"The News-Benders," how a prescient BBC drama explained our current era

by JoJo Jenkins - Oct. 30, 2021

The following is a review plus commentary of an obscure one-off dramatic piece aired on BBC television sometime in the late 1960s. Written by Desmond Lowden and entitled “The News-Benders,” it is still relevant for what it says about the most trenchant threats confronting humankind then and now. It is also an entertaining artifact of ironic prescience that should tickle a few nerves.

“The News-Benders” main point seems to be that the specter and fact of thermonuclear weapons is not the most dangerous threat to mankind. It seems to suggest that the increased danger lies in two things, an idea and a physical object. When combined, these two constitute the primary enabler of the dysfunction and alienation of the present historical era. According to the piece, this combined force amounts to the most ominous threat countering movements in the direction of the expansion of human flourishing.

The idea is capitalism. This idea cried out loudly for the machine. These two, capitalism and computers, complement one another in destructive ways, and accelerate if not keep alive in a basic sense capitalistic realism. This hybrid monster, potentially called compitalistic realism, has thus far propagated alienation, dislocation, dysfunction and untold numbers of premature deaths on a truly horrific, world-spanning scale. It really is that stark.

To be fair, capitalism has produced heretofore unimaginable luxury and convenience to billions. The drama piece being reviewed here calls these the pampered 'full-bellies.'

As described in the landmark paper by Alan Turing, computers' core functions are comparable to the industrial production process. Raw materials (or data), go into a processor, are refined by work (mathematical calculations) and then an output (or commodity) is achieved. Computers and capitalism are inextricable linked. The idea and brutally efficient logic of capitalism lay both within hearts and minds as well as in a strange nowhere place. Does it exist in a third place, as a rudimentary simulacrum of cognition within sophisticated computer programs?

The following is a description of the plot of the “30 Minute Theater” episode. Pitted against an unimaginably powerful and extensive criminal conspiracy, the protagonist, a cosmopolitan English professional man, sensitive to traditional values such as family fidelity and personal responsibility, is a good proxy for the honest, but far from perfect everyman. The antagonistic bureaucrat is merely a pawn and a cog in the machine of the conspiracy. He is an employee of what appears to be a boring, quasi-official media agency in the 1960s-era United Kingdom.

Over the tight 28 minutes of program, the protagonist is subjected to a truly horrifying revelation, courtesy of our bureaucrat. The boring office is actually a front for a production agency that creates fake multimedia, facilitating and bolstering man-made fake news scripts. This utterly and almost laughably universal fake news is than supposed to be disseminated to international news syndicates. Russia and the U.S. are involved, but China is not. The supercomputer presumably provides the grand strategy.

It is worth considering the protagonist's perspective. After being brutally bludgeoned with the fact that his whole perspective on the world writ large was and is a grand illusion, he reacts outwardly calm enough. Over and above the unspeakably devastating impact this news would have upon the very foundations of his being, the implication of the gleeful bureaucrat telling him that the explosives hidden somewhere inside his body can kill up to six people is that no, 'they', whomever that is, are in fact not above destroying everything and everyone he loves.

Ironically, “The News-Benders” presented the opposite situation than what actually emerged. Scholars are busy implementing theoretical frameworks for deploying machine-learning programs in the fight against disinformation and fake news. While the authors of the scholarly article mention the army of reporters and fact-checkers at Snopes and Politico, they assert that the subjectivity and individual experience of these reporters actually count against them! What the team of writers say is needed is a perfectly tuned dynamic computer program to sort through the entirety of the internet -- ideally within .00835 seconds or less -- to police and flag content, whether it be satire, commentary, opinion pieces, or fake news and hate speech.

As a thought experiment, we could consider how the protagonist of the reviewed piece, confronted with such intractable and hidden-in-plain-sight tyranny, could possibly react. He could take the path of least resistance, and allow his spirit to be drawn down to a nub. Extreme paranoia, anger, frustration and dislocation would be felt immediately. These might then be supplanted by contempt of his fellows who believe the tripe being shown in the newspapers and broadcasts. A misanthropic and cynical sense of superiority may arise. The poor man might ultimately give in to hardcore nihilism and existential defeat.

There could be another option. Though more difficult, it would be infinitely better. He could retreat into community and family. He could put on a steel-mask as he did the dirty work at the criminal conspirators' murderous behest, and place his 'professional' work within an inner quarantine. In his personal life he could adopt a positive, life affirming faith and belief system, and live to serve and inspire everyone he meets. His family might become the dominant thread coursing through and informing most all of his feelings, thoughts and actions.

“The News-Benders,” presents trenchant parallels to our modern era that can be instructively drawn. Computers and capitalistic realism have enabled so much injustice, inequality and suffering. But computers are also merely tools to be used. As Stephen Hawking declared, the risks as well as the benefits of computer programs and artificial intelligence are incalculable. It is up to every single human being alive today, not just the so-called experts, to decide what precautions and rules are laid down in law, policy, procedure and practice, in order to forever secure men's and women’s sovereignty over their own destinies.