Tomorrow evening the first of two ‘reality TV’ programmes about Bradford will be screened on Channel 4: Make Bradford British. They have clearly earned their money in the media world by drumming up a lot of interest and – which I guess was the purpose – eliciting pre-emptive suspicion and resentment against the series… even before we have seen it. I have met two people who have seen it – I have not.
When it was first announced at the back end of last year there was an immediate outcry here in Bradford. The line is – and, given past experience, it is fully understandable – that Bradford keeps being visited by media types who give the place a kicking before departing and leaving the rest of us to pick up the pieces. So, we can understand why even the mere suggestion of yet another experimental programme will raise the hackles and provoke pre-emptive resentment locally.
But, I have not been part of this history – having only moved back to the city nine months ago when I took up my new responsibilities as the bishop here. All my media instincts tell me (a) not to preempt what I haven’t seen, (b) not to assume everything in such a genre must always be negative, and (c) to think that it is possible to take control of a thing like this, turn it, shine a different light on it, and shape the subsequent debate/response. So, although I fully understand the response of some to the prospect of these programmes, I want to see them before making any judgements about them.
Yes, I might be proved to be naive, over-generous and in a minority of one.
Ahead of the screening I would make the following points for consideration as we watch it:
1. All ‘reality’ programmes are always selective and mediated reality. In other words, it has been edited according to the story the programme makers want to be seen. So, it is not ‘neutral’. Therefore, we need to ask how far the mediated reality takes into account in its ‘messages’ the actual multifaceted realities on the ground.
2. Images of people getting on really well do not make for good television. The ‘story’ must involve danger, conflict, emotion and some sort of resolution. Otherwise no one would bother to watch it. So, we need to dig beneath the apparent story to ask deeper questions about what is going on in and between the characters presented to us. The trailers for the programme are irritating because they purport to highlight the conflicts – but, that is a ploy to get us to watch the thing. It is entirely possible that the brief conflicts depicted in the trailers represent the sum total of conflict in the mediated narrative. We will soon find out.
3. The title is crass. Bradford is British. But it raises a very good question about what it really means to be British in the first place. No one ever said Bradford was Irish, but it was the immigrants from the Emerald Isle who really got the place going. Jeremy Paxman in his interesting book The English illustrates how impossible it is to say what it is to be English… in a way that doesn’t apply to the Welsh, the Scots or the Irish. I am German, French, Norse, Celtic (Welsh, Irish and Manx) and probably related to Genghis Khan somewhere down the line. This is why the English Defence League is barking up a branchless tree in trying to defend something undefinable.
4. A confident city will not be afraid of a television programme. Bradford is big enough to look at what is portrayed, take seriously the questions it raises, challenge any misrepresentations or selective representations, hold the programme-makers to account, take control of the debate and move it on.
5. Bradford is a unique place and one that is compelled to address questions the rest of the UK will need to face at some point. Pioneers will always feel exposed. Yes, there are significant challenges, but there are also great resources, massive successes and huge opportunities. I might be wrong, but it seems to me so far that most of the challenges are fundamentally economic and rooted in confidence.
6. Check the language when you watch the programmes. Undefined (or ill-defined) shorthand can set hares running that either don’t live in the field or are not hares in the first place. For example, lazy use of the word ‘segregation’ does not help us to understand a complicated and complex set of social relationships. (For example, when wealthy Brits buy houses in Spain and, ignorant of all but a few holiday phrases in Spanish, choose to live close to and associate with other Brits, we don’t speak of segregation. When they then bring in British plumbers and builders, electricians and administrators, foodies and others, we don’t scream that this is unjust segregation, do we? What we say is: “Well, it’s natural for people to want to live with people like themselves, people who speak the same language and eat the same food, people who share a set of cultural experiences and expectations that do not (in this company, at least) have to be articulated or rehearsed.” So, when the same phenomenon happens in an English city – as it does in every English city – why do we change the rules?
There are ‘issues’ and challenges in Bradford and some of them are unique to Bradford. But, lazy and superficial readings of the situation are not helpful when it comes to tackling them on the ground.
As I said earlier, I haven’t seen the programmes. In fact, I won’t be able to see tomorrow’s at all. Why not? Because I will be licensing a new priest to a parish on a huge estate on the edge of Bradford where the previous vicar did 26 years of utterly committed and brilliant work. His successor is coming from the south of England to pick up the mantle and develop the work further. I will be out all evening with him, his wife, and loads of people from the churches who, rather than pass judgement on a telly programme, will be doing the real business with real people on the ground – not being voyeurs, but being committed. These guys have moved north with vision, faith and hope – all words which, in my time in Bradford so far, I have found in abundance in many of the communities here.
Now watch Make Bradford British with your media brain engaged.