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TV UK, 29 November

Worldly goods on The Heaven and Earth Show.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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Last week I made it to the other side of the screen again, not this time as Joe Public in a studio discussion (I mean, please: somebody of my stature?) but as a proper guest on the BBC’s flagship peaktime religious programme, The Heaven and Earth Show (Sunday, 10am). I was on in my other guise as an apparatchik of the Institute of Ideas, to talk about consumer society and Buy Nothing Day (1).

My flatmates (both of them, mind you) were terribly excited because I got to meet Phillippa Forrester, who presents the show with Ross Kelly. As a former children’s TV presenter, Forrester has a magical appeal for impressionable twentysomething males, or at least the ones who also like Graham Norton, if you catch my drift.

My own interest of course was in the discussion itself, and in my fellow guests. These were Paul ‘The Grinch’ Fitzgerald of the anti-consumerist campaign Enough, and Julia Corrigan, who spent a year on the remote island of Taransay for the BBC’s Castaway programme. Nice touch, that. The topic itself is interesting, combining as it does a general moralism about conspicuous consumption with more specific guilt-tripping about the environment and the downtrodden of the world.

The Heaven and Earth Show is a sort of post-religious programme, which has a fairly liberal remit to cover moral and lifestyle issues in a very informal way. I think I was expected to defend the market, since anybody who doesn’t think we should all grow our own yoghurt is obviously some kind of Thatcherite. In fact I had a great line about how consumer activists are the ones who put their faith in the market, but I forgot to use it.

I also forgot to quote Homer Simpson explaining to the kids that Christmas is the day we celebrate the birth of Santa Claus. But one of the questions was whether consumerism fills the void left by religion. The answer, of course, is that anti-consumerism fills the void left by religion, and all the better because most people actually like buying stuff. You have to sin before you can repent, after all.

Kids Behind Bars (BBC1, Monday 26) looked like being one of those weepy documentaries about the plight of children in far-flung corners of the world, and there was certainly an element of that. But the programme was thought-provoking, too. We were shown children in prisons and detention centres in Britain and abroad, and in most cases the images elicited the expected response: ‘these are children; what the hell are they doing behind bars?’ The sheer, stupid brutality of the system in places like Brazil, Georgia and Mongolia is infuriating.

More pressing, in the sense that we can do something about it, is the situation in Britain. The programme was clearly inspired in part by the New Labour’s peculiar preoccupation with juvenile crime. The government’s determination to do something about antisocial kids has led it to lock up cherubic tearaways by the thousand. The film didn’t overstate its case, though. Cutting from a young Brazilian complaining about being beaten by guards to the chubby British kid choosing his breakfast cereal had a slightly bathetic effect, showing that at least things aren’t quite medieval in this country.

But what comes over is the sheer pointlessness of jailing kids whose problems are clearly not solved by incarceration. Surprisingly, the institutions that seemed to be more humane, and indeed effective, were the Texan boot camp, and the open prison in Turkey. Perhaps rednecks and third world tyrants can teach us how to build child prisons that work. Now all we need is a documentary to explain why the authorities feel the need to criminalise so many kids in the first place.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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(1) For a masterly critique of this guilt-fest, see Don’t buy it, by Brendan O’Neill

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