The episode opens with British Prime Minister Michael Callow being awoken in the middle of the night by urgent phone calls to tell him that Princess Susannah has been kidnapped by an unknown person. Upon arriving at the office, his staff shows him a video that has the Princess reading a statement. She will be killed by 4 p.m. that day unless one demand is met: the PM must have intercourse on national TV with a pig. He suggests suppressing the video until they can learn more about the kidnapping, but his staff informs him that it already was released on YouTube. They had it taken down after 9 minutes, but that was too much time. Copies already have been made and they can’t take them down fast enough before more emerge. The moral choice he faces aside (do something disgusting to safe a life), Callow says he absolutely won’t do the act, and his staff defers to him; of course he won’t have to do it. British media at first cooperate to not cover the video, but once CNN gets it they go on the air with the news. Should he do it. Callow’s wife pulls him aside. She’s concerned because the Princess is a beloved symbol and the pressure to do the act will be too powerful, but Callow keeps saying it won’t come to that. The PM’s office tries to buy time with a CGI version of the act featuring the PM’s head on a porn star’s body, but that fails when the perpetrator finds out about it and sends one of the Princess’ fingers (later revealed to be a hoax) to a TV network. They also think they located the perpetrator based on a video upload trace, but that ends up being a trap. Meanwhile, as it hits the news, the debate in media and in public has begun. Polling shows the public doesn’t expect the PM to go through with it and won’t blame him, but as it gets closer to 4 p.m. the outcry becomes loud and strong that the PM should do it to save the life. Once the finger news breaks, the PM can feel the pressure mounting; he knows the public will cut him last slack once violence was done – and indeed that is exactly what happens. In the end, the pressure is too much. He reasons she might die anyhow, but his colleagues point out that the aftermath will play out in media itself. He’ll be despised, the party and government won’t protect him, and he essentially is forced to do it. He goes through with it, and the show cuts in and out from his face to those in the viewing public watching in mass groups at places such as bars with a mix of glee at the spectacle, then horror, as if they couldn’t believe they once were watching with anticipation, then guilt and sympathy for the PM as if they knew they were partly to blame. As the broadcast continues, the princess is seen walking across an empty bridge. She had been released 30 minutes before the PM even began the act, as the perpetrator knew nobody would see her walking around because they’d be glued to the TV.
- Reality TV and infotainment decouple people from choices: This episode works because it has a particular understanding of the role media play in our lives. It maps the relationship between news coverage, social media discussion, and decisions made by our leaders. As things play out, the lines between news coverage and reality TV fixation become blurred and the spectacle surrounding the will-he-or-won’t-he becomes a type of infotainment, distracting the public from the heavy choices being made. Callow’s wife seems to grasp this. Collectively, the public has no empathy and perhaps a bit of bloodlust; they will use the supposed noble goal of saving a life to root on something they themselves wouldn’t want to do. In that way, the commentary here is that media dehumanize people making hard decisions by narrowing it down to social media banter and public opinion polls.
- Social media and mobs: Related to the first point, it becomes clear as the episode goes along that the public is driving the train here. At first they sympathize with the PM’s plight, but as the deadline approaches and the princess supposedly loses a finger, they turn on him in real time. The discussion – via polls, on Twitter, etc. – is not only driving the discourse, but it is influencing policy. The PM feels the pressure from the Queen to do it, but it appears he is most persuaded by the idea that the public will turn on him if he refuses and that he and his family will face mob justice as a result. The public is sort of the villain in this episode then, unable to look away and separate following a matter of public interest from the dark human impulse to cheer on tragedy and horror when it’s happening to someone else.
- Cyberterrorism: The type of terrorism done here is technologically savvy. The kidnapper knew how to cover his tracks, and the short timeline is purposeful to give those in power no time to find them. The only goal here is to cause mayhem and chaos, although the kidnapper’s motives aren’t spelled out here. I took something from it akin to what we read in The Cluetrain Manifesto – online, people do things because they can, and sometimes that’s it. We often talk in society about cyberterrorism as it relates to hacking, but it can be a type of society-level bullying as well that taps into our inability to resist sharing, talking about it, and watching it.
JOUR 325 says…
- “We love humiliation, we can’t not laugh,” the PM’s wife says. When he tries to assure her that the act won’t happen, she retorts: “It’s already happening in their heads.” Callow’s wife has a pretty cynical take on humanity that turns out to be accurate in this case. Is this driven by our darker natures or something else?
- This episode doesn’t appear to be set in the future. How does that affect the takeaway lessons from the episode?
- Are technology, media, and social media driving the public’s behavior or is it the reverse? Why?
- Did the PM actually feel like he had a choice? One way of thinking about this question – was this an altruistic act? Think through the concentric circles of stakeholders surrounding him. Closest to him, his wife, then the Princess and royal family, then his colleagues and party, then society. They all are putting different types of pressure on him. Which group probably drove his thinking?
- Discuss the role the news media played throughout this discussion. First deferential the PM’s office, then unrestrained, then using questionable ethics to get the story, and all along driving discussion. What can we say about their ethical duty as the story unfolded, and did they measure up?