Current affairs documentary and political debate
There are fears that the competitive pressures on television companies to retain audience share have led to a gradual decline of the kind of current affairs documentary that makes a genuine contribution to political debate in the public sphere. These changes have been termed ‘tabloidization’ in a comparison with the differences found between ‘quality’ and ‘tabloid’ newspapers. Tabloidization in newspapers is characterized by an increasing focus on personalities, sports, fashion, culture and consumer reporting over national and international politics. Even in quality newspapers there has been ‘a greater stress on the personal and the private at the expense of the public and the structural’ (McLachlan and Golding 2000: 35) in an attempt to attract a new readership, especially women and young people for whom reporting on political elites has had little perceived ‘existential utility’ (Sparks and Tulloch 2000: 32-5). There are also differences in the style of address, with more concrete language, humour and melodramatic extremes replacing abstract, sober and measured reporting. Several writers in the defence of public service television have identified, and often regretted, the same trends in television as it has become more market-oriented (Langer 1998; Dovey 2000; Sparks and Tulloch 2000; Winston 2000). Jon Dovey (2000), for example, is suspicious that what he terms ‘first person narrative’ and ‘true life melodrama’, which are grounded in subjective experience, leave the underlying social and economic reasons for suffering and powerlessness unexamined and responsibility for change devolved to the ‘empowered’ individual.
These concerns are, however, entangled in questions of taste that have class and gender implications. The forms of rhetoric valued in ‘serious’ broadcast journalism, with their emphasis on a detached impartiality, the balanced reporting of ‘expert’ opinion and the use of depersonalized, disembodied voice-over narration that positions the viewer in relation to the people and events portrayed, has been criticized for its construction of an elite and masculine perspective masquerading as ‘objectivity’ (see Chapters 4 and 5 for further discussion of this critique). Myra Macdonald (2000), however, cautions against drawing too rigid a dichotomy between the kind of analytic journalism that contributes to the public sphere and the entertainment values of popular culture because it works to reinforce a gendered hierarchy of values (mind/ body, rational/emotional, public/private, fact/fiction). She makes a case for the use of personal testimonies to enhance our political understanding of an issue rather than to reinforce existing prejudice, and to mobilize affective involvement rather than simply satisfying our voyeuristic curiosity (Macdonald 2000: 254). This coincides with the emphasis sex workers themselves place on self-representation to overcome the ‘othering’ effects of media discourse. Even so, she argues, personal testimony cannot substitute for meticulous research that draws on a variety of forms of evidence that go beyond the personal. I will be drawing on this evaluative framework to compare the political utility of the two examples discussed below.
The first is The Sex Trade, in the long-running BBC current affairs series The Money Programme. The other, called Vice: The Sex Trade, is taken from a more populist, short-run, current affairs series on the UK’s mainstream commercial network channel, ITV The comparison between these two examples will be used to consider whether the demands made by feminist activists and sex workers for the recognition of diversity, ambivalence and self-representation are being met by current affairs programmes. Do they work to encourage empathy with the women portrayed or does the generic imperative in current affairs to draw clear boundaries between the ‘normal’ and the ‘deviant’ work against this ideal? Moreover, do the rhetorical differences between ‘quality’ and ‘tabloid’ journalism affect the contribution each programme makes to political debate on matters of public importance arising from the sex industry?
The Money Programme is a current affairs documentary series that has been on BBC2 for over thirty years. It has a journalistic interest in the speed of getting stories on to the screen, and it claims to be providing straightforward facts in order to contribute to the national debate on issues of concern. The ‘long and distinguished history’ of the series, as well as the reputation and prestige of the BBC as an organization, legitimizes the claim to be uncovering the truth (BBCi). The Sex Trade (1998) demonstrates its impartiality by presenting a range of issues and perspectives without being tendentious. It recognizes a diversity of viewpoints, including those of the sex workers involved. It conveys the complexity of the issues posed by the expansion of the industry, largely without falling into predictable narrative patterns of victims and villains. It has carefully researched the scope and structure of the industry, and the range of political approaches taken to it. It contributes to public debate by setting out alternative perspectives. The (female) voice-over begins by signalling this range, while two sex workers conclude it with contrasting views on the question ‘Would you recommend it as a job?’ This is a well-researched contribution to the debate.
The first part of The Money Programme looks at the sector as a story of business success, detailing the expansion of sexual services in the UK, especially its expansion into ‘respectable’ city centre and suburban areas. Here the language and agenda match those of the International Union of Sex Workers: ‘It’s just a job. Nothing more, nothing less. I work to support my family’, says one street worker interviewed by the programme. It doesn’t glamorize or demonize either the women or the job. The testimony of the sex workers helps to undermine any over-generalized assumptions about the women who work in the industry and their motivations, while offering a map of its hierarchical structure. We encounter escort services in the West End of London that help middle-class girls to pay for their education, and women with few other viable job options working to pay for a drug habit in the streets of Manchester. Moving beyond Britain we are told of the plight of exploited Eastern European economic migrants in Western Europe in contrast to contented women working in legal brothels in Germany.
A diverse range of professionals also offer evidence to provide a wider context for understanding these experiences in economic and political terms, rather than offering moral approval or condemnation of the lives these women lead. Further statistical research evidence was commissioned by the programme to support its analysis in a context where facts are thin on the ground. We learn about how businesses make money, their choice of location, their marketing strategies, their customer base, the career opportunities and working conditions for staff, the regulatory environment and how to stay within the law. An interview with a rich entrepreneur explains how he made the business work. If the programme had finished here it would have resembled a guide to ‘how to run a successful sex business’, with some caution about the effects it might have on women caught up in the business at street level. It exemplifies the now legitimate view that for respectable, middle-class people the industry is an acceptable way to earn money. It then links the issues raised by all these forms of evidence to the policy initiatives being taken in Europe. It lays out the policy options without any prior assumption that the British way is best. Indeed, it rather suggests that the UK is failing to address the issues at all and this programme’s function is to draw attention to them, thereby fulfilling its public service role.
There is, however, a caveat to my offering this documentary as exemplary investigative journalism, and this is the othering process that affects its approach to the ‘trafficking of women’. The programme includes an investigation of the suffering caused by ‘organized gangs tempted by easy profits’ who are accused of the ‘trafficking of women’ into ‘sexual slavery’. This became a news item in the wake of a United Nations report in 1998, followed by further policy initiatives in the European Union. It is significant that where the programme moves most clearly from a business to a news agenda, the generic imperative to draw boundaries between the ‘normal’ and the ‘deviant’ comes to the fore. This is a live political issue that the programme views from a dominant ideological perspective. News narratives associate prostitutes with death, disease, drugs and crime. They define prostitutes as victims in need of salvation and as a risk to social order who need to be controlled. They accentuate their difference from other women (McLaughlin 1991). The language expresses moral outrage and comparisons are drawn with the international drugs trade. In this section expansion of trade is a sign of a lack of control over criminal activity, with the programme’s role being to set out the options for political intervention.
Only when we move to consider foreign involvement in the business is the criminality of the business emphasized. Up to this point the approach is to show how loopholes in the law enable legitimate business. Concern over the sexual exploitation of women from poor countries becomes entangled in the politics of immigration. Orientalist representations are constructed of the foreign men and women involved (Doezema 2001). In contrast to the first section of the documentary, where everyone is treated with respect, here we are shown men covering their faces in shame as police raid a London massage parlour. The commentary tells us the owner is ‘Maltese Charlie’, who specializes in providing under-age Thai girls. The voice-over tells us he was imprisoned, while some of the girls were deported as illegal immigrants, but ten days later it is business as usual at the massage parlour. It is implied that there is an unstoppable flood of potential immigrants to replace the ones lost, an implication that feeds into contemporary xenophobic discourses about immigration, the concern to protect British borders from invasion by ‘foreign hordes’. Nor are there any direct interviews with any of the traffickers or the women being trafficked, so all the information is provided in the third person. ‘These women’ are positioned as voiceless victims and the ‘extremely resourceful, clever gangs who make lots of money’ are faceless and powerful criminals whose desire to make money is no longer a justification in itself as it was in the earlier, British section of the documentary.
This example reveals, in my view, that the boundaries dividing the sexually ‘respectable’ from the ‘disreputable’ have been reset. No longer is the sexual respectability of the British structured by a division between the private and the public, between the home and the street, between the bourgeoisie and the working woman. Instead national borders are the spatial markers. It is the ethnic others from whom we must be protected or who are subject to our philanthropic zeal. The fraught political question of maintaining British national identity in the face of European integration and of protecting British business from the effects of global markets is tied up here with issues of sexual regulation. Doezema’s Orientalist critique, discussed in the previous section, which challenges the agenda being set by the European Commission and by the Coalition against the Trafficking of Women, lacks the political legitimacy that would enable it to be included in this news agenda.
The normalizing effect of this discourse, returning us to the historical link between prostitution, deviance and crime, can be seen very clearly in another, more populist, current affairs series broadcast on the UK’s main commercial channel, Vice: The Sex Trade (ITV 1998, repeated in 2001). The series overall attracted complaints from 53 viewers (a relatively large number), who considered it too uncritical of the sex trade. As in The Money Programme, critical perspectives were reserved for those foreign ‘others’ who invade national boundaries. This programme, entitled ‘The New Slave Trade’, positions prostitution within a discourse of scandal and deviance. It shares a vocabulary with anti-immigration rhetoric, with its emphasis on an uncontrollable increase in numbers. ‘Seventy per cent of off-street sex workers are not British.’ The women from Eastern Europe who are the focus of the investigation are helpless victims, at the mercy of the villains who are identified as ‘the Red Mafia’, a more vivid label for the Eastern Europe criminal gangs also referred to in The Money Programme. The melodramatic, tabloid style of this programme allows for no ambivalence: this is corruption of innocence by evil. The women, we are told, are dehumanized by their suffering. Sensationalist language invites moral outrage, promising at the outset to ‘expose the new slavery at the heart of Britain’s sex trade’, a rhetorical flourish often repeated with slight variations as the hook leading into each advertising break.
Sensationalism is the product of a fascination with stories of sexual transgression in which the moral righteousness of exposing wrongdoing is entwined with the often unacknowledged pleasure of vicarious participation (see Chapter 4’s discussion of the reporting of scandal). The sensationalism is enhanced by lurid details in the voice-over of the women being stripped, gang-raped and imprisoned so that we can imagine the degradation and humiliation of the scene. Undercover, secret reporting adds to this voyeuristic frisson, with grainy hand-held shots secretly capturing the women at work in dark, depressing rooms, which, we are told, they are seldom allowed to leave. None of these women would have been asked by the film-makers for their ‘informed consent’ to being shown in these humiliating circumstances, often naked but ignorant of the fact they were being filmed. None could complain, knowing that their position as illegal immigrants undermines their ability to do so. A British woman academic speaking for the International Organization for Migration explains the women’s plight on their behalf. The Orientalist relation this sets up is slightly offset by several interviews with women sex workers. But these are with a high-class escort service set up in Russia that flies young, educated, beautiful women to Western Europe for up to several nights with rich businessmen. It is not these women who are the problem the programme is exposing. It is the impoverished ‘hordes of women’ who have ‘flooded’ the massage parlours of London.
Both of these programmes are engaged in normalization through the demarcation of deviance in ways that are generically driven. The same discursive boundaries dividing the normal from the deviant operate across quality and tabloid modes of address. This raises some doubt, in my view, about the stark difference that is perceived in their relative contribution to public debate. It also shows that, in comparison with an analysis of the US media at the beginning of the 1990s (McLaughlin 1991), discourses about prostitution have changed substantially in response to the growing legitimization of the sex industry in advanced Western economies. It is one effect of the way that enterprise culture and consumerism has become hegemonic during the 1990s, a development that has influenced feminist as well as mainstream political norms. The boundary between respectable and disreputable women is still based on class differences; now, however, globally defined. Women’s respectability no longer requires them to be sexually pure as long as they are rich and successful. It is the poverty and therefore the powerlessness of the foreign prostitutes that exposes them to the ‘othering’ process produced by news ‘scandals’. In a context of global economic inequality our ability to empathize takes on an ethnic and nationalist inflection. The following section looks at a documentary located in New York, at the other end of the economic spectrum, and shows how our empathy is elicited with the sex workers there.