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Painful reminder

07 June 2013

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SOMETIMES, television takes a quantum step in significance, a particular programme being not just far better than the others in its genre, but of a different order of importance. The Iraq War (BBC2, Wednesday of last week) falls into this category.

There is something particularly painful in being reminded of a series of events in our recent past which most of us would prefer to class as history, but whose consequences are continuing to unfold. Yet it is a salutary pain - and, let us hope, cathartic in its depiction of egregious errors made then, the better to instruct us to avoid them in future.

The first episode followed the political and intelligence manoeuvrings that led up to the war. It felt like watching a train crash in slow motion. Of course, hindsight is of no value to the present, and has the fatal moral effect of encouraging personal self-righteousness; but, in this instance, millions of voices were raised to persuade their governments to draw back from armed conflict.

This account suggested that the United States and UK governments honestly believed that Iraq had secret stocks of weapons of mass destruction, and yet failed to give proper scrutiny to the flawed intelligence that led them to this conclusion. We saw evocative archive film, but the best thing was the extraordinary line-up of players willing to recall their part in the drama: Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney.

The most frightening aspect of the scenario was the power of momentum taking over from rational free choice: the build-up of troops and material on the borders of Iraq reached such a level that drawing back was not an option.

The myth of rational free choice was scrutinised by Human Swarm (Channel 4, Thursday of last week), an account of how every move of those who pay with credit cards, and use mobiles and social media, is electronically tracked, enabling our behaviour to be scrutinised at unthinkable levels of detail. The data is not just useful to scientists: it has even greater commercial value, and predictions of small changes in temperature now dictate the centralised stocking of supermarkets with barbecues, or snow shovels, as the case may be.

The programme's selling-point was the excited claim that the new data proves that we do not make anything like the autonomous free decisions that we like to think we do: we act far more like a swarm of bees, following inherent programming. But I was less and less convinced. The presenter, Jimmy Docherty, was amazed that, on a cold morning, more people longed for a cooked breakfast, or bought cartons of porridge; conversely, in hot weather, more people wanted to go to the seaside. It really was as hopeless as that. He has muddled up perfectly reasonable physiological responses with what matters - intellectual or moral choice.

Coinciding with the centenary of Emily Davison's death, Up The Women (BBC4, Thursdays) lampoons a rural branch of the suffrage movement. Distressingly distinguished women actors prostitute their talent in a succession of weak gags, each one signalled well in advance, and causing gales of laughter from an audience with far less autonomy than any swarm of bees.

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