily Show, and Crossfire is a discussion programme on CNN. Neither is shown in the UK -- I can't recall either being even mentioned on TV or in the press.

Stewart is relentless in his pursuit of political crassness -- you can guess at his natural prey -- while Crossfire is infotainment, tired old hackery dressed up as political discourse. Combine the two, and you have coruscating television -- Stewart unleashing all the frustration and despair that so many feel at the state of national discussion in the US (a feeling not unknown over here). He was rude, he was unstintingly critical, he was impassioned and he meant every word. It was excellent television. And because it was so good, so painfully apt, the cultural ferment of the Internet had delivered it to us limeys. We were part of the discussion -- and possibly more effectively than the Guardian's ham-fisted attempt to mailbomb Clark County.

We may have hundreds of channels of largely American TV on cable and satellite, but there's real cultural discourse going on beneath the radar. Slowly but effectively, the Net is fulfilling its promise of eating through barriers of time and space: when we spend more time talking about a show never broadcast within 4,000 miles of home than we ever do about Newsnight, change is on its way.