The old cliches are the best. They became cliches in part because they were a way of avoiding thought, but also in part because they fitted. And none fitted like that old standby of detective and western movies: “I’ve been framed!”
You don’t hear that in contemporary dramas: scriptwriters have moved to new cliches. But as the cry recedes, the reality becomes stronger. The frames we in the media put around events and people grow ever more sturdily constructed, more highly decorated and varied. We are frame-makers by appointment to their Majesties the Public. We reduce or enlarge; shine harsh or soft lights; put the subjects in a severe or gaudy frame. Thus do we report the world and underpin democracy.
There are long-term fashions in framing. In some western countries - Britain in the lead - politicians are framed severely and creative artists gently. I cannot remember an interview with a writer, a dramatist or director that probed critically the themes of the work. A current example: towards the end of Mission Impossible III - M:i:III to you - the unmasked villain (another had earlier been wrongly framed) reveals that he has slaughtered and destroyed across continents in order to cause war, which the US would then quell in the interests of bringing democracy. This trope is now common - that the US and the west in general is beset with evil men in government agencies and politics who, in league with gangsters and criminal corporations, have constructed a secret world of breathtaking criminality. It has been deployed in films of great professionalism and popularity such as Syriana and The Constant Gardener - and now in an otherwise mindless action thriller, M:i:III.
These charges are made, of course, in fictional form but clearly with serious intent. How far do the directors and writers believe them? This is, after all, our world that is being depicted: is this a realistic rendering of it - or merely entertainment spiced with artfully rendered contemporary realism for extra frisson? Who is being framed - a corrupt world out there, or gullible us in the cinema dark? It would be good to have one of those responsible for creating these powerful and influential fictions asked, at length and with rigour, what we are meant to think of them. But that’s not how they are framed.
Politicians, on the other hand, are framed much more severely. This is unexceptionable, since they have much more raw power than artists - though it is now more debatable, in a world as replete with media and with such fluid boundaries between fact and fiction, whether power is always greater with the politician, and whether we should not now acknowledge Hollywood as one among the legislators of our age. But it is democratically essential that those who command the armed forces, secret services, police, treasuries, welfare provisions, education systems and transport infrastructures of our states should have the frame of accountability around them.
It is fascinating to see how differently the national frame-makers work. The French, at least until now, do it respectfully: the set-piece encounter of a president with the media is a televised interview on Bastille day, in the palace at Versailles, with journalists over whose presence he has had right of refusal. The Italians do it with fun: the key political TV show is Porta a Porta (Door to Door) - created by its host, Bruno Vespa, 10 years ago - which mixes showbusiness, beautiful models and politicians in an exuberant but rarely wholly serious manner.
The Americans approach the French in respect: presidential systems must combine head-of-state reverence with political accountability - though the press conference questions are often tough, and get more so at times of high tension. Still, presidential candidates, when put to the television test together in the now standard format, stand at lecterns while the journalists sit at desks - a piece of iconography which emphasises the respective roles. Argument is conducted between journalists of different views, an index both of the disputatious nature of US democracy and of the higher status enjoyed by the media. In Germany, few politicians would refuse an invitation to appear on the Sabine Christiansen show on the main public television station, ARD, where she marshals half a dozen political figures through a discussion on a given theme. The programme is emotive, often rich in sturm und drang: one discussion on the Iraq war reduced the US ambassador to tears.
In Britain, we frame public figures through confrontation: the style is set by Today (on radio) and Newsnight (on television), both BBC. The politician is, at best, treated with scepticism, often with contempt. The assumption common to the frame-makers is that these are slippery customers who can only be held to account by stern, aggressive questioning. Anything else is an evasion of journalistic responsibility.
None of these are static. All had been much more respectful: early television interviews with politicians were essentially invitations to preen, or to make public service announcements. The French media, which had been respectful on television and lofty in the press, is now undergoing a self-examination. British journalists, especially at the BBC, now debate the style and results of interviewing more openly. Roughly put, the French fear they have been too respectful; the British, too little - not so much to the public figure, but to the fullness and complexity of what he or she is saying.
So new frames may be ordered on both sides of the Channel and elsewhere. What is common to all is a greater awareness of the fact of framing; and a decrease - it is to be hoped - of the view that a story is a story, and we all know it when we see it. A story is in a frame - and the more open the society, the more it will want to see how its public people are being framed.
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