Do you think Rageh Omaar watches X Factor? The al-Jazeera correspondent’s Twitter has got plenty about the Middle East, but nothing about music, or reality TV. But when fellow journalist John Pilger asked Omaar about the BBC’s rolling coverage of the Iraq War in The War You Don’t See, his answer could have been about something else entirely.

In the short clip Omaar calls 24-hour news a “giant echo chamber.” “Basra was reported to have fallen 17 times before it actually fell,” he says. “And yet in 24 hour news when you’re reporting it for the seventh time in that chain, the fact it’s been wrong the previous seven times just doesn’t matter.”
Omaar is suggesting there is a disparity between reality and how reality is shown on television. The worry is that when it’s abused to that extent, reality as shown on television becomes unreal, a deceitful form of reality.
24-hour news and reality television share this problem. Reality, the truth, becomes coincidental when producers have to justify a programme’s existence to their public. BBC News 24 has to justify the endless news by getting bigger and better scoops (even when they’re not true) and turning the mundane into the newsworthy. Meanwhile X Factor has to justify itself against falling viewing figures by getting more exciting, more emotional, more entertaining.
And more desperate. X Factor, in its desperation to entertain, now looks more like Islamic fundamentalist propaganda.
Sapped of all its tired irony, X Factor is not a very pretty sight.
Now we’re facing another bout of hysteria as Britain’s Got Talent 2012 auditions move into their early stages. There’ll be tears, laughter and the redemptive joy of discovering that ugly, old and poor people can be talented too. I can’t wait.
And remember, it’s just one audition away.
This is the latest of the great reality TV myths (like the one that it’s all a postmodern psychological experiment, Big Brother): you’ve got one shot (so make it count). This is how the programme’s patronizing narratives are created – working-class contestants pull themselves out of pitiful surroundings through raw talent; (often black) contestants turn their back on difficult upbringings (single parents, obviously, Great Britain) to sing Aretha Franklin covers like they mean it.
“It’s all about entertainment”
Tom Lees, 21, auditioned at Birmingham City’s football ground in 2009. In the end his group, Indigo, got as far as the Boot Camp stages – along with the other 100 people left, including “loveable” ska-munchkin Olly Murs and the indefatigable Jedward twins. By then Tom had gone through five other auditions and interviews, where the producers determine who’s good to watch – funny, mental, tragic, beautiful or not very good – and secondly, who can sing.
“It literally didn’t matter how good we were,” he says. “It’s all about entertainment and whether you can provide that. They’re always looking for the best TV.”
Tom believes it’s a far cry from the way producers present the competition – that you queue up outside, then walk out in front of the judges. The reality is quite different.
Clare Thompson, 23, found this when she auditioned at the O2 in London in March last year.
Outside entrants were given “I LUV X FACTOR” signs, and asked to “silent scream” (for a backing track to be added later) and generally look chuffed to be there. After queuing for five hours, then another three inside the O2, Clare was sent down to the arena floor, where rows of curtained booths waited.
Inside was a bloke on a stool – a “complete automaton,” she says, “not rude but not friendly, either.” Clare then sang a verse and chorus from Martina McBride’s feminist nu-country ballad ‘A Broken Wing’. The automaton said: “Thanks for coming, but it’s a no,” and that was that.
“It’s made to look like you just go along and walk straight on and meet the judges,” Clare says. “But the thing is, everyone knows that’s not the case. I don’t know why they still have this weird pretence about it.”
Tom agrees, but thinks people enjoy the disparity because it’s entertaining – like high farce imitating real life. “It is obvious that it’s completely different in reality compared to on the telly,” he says. “I think people like watching it because they know it’s fake – everyone knows.”
“Fake and ridiculous”
But Clare still feels a bit cheated – whether it’s from her experience at the O2 or the programme itself. “I still watch X Factor and love it, but I have complete contempt for the entire show. Everything about it is so fake and ridiculous,” she says. “Obviously I still watch it though.”
Plenty of people feel the same. X Factor satisfies the age-old pleasure of laughing at people, feeling for others. The producers are good at what they do, but they have to work for it. Tom tells me about the backdoor manoeuvres that go on in the later stages of the competition – like tiring contestants out to make them emotional.
He believes Indigo had a “fast track” through the competition because they didn’t take themselves too seriously. “We tended to take the piss a bit, gave stupid answers, that sort of thing.”
But other people enjoyed the same “fast track” – sometimes to the point that you could basically tell who would make the televised finals. “Once you get to Boot Camp, there’s no doubt who’s going to be in the final,” Tom says.
Jedward walked their auditions despite allegedly interrupting their competition mid-audition, being booed by other contestants and, of course, being demonstrably shit.
“It wouldn’t make good TV to show how hard it is because that would put people off entering, wouldn’t it?” he says. “X Factor misleads people, but most TV shows mislead people.”
A cynical view, but one you can go along with after the cross-channel phone-in scandals, as well as the fact time and again our journalistic TV has been found lacking – with the Leveson Inquiry and the Iraq War.
“Distracts us from reality”
In this week’s Radio Times, columnist David Butcher claimed television’s ultimate aim above all else is to entertain. “What matters is that the end product makes us laugh or distracts us from reality long enough to forget the miserable weather and the looming tax return,” he writes.
Butcher’s right that telly can be a form of escapism, but not always – I’d argue – when it does not claim to be real, but simply assumes it. (Reality TV never refers to its falseness, it just is.) But this is now the over-arching theme of modern television: it’s escapism because by ‘eck our lives are so much more difficult now than they used to be.
This argument might stand up to reason if we had a modern journalism we could really rely on when it boiled down to the big stuff – Wikileaks, Iraq and “austerity” – if we had a stable understanding of what was true and what was not. But we don’t. Journalism is a constant struggle against corporate influence, spin and disinformation; finding truth and not received wisdom; and getting a good by-line at the end of the day.
So rather than escapism versus real, the two are often blended together into one hotch-potch of indeterminate mass media: the pill that’s easier to swallow.
Mass media: 1984
Charlie Brooker’s 15 Million Merits, which aired on Channel 4 in December, demonstrated this perfectly.
Brooker creates a dystopian vision of the present-future where an X Factor-style competition is the only way out of a monotonous, meaningless existence spent working, consuming then working to consume a bit more. It is 1984 for the mass media age.
Jessica Brown-Findlay (Misfits) plays Abi, the songbird who wins with an innocent voice only to be eaten up by the entertainment machine, vomited back out as a humiliated, abused porn actress. It’s brilliantly grim.
The fact is, if Black Mirror’s Abi had sung her own song on today’s X Factor, the rights would be automatically owned by Simon Cowell and Sony BGM. She would not be able to talk about it in the press because of another contractual clause.
It’s not quite the Official Secrets Act it shows X-Factor’s producers are keen to keep its real reality from the public. It might be just to carry on that suspension of disbelief people enjoy so much. But this is reality, should we have to believe in it?
People tell me I over-think things. May they’re right. X Factor won Best Talent Show at last week’s National Television Awards after all. Still, this unreality-by-stealth still seems like a dangerous thing to accept – culturally and politically – in the grand scheme of things. And anyway, the NTAs gave Best Factual Programme to This Morning, so their opinion is as good as Philip Schofield’s, I suppose.
Evidently don’t have a problem watching high farce imitating real life. So why should we have a problem watching political spin and lies imitating it too? The two combined begin to break down what we identify as real and true. Look at the pitch-perfect news event: Saddam Hussein’s statue pulled down at the orders of a US psy-ops officer, made to look like the “liberation” of Iraq for the pleasure of swathes of reporters in Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel. What about Tripoli, Misurata and Benghazi? Damascus? Tehran? How much longer can our disbelief be suspended?
Even if Rageh Omaar doesn’t sit down in front of X Factor, his “giant echo chamber” is growing.
So remember everyone: keep it real.
Tom Rollins

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