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There were but four terrestrial TV stations in the UK in 1994, making it likely that more than one viewer fat-fingered the remote and, rather than the measured, authoritative tones of the BBC’s Nine O'Clock News, found themselves getting a face full of the blistering satire of The Day Today.
It’s just possible they didn’t notice, so expertly honed is the parody concocted by Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris while adapting their equally adept BBC radio news satire On The Hour, and this was entirely the duo’s intention as they combined jokes about exploding dogs and feral rail commuters with cutting commentary about the function and perception of television news.
The show’s visual style and unwinkingly self-seriousness tone is set out by the overly-elaborate titles’ then-cutting-edge graphics, prepared by designers responsible for genuine TV news imagery and backed with an over-the-top portent-laden theme tune. It’s thirty seconds of dense silliness that blends simplistic and almost subliminal visual metaphors - yet feels like the title sequence of an actual broadcast, albeit one that goes on that bit too long - is desperate to convince the viewer of its own significance and somehow doesn’t really come to an ending.
Using the broadcast news format provided the show with a ready-made structure on which to hang the disconnected scenes of a traditional sketch show, anchorman Morris segueing between fictitious news segments from behind a monolithic desk so festooned with monitors it resembles the control room of a movie villain’s lair. Hijacking the news studio for comedic purposes wasn’t a wholly new idea, but The Day Today took it off into its own pocket universe full of trademark Morris non sequiturs and surrealism, using the familiarity of its presentational style to bring authenticity to the absurdity it then spliced with a brash self-importance that insists Fact times Importance equals News.
Here, just under the satire, The Day Today asks questions which inform much of Morris’ subsequent work and are even more relevant right now: who determines the facts and how important they are, and why should we believe them? Even in the absence of nakedly partisan editorial stances, the impartiality and accuracy of news organisations and their figureheads are largely taken on trust and when that trust is misplaced… bad things happen.
The Day Today illustrates this with its Speak Your Brains segments, a variation on the person-in-the-street interview in which a roving reporter shoves a microphone at a member of the public and invites them to share their wisdom. Relying on the authority of his mic and camera, Morris asks leading questions of eager-to-please victims who unquestioningly follow him down a path of nonsensical declarations into the adoption of outrageous opinions without apparently noticing it happen. Exploiting both the Dunning-Kruger effect and his subjects’ vanity, Morris exposes how failing to think critically renders people vulnerable to manipulation by the media, a theme he doubled down on in his follow-up project.
Using the same comedic tics and satirical techniques, Brass Eye (1997) ditched the broadcast news template in favour of single-issue investigative reporting, recruiting politicians and celebrities as the mouthpieces of its fake campaigns and misleading interviews to glorious effect. At best they only briefly question the ridiculous statements they’re asked to make, failing to parse such obvious red flags as “Cake is a made-up drug” and “there’s no real evidence for it, but it is scientific fact” as they earnestly deliver pieces to camera with utmost professionalism and all the authority they believe their cultural prominence warrants, nevertheless revealing themselves to be gullible victims of their own lack of critical thinking. Notoriously and revealingly, the show’s final episode, Paedophilia, lampooned media sensationalism which was already almost indistinguishable from Morris’ scripts, becoming the focus of its own maelstrom of hysteria as newspapers and politicians lined up to condemn a show they hadn’t even seen. Little did they realise they were entirely proving Morris’ point.
With the benefit of hindsight Nathan Barley (2005), adapted from Charlie Brooker’s parody TV listings website TVGoHome, was startlingly prescient in its depiction of a changing media landscape through which Morris pursues the question of whose opinions deserve to be trusted. Instantly recognisable today as a social media influencer, Barley has no discernible talent but still succeeds despite his counterpart Dan Ashcroft decrying the “rise of the idiots” as old media struggles to adapt to a new paradigm subordinate to blind popularity. When appalling hipster magazine editor Jonatton Yeah? is asked why he won’t put his own name to the article he’s written proclaiming the genius of shallow media-savvy outrage artist 15Peter20 and replies, “Well, he’s shit, isn’t he?” it’s a naked admission of exploitative cynicism, a rejection of integrity that embraces idiocy for purely commercial ends.
Morris plumbed a different kind of idiocy while again navigating controversial territory in his feature film debut, Four Lions (2010). Its wannabe terrorists have internalised media imagery of combat and the message of noble sacrifice in jihad as they follow a plan hatched by a ringleader whose authority is based on the lie that his militant training was anything other than a disaster, Morris equating unquestioning fanaticism with the absence of critical thinking, all wrapped in pitch-black farce and no little pathos.
Morris’ new film, The Day Shall Come, again concerns a terrorist cell, composed of incompetents who’ve succumbed to a mishmash of Internet-mediated conspiracy theory, religion and paramilitary ideology. They’re up against an equally incompetent FBI concerned more with career aspirations than finding actual bad actors, exploiting their targets’ naïveté and even fabricating evidence to make their case as Morris asks questions about the authority of the state itself when its representatives act like idiots.
Chris Morris’ work, even his surrealist masterpiece Jam, explores the implications of two related assertions: most people are idiots, and truth becomes mutable when idiots attain positions of power. In a world seemingly determined to prove these assertions correct, The Day Today still stands as a canary in the coalmine of fact, an antidote to real fake news.