Culture of Dissent

By Daniel Wilson

mark-thomas-1.jpgMark Thomas

In Mark Thomas, Channel 4 have found their ‘water-cooler’ television. Now in its fifth series, The Mark Thomas Product has evolved into a fully-fledged media-machine in its own right. With its weekly content carefully guarded from the TV listings and judicious leaks to the press preceding each broadcast, it successfully shrouded itself in a buzz of expectation. Who would get the treatment tonight? During those few weeks, for those who felt it, the wrath of Mark Thomas was a fate worse than death.

mark-thomas-2.jpgMark Thomas

So what are we to make of the Mark Thomas Phenomenon? Having finished an exhausting series of the MTP, Thomas has just returned from shooting a Newsnight special report from Morocco and will next week begin a regular column for the New Statesman. It seems clear that there is work to be done and the MTP is just one means to achieve it. “We have three aims,” says Thomas, “To get information out that people didn’t know about, to embarrass the fuckers and to bring about some change... the third one is the most difficult.” He adds the last with a hint of reticence, but it is clearly his most important task.

Is Channel 4 somehow ticking the boxes of their political remit while putting out what is, ostensibly, comedy? If so then is not Thomas complicit in the cynical repackaging of political content for an apolitical audience? “Absolutely not,” says Thomas, becoming defensive, “we were never part of Channel 4 Current Affairs... we are not replacing any serious shows because we were always part of the Light Entertainment schedule”. Well is there any type of information, I suggest, that the MTP is ill-suited to handling on a formal level as comedy? “No, there is no subject that we wouldn’t cover on the show,” maintains Thomas, “I mean we are trying to do stuff that you won’t see anywhere else on TV – I don’t know where else you would see half-an-hour on the Data Protection Act – otherwise what’s the point? You may as well get a column in the Evening Standard but that would be boring and you would just end up following other people’s agendas. No, we are doing something different.”

mark-thomas-3.jpgMark Thomas

I am interested in the relation between the show and the information it purveys. Thomas sees a genuine democratic role for himself as a sort of TV Robin Hood: taking information from the elite and distributing it amongst the masses. It is this capacity which gives television its potency: in contrast to the level of analysis afforded by the written word is TV’s unrivalled capacity for sheer dissemination. The smallest TV audience is guaranteed to be twenty times that of the political weeklies. “It’s a matter of arming people – intellectually – it’s about facts and about giving them a sort of mental self-defence... I mean, the Daily Mail runs a class war every fucking day! The WTO [World Trade Organisation] runs a class war every day. Now the battle we have is one of information; it’s a battle of remembering and about fomenting a culture of dissent. When we hit people like Meacher [the environment minister, Michael Meacher, who had condemned the owners of second-homes, was revealed by Thomas to own seven houses] the result wasn’t that, ‘Ha! Ha! Meacher resigns!’ the effect is to put forward the truth about relations of power, money and interests.”

mark-thomas-4.jpgMark Thomas

In fact, not only has the MTP addressed international issues such as world trade, but it has tackled the sort of ‘mundane’, domestic stories which fail to register elsewhere. In one memorable episode some Ford workers from Dagenham wrote to the MTP in desperation, claiming they had nowhere else to turn. The union members were attempting to distribute leaflets publicising their ballot on industrial action. They found themselves harassed and bullied in the most crude of manners by management heavies. Thomas sent his cameras to Dagenham and captured not only the threats of intimidation but actual violence against the union members. The scene was one of the most shocking pieces of footage in the whole series because it showed such violence, so close to home. “Well it is shocking, but that stuff happens day in, day out somewhere and it happens all the time. The really shocking thing was the reaction you get from Channel 4 News. We took that footage to them and said, ‘Look, this is outrageous, you should be broadcasting this – look they’re hitting them!’, but they were just not interested. If that footage had been happening in Burma, they would have been snapping our hands off to show it – ‘Great! Intimidation, Burma,’ – but as it was in Britain, and it was a story about Trades Unions, they just turned their backs on it. Because it happens all the time, people just don’t give a fuck!” As it happened, the MTP broadcast the footage and the intimidation stopped.

So when does the new series start? “It’s not been commissioned yet and, anyway, I shall be running round some more deserts for a while beforehand” he says, referring to his other life as a ‘serious’ journalist – a role he has earned the right to play, as a result of this raucous programme. As Nick Cohen recently wrote, politics today seems like a game being played out in a rapidly emptying stadium. If Mark Thomas manages to get a few more bums on seats then, whatever the limitations of the show, he should be applauded. It is unusual to hear a darling of the Channel 4 schedules speak in terms of Class War, but this he does. It would, therefore, be a delicious irony if the MTP were re-commissioned not despite its politics (as has traditionally been the case) but because the grass-roots politics advocated by Thomas is back in vogue. With Naomi Klein and Noreena Hertz making activism sexy, Mark Thomas could be here to stay.

Daniel Wilson is part of Faction Films.