was Imperialism in a Hotel
For those unfortunate enough to have just sat through Richard Curtis's (a.k.a. 'Bob with a brain') ridiculous BBC TV film, The Girl in the Cafe, about a pretend G8 summit in a Reykjavik hotel, I'm afraid I have some bad news. Yes, you really did just watch a jingoistic political broadcast on behalf of New Labour. Yes, she really did interrupt the PM's speech at the G8 dinner by clicking her fingers every 3 seconds to mark a child dying of extreme poverty in Africa. And no, you really didn't learn a single thing about the causes of that poverty, the culpability of the present UK government and the destructive role of the G8 in the world. What a load of self-indulgent, hand-wringing, revisionist crap. Girl in a Cafe? This was 'Imperialism in a Hotel', jam-packed with appalling stereotypes, cliched script-writing and an unapologetic exposition of Africa as the 'dark continent', plagued by hunger, poverty, disease and corruption, but 'saveable' by 8 men in a room if they were to only dare to cleanse their consciences and 'make poverty history' (and in so doing secure their own place in history). At least we now know who writes Bono and Geldof's speeches. No doubt a knighthood will soon follow, although the only gong Curtis should be getting is the honorary Rudyard Kipling 'White Man's Burden' award.
You think I'm going a tad overboard, don't you? Well, I am prone to the odd hyperbolised rant, but not this time, no way. This film epitomised everything wrong with the star-fucking Celebdaq world of the Make Poverty History and Live 8 campaigns. On Planet Hollywood, it is the world's leaders who eliminate poverty and hunger - ordinary people mobilised in mass movements from below is not in the script. As for Africa, its sole problem - and the only thing we should be interested in - is lots of people just dying from poverty. The 'history of poverty' mustn't be discussed. Oh no, don't bore yourself with that one, implies Curtis. After all, as William, the Gordon Brown-style Chancellor in the film says, "these issues are very complex". Instead, just accept that poverty exists in Africa on a huge scale and that G8 leaders can fix it by changing trade rules, or giving more aid in return for better governance. Because in the Curtis world of development economics, it's as easy as 'A' 'D' 'T' - 'aid', 'trade' and debt'.
But shorn of their interrelationship with power and class relations under global capitalism, these three concepts are utterly meaningless. The reality, as even a star-gazing Oxfam campaigner will tell you, is that Bush and Blair will never simply re-write trade rules or drop debt or boost aid in a moment of guilt-wracked weakness. These structures exist to perpetuate and augment the wealth of global elites. And even if they thought about doing it, multinational corporations would veto such changes anyway. To change the world, you have to challenge the very ideological and material structures of the system itself, something that campaigns led by millionaire rock and film stars whose status and power comes from that system will never do.
Some people are going to look a little bit silly now, like the normally astute Madelaine Bunting. Writing in the Grauniad last week, Bunting implied Curtis was going to make "the cynics and sceptics" eat their words because The Girl in the Cafe would explain the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to "a primetime audience in a way that decades of campaigning have failed to do". Madelaine, did you actually watch the film or just read the press release? We got about 20 seconds on the MDGs before the sickly and totally improbable love story took over. The only thing we learned was that the goals include "halving extreme world poverty by 2015". Wow - thanks Rich for that. And how are they going to achieve this goal? Why only half? Why by 2015? Predictably, there was no answer to these more probing questions, probably because they require explanations beyond the clicking of fingers.
Curtis could have weaved into the script the beginnings of colonialism and the slave trade, through to the decades following independence when the ex-colonial powers reasserted their control through creating the debt slavery system, and to the present day with G8 countries and their corporations queuing up to benefit from what Yao Graham has called in this month's Red Pepper, "the new scramble for Africa". But that would have involved knowing about this in the first place. However, I'm being too hard on Curtis. I mean, c'mon, the BBC was competing with Big Brother for primetime viewing and the truth about the West's looting and burning of Africa just doesn't make good saturday night telly, now does it.
Bilateral brainwashing was BBC
After 35 years and 300 billion pounds worth of compound debt and struggle, and with not a single black African in its cast; scripted by Mrs and Mr Richard Curtis, famed for roles in manifesting Comic Relief; Curtis who spent 6 months working at Bob Geldof to do the Live 8 Aid bashes: "The girl in the cafe", made by BBC Wales, was the lowest piece of BBC toadying to our already far too politicised TV screens, and the worst piece of BBC propaganda since WW2 when we Brits were all, and soon to be again at Gleneagles G8, confronting the dreaded Hun and a lacklustre "What took you so long?" USA.
This was not a drama that introduced any decency of debate, this was a bilateral brainwashing with no third party. Deep at the roots of this shameful piece of arrogant rubbish was the struggle between what would be "good" for Africa and what would be "bad", and which kind of large handout was acceptable and how only a G8 "little" was not. With a fictional Chancellor and PM "taken aback" at the opinions of the female romantic lead, and the lonely and confused civil servant trailing her behind. "The girl in the cafe" made one think that the UK Establishment high on celebrity spin on Africa had got so contempable, one was now being offered jollies from watching the "absolute truth" about the absence of non corrupted trade and African debt relief with added sex and satisfaction
Director, Music Industry Human Rights Association, promotiing a European Union and UK DCMS Select Committee investigation into monitoring, collection and reward conduits of the European music industry,
Neither curse nor praise, but see
the optimism of the moment
Of course the protesters were mentioned in the script. There was at least three or four seconds of footage of them, woooo, and 'the girl' was under direct suspicion of being some kind of activist plant because she thought it might be bad if kids died of starvation. Clearly a communist.
As a show I thought it was reasonably good, and the love story was moving, in an alienated, disturbed sort of way - which, of course, is the way I like. But Stuart and Roger are absolutely 100% right that this was New Labour propaganda. Plucky Britain fighting against all these greedy foreigners who simply don't care if children have no clean water to drink. A G8 blind to the problem that should be pressured to show more charity.
Of course, you could argue that for the dynamic of the piece to work there HAD to be someone round that G8 table who was arguing against free market policies - whether it washes politically or not is a separate question and when we are talking about possibly the most serious issue on the planet in more than dubious taste.
But there are two sides to this. I don't believe this programme could have been shown during the Thatcher years and it is a sign of how far the campaigners have brought on public consciousness of these issues that a significant section of the population DO now care about how global institutions are responsible for global issues and the BBC thinks there's a market for it.
Any movement that is remotely successful will persuade stars and "important" people to back it, often in as cack handed and individualist way as any random member of society. Every movement needs a vibrant, pluralist dynamic to it - but for it to be successful in achieving its aims it also needs a strong enough backbone of grass roots activists who will not be conned when governments begin "welcoming them" and stars start putting themselves at the head of things.
One of the interesting things about the G8 resisters is that when Geldof called for a million people to march in Edinburgh and for school kids to walk out we welcomed it, and used the statements to build the movement, when he told people not to make trouble or go near Gleneagles, he's been virtually ignored. These 'stars' only have a limited persuasive power over the movement - and thank God for that!
Also, I believe, this programme will help get people to Scotland for the G8 summit, particularly for the Edinburgh demonstration. There is not a single person who saw this show who was going to go and has now been put off - but I suspect it has pushed some people from thinking about going to actually getting on transport and making the trip. They'll see for themselves over the coming years what the promises of our government are worth.
The thing that worries me about attacks on people like Curtis and Geldof, who fall way short of my political ideal (and this is a real understatement) is that they feed into a council of despair... oh this won't change anything... it's politically naive... it's just stars giving themselves easy publicity... it's letting governments off the hook, which, therefore, ignores the importance of the direction they are objectively pushing wider society.
The fact is that by protesting and fighting for a better world people learn lessons. They can learn that the G8 is an imperialist club, they can learn that more radical action is needed if we are going to make real changes in society - from the bottom to the top of society, but only if they take this first modest step. They learn this both from the events as they witness them and by educating themselves on the issues - and they need to be a valued and genuine part of the struggle. One of the incredible things about the movements of the last ten years or so is how informed they are. You can talk to someone who has no grounding in Gramsci's theory of hegemony but knows everything there is to know about the IMF's role in Bolivia, this is an incredibly healthy development in my opinion.
The girl in the cafe is part of this process - terribly flawed in places, politically, but it is never the less a call for people to come in their tens of thousands to tell the G8 that global poverty kills and that they, the world leaders, are responsible. I'm with that message - whatever the problems with the detail, because the details of the programme will be swept away and lost long before we have forgotten the fight for global justice.
Make Richard Curtis