And from the Ministry of Truth…

Ian Jones on press response to Big Brother

First published September 2000

Getting the press on side could have proved difficult for Channel 4. Big Brother was not, after all, on a “mainstream” channel; for most of the first few weeks it was tucked away late at night, sometimes on air for just five minutes a time; and there seemed no obvious attraction for either the tabloids or broadsheets in watching 10 pampered attention-seeking upstarts preen at each other day in day out. The 24-hour “live” web-feed wasn’t that much of a selling point either.

Early press reaction seemed to confirm as much, being distinctly tepid. While The Guardian pondered why documentary television was embracing such “anodyne, safe reality”, other papers were far more pointed. “When the winner is announced in nine weeks, will anybody care?” sneered The Telegraph; while The Daily Mail stuck to its familiar line, concluding that the show signalled “a further-lurch into the netherworld of sensation and pornography.”

During the first couple of weeks the tabloids seemed preoccupied with other matters. The front pages of the Sun, Mirror and Star were obsessed with the fallout to the murder of Sarah Payne while the News of the World was conducting its own vigilante campaign against known paedophiles. It was the broadsheets which devoted more space to the show in its early days. The Sundays in particular found the programme ideal fodder to fill up their voluminous supplements.

Will Self occupied himself with dreaming up smart alec suggestions for other George Orwell themed shows in The Independent on Sunday (22 July), such as a cookery series titled Homage to Catalonia and a soft porn Clergyman’s Daughter on late night Channel 5. The Sunday Times adopted its usual anti-intellectual line and demanded why it was OK to applaud Tracy Emin’s “Bed” art display in the Tate Gallery, then dismiss Big Brother as “voyeurism”.

The Daily Mail was busy uncovering the contestants’ real lives, alleging that Anna was never a proper fully trained nun, nor even a novice (at least according to Sister Dolores Sherlock of the Sisters of Loreto in Dublin). And The Sunday Telegraph thought it had struck lucky in the discovery that “cheery bugger” Craig was no working class labourer but actually owned his own business, even though the show had made it clear in its very first edition that he was an employer, not employee.

So it came as quite a surprise to see a jostling bunch of hacks waiting with cameras poised outside the house come the night of the first eviction. “Here are the press – hi guys!” became Davina McCall’s familiar cry every Friday; it was a regular reminder of the importance Channel 4 were placing on the presence (and participation) of members of the fourth estate. As soon as Sada, the first evictee, traipsed out and posed in front of the popping flashbulbs, it was instantly obvious that those early, muted responses from the press were to be replaced immediately by something far more overt, obvious and obsessive. Just how obsessive, however, would not become completely clear for another fortnight.

By the third week and after the glitz and flannel of the first eviction, coverage was noticeably growing, helped by the usual early August dull news season (Queen Mum’s birthday, Gordon Brown’s wedding, the Blairs on holiday). Chief protagonist was The Sun. They’d settled upon the show as a useful source of copy and gossip that was not only titillating but, more importantly, plentiful and renewable – for every Friday came another eviction and another round of revelations and allegations. It was a fixed, weekly timetable that allowed for regular and multiple spin-off stories.

The Sun had also settled upon one specific angle – what they saw to be the evil machinations of Nick. Dominic Mohan on his Bizarre page launched a “Kick Out Nick” campaign to get rid of the “most hated man on telly”. Amongst his desperate stunts he hired a radio-controlled helicopter piloted by one Wing Commander Derek Brown to drop leaflets over the house instructing the contestants to vote Nick out because he’d been deceiving them. The text read: “We’re sick of the sight of him, and he bitches about you all behind your backs,” though what was The Sun and Mr Mohan doing, if not bitching?

Tabloid coverage – by nature far more visible and vocal than that of the broadsheets’ – was making Big Brother something of a growing phenomenon. Reflecting on its popularity, Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian announced: “Big Brother is utterly a product of its time because it is all about relationship and there is not one word about politics.” The phrase “water-cooler television” began cropping up in press comment to describe the impact the show was having on people’s day to day lives. It was assumed that it was the nation’s number one topic of conversation, and intending to capitalise on this The Sun began calling itself “The official Big Brother paper”. It ran Big Brother stories every single day; though sometimes this meant resorting to tired second-hand speculation, such as asking readers to guess whose “spooky eyes” had been used for the show, then asserting “a staggering one in six had no doubt it was the Prime Minister.” A Mr William Ogden of West London was quoted as claiming “He has the same manic stare – it’s got to be Blair.”

Caroline was the first evictee to really capitalise on the press interest and make the rounds of the tabloids (and broadsheets); amongst other unique observations she proclaimed that the men on the show had only been after one thing: fame. Craig was there to promote a book, Tom wanted to star in a musical. Nick, however, was no stranger to television; The Sun unearthed the fact he’d been on TV before, on a This Morning dating game a few years ago. The call went out to the “redhead” Lizzie Fetzer he had tried to woo with his love talk that The Sun wanted a word.

By this point the public had already bet a total of £250,000 on the outcome of the show. The print media rushed breathlessly to acknowledge the show’s existence and significance – profiles, analyses, predictions, psychological character studies, the articles tumbled out on a daily basis. The magazine PR Week conducted a survey of public relations analysts to ascertain who was the smoothest operator in the house; while Nick was inevitably singled out for commendation, Darren (“a softly softly approach”), Mel (“the dream combination of good looks and an unassuming character”) and Anna (“In the word of Nick, she is ‘deadlier than a snake’”) were also considered significant.

Then came the downfall of Nick. This was a media dream – it marked the period of the greatest saturation coverage, and made for an incredible couple of days in the press. On the morning of Friday 18 August every single newspaper in the land ran the story on its front page. Many followed it up with frenzied commentary on the inside pages; most extreme in their reporting were the tabloids. As The Guardian noted, “It’s hard to remember what was in the tabloids before Big Brother came along.”

The Sun went to town, reporting how Nick was already lined up to appear in ads for Jaffa Cakes (“deliciously self-centred”), Red Devil (“you can always repent”) and Abbey National mortgages (“Thinking of leaving home?”). An ex-girlfriend sold her story to the News of the World, sparking the memorable cover headline on 20 August: “WEIRD, SAD AND BAD IN BED”. Nick sold his story to the Sun for £70,000, remarking that he felt like “the new JR”. The day after, however, his “life is hell” – The Star had detailed the fact he was supposedly receiving death threats since a radio station broadcast his mobile phone number.

Ally Ross in The Sun waspishly announced on Saturday 19 August “The hunt is on to find the journalist who can write the most pretentious piece of cobblers about Big Brother.” An obvious candidate was Martin Bright, who penned a self-consciously highbrow essay on Nick’s departure in that weekend’s Observer. “It is perhaps fanciful to offer a Hegelian interpretation of Big Brother,” he mused, “but the ‘master-slave dialectic’, by which the philosopher described the terrible interdependence of ruler and ruled in The Phenomenology of Mind was never more in evidence than in Thursday’s (17/08/00) episode … The horror expressed by the three working-class men – Craig, Thomas and Darren – at their betrayal by ‘Nasty Nick’ was their own submission to Nick’s self-appointed leadership. The officer who was supposed to lead them was no better qualified to lead than they were.”

Andrew Anthony, also in The Observer, actually went so far as to deconstruct Nick’s very name: “Nicholas is clearly a reference to Niccolo Machiavelli, the founding philosopher of group intrigue. And Bateman is of course a nod to Patrick Bateman, the homicidal stockbroker who ruthlessly eliminates his rivals in Bret Easton Ellis’ ‘American Psycho’.” There was a lame attempt in the Sunday Telegraph to find political ammunition in the show: “There is something of the Prime Minister in Nasty Nick (and vice versa): they’re both consummate actors, cunning, ruthless, attractive and vulnerable. They can play any part from the role of the wise counsellor to grief-stricken friend with utter conviction.”

Mark Lawson, writing in The Guardian the morning after Nick’s exile, concluded: “The shaming of Bateman wasn’t remotely equivalent in cultural significance to the shooting of Kennedy or the death of Diana, but it marks a stage in the technology of television revelation. JFK died on amateur celluloid. Diana died on live 24-hour television. Nasty Nick was nixed on the net, a day before you’ll see it on a set.” Meanwhile Dominic Mohan displayed the same level of consistency his paper is famous for: “Many viewers reckon the show has lost its best feature with Nick’s departure. The Sun … started the Kick Out Nick campaign maybe we should try to get him back in.”

Big Brother became a useful analogy to deploy in articles – in the same way Who Wants to be a Millionaire in time became a metaphor dropped into copy by all kinds of lazy media scribes. Lauren Booth, the PM’s sister-in-law, announced in The Observer: “The Blairs live in a SW1 version of the Big Brother house. The PM needs us to watch him, love him and vote for him. But he is also worried that the family is being watched in the bathroom and secretly longs for eviction.” Kevin Myers in the Sunday Telegraph, meanwhile, was unashamedly biased: “Anna (Irish, ex-nun, lesbian and also my sister-in-law) is clearly going to win Big Brother.”

But once the furore over Nick’s exit had subsided (and he’d appeared on the front page of The Sun out partying with Mr Mohan and, incredibly, Brad Pitt) the tone of coverage changed. The tabloids turned their attention on Melanie, singling her out for some horrific abuse on the grounds she’d apparently led a few of the blokes on. It is hard to gauge exactly what impact this kind of coverage had on the viewing public, but a record number of people rang C4 to kick her out as soon as they got the chance. “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers,” Mel’s friend instructed the cameras during the minutes leading up to her eviction.

Those contestants already out of the house continued to dance amongst the avalanche of fuss and publicity. Caroline and Nichola took on the horrific role of a modern day Oliver Reed and Peter O’Toole, boozing and staggering and shouting their way across Greater London, threatening to beat up anyone who crossed their path. Their exploits culminated in a alcohol-fuelled incomprehensible fracas with Nick at, of all places, the TV Quick Awards. “I don’t care how big your bouncers are,” bawled Caroline at her nemesis, “I’m having one, she’s having the other, and you get your face kicked in.” To which Nick could understandably only reply: “I have nothing to say to you.”

The final week’s coverage centred solely on the identity of the likely winner, which as far as most of the tabloids were concerned was Craig. The Star ran front-page stories on the bloke almost every day, finding stories of ex-girlfriends and nude photos to splash on its cover relentlessly. The broadsheets went for the considered retrospective, best of which was Desmond Morris’ thoughtful essay in the Guardian (15 September). The great man touched on almost every important issue in his article, persuasively arguing: “The idea that, for the viewer, this was a major scientific experiment is laughable. All we were allowed to see were edited highlights. If we did learn anything it was about the psychology of the television editors, not the housemates.” His conclusions, meanwhile, sounded perhaps the most sane, considered and thoughtful tone voiced by the press throughout the entire period of the show: “A final word on the contestants. They may not have debated Wittgenstein, or contemplated the nature of infinity, as some lofty critics seemed to have expected … but considering the deprived environment in which they have found themselves day after day, they have, it seems to me, revealed a resilience and good-humoured tolerance that bodes well for our culture. But now I am beginning to sound pompous, too, so I must stop. What is it about Big Brother that does that to us? There’s the real mystery.”

Saturday 16 September 2000 found Britain waking up to a world where Big Brother was now the stuff of retrospectives. Here the broadsheets (almost satiated and ready to abandon the Big Brother players to the pages of the tabloids) attempted to finalise their relationship with the programme. Matt Wells, writing in The Guardian, opened up with what felt very much like a concluding summary of the show: “Britain ground to a near-halt for the second time in a week last night when millions tuned in to witness working class hero Craig Phillips triumph in the television event of the summer. The Liverpudlian builder walked away with a £70,000 cheque for winning the cult game show Big Brother, beating the gay former nun Anna Nolan by just 2% in Britain’s biggest-ever telephone poll.” He continued, “It is hard to overestimate the show’s allure for Channel 4. Big Brother was perfect: innovative, youthful and yet delivering the sort of ratings that are almost unheard of at its Horseferry Road headquarters in London,” and generously concluded, “Big Brother has completed the channel’s transformation from an eccentric outsider to a powerful pioneer at the heart of British broadcasting.”

In contrast, The Telegraph remained characteristically fogeyish, and whilst admitting to watching Big Brother with the same level of attentiveness that gripped the rest of the nation, it unconvincingly attempted to distance itself from the game show: “So the final episode of Big Brother last night came as a relief for the people really trapped – the viewers, watching fascinated, but against their better judgement. At last, we can switch off our televisions, and return to real life.” The Times, meanwhile, concerned itself with the issue of the housemates re-acclimatising to life on the outside: “Darren, an erstwhile meeter and greeter at the Millennium Dome, will find that his place of employment is Europe’s biggest white elephant. Craig, who hires out marquees, might even decide to make a bid. He could even consider inviting his housemate, Anna, along to work for him. She used to be the office manager for a company making skateboards but with the summer rise of the micro-scooter she might now be out of a job.” Aside from this, the broadsheet also put the lid on the show, and presumably its coverage of Big Brother: “For weeks Big Brother chatter has been Britain’s condoned newspeak … Nightly, viewers have writhed with delicious discomposure at the vicarious mortifications of the cast. How will they survive without these on-set placebos? Stockholm syndrome has gripped a nation. Britain is obsessed with those who have captivated it for weeks. And from this morning everything will look different now that Big Brother has stopped his bullying, is no longer there to watch.”

However, for our requisite “And Finally” we return to Matt Wells in The Guardian who noted: “The show has made temporary celebrities of its participants – to the disgust of other members of the broadcasting B-list. At a recent TV awards ceremony former Big Brother housemates Sada and Nichola upstaged soap stars and got themselves plastered all over the front pages (by just being plastered). The Hollyoaks actor Gary Lucy was quoted as saying: ‘They aren’t even real celebrities, it’s pathetic.’ Sorry, Gary who?”