Wednesday, March 26, 2008

“Border Security”, spectacle and compulsion

The Channel 7 reality show “Border Security” is an oddity compared to scripted soaps and reality soaps (like Big Brother) on TV. The last two or three minutes of the show – the usual spot for the climax/cliffhanger – is mostly an unsatisfying denouement.

There are four staple segments in “Border Security”, which together account for at least 90% of the show’s content (excluding the boys-with-their-big-toys (and guns) on the high seas segments, which seem to me to belong in a quite different show).

The non-Anglo/Celts who have brought with them contraband food/plant material will usually get a small fine, plus a compulsory lecture (which is also repeated, for emphasis, to the viewers by voice-over) about the $X-billion risks to Australia’s environment/economy. In any event, the fine doesn’t seem proportionate to the lecture’s message, so I can only assume that the latter is full of crap. If not, al-Qaida only needs successfully to import some dubious dolmades to bring Australia to its knees.

Then there’s the posted drugs, cleverly, but not cleverly enough, hidden in some object. The package is delivered, sans actual drugs, to its nominated address, after which, more often than not, “AFP enquiries are continuing” – i.e. the baddies haven’t been, and probably won’t be, caught. Another oddly predictable anti-climax.

Next, there’s the drugs-on-the-person. This time, the soap climax conventions are followed, albeit by surtext – “X was convicted and sentenced to 8-10 years’ imprisonment”. In a minority of cases, however, the drugs turn out to have been a false alarm/suspicion.

Finally, there’s the visa-issues segment (i.e. no customs involved). These vary too much to generalise, although instant deportation from Australia is the most common outcome. In such cases, instant deportation is invariably favourably contrasted, by voice-over, to the other stated option – a stint in a detention centre.

If the “Border Security” format has settled into rigidity over the years, one thing has noticeably changed over this time – pixellation of faces, seen fairly frequently in previous years, now seems never to occur.

Pixellation can occur for two reasons – pending court proceedings, or the depicted individual/s not signing a release. The former can be usually worked around, by holding the footage until the verdict is in. Of course, such shelving also makes dramatic sense for the single segment (drugs-on-the-person, confirmed) where court proceedings play any narrative role (the food/plant fines are generally on-the-spot).

Which brings us to the depicted individual/s not signing a release. With the top-rating show having been broadcast in Australia for several years now, it seems safe to assume that almost any Australian resident, however tired and jet-lagged upon their return, would know that signing a release to being filmed at the airport would more than likely mean “Border Security”. (I am assuming that the releases, to better their chances of being signed, might simply allude to something like “Acme Productions”). It is odd, then, that the pixellation-rate has not only not increased, but has shrunk to zero, even as Australian residents (at least) became ever more knowing of exactly what they were in for, should they sign.

The explanation for this, according to this fellow Melbourne writer-blogger Peter Chambers, is that consenting to being filmed on “Border Security” is a condition of re-entry for Australian residents (and presumably also a condition of entry for non-Australians).

I am staggered that this requirement, which seems to have been brought in within the last year, is not more widely known, and excoriated. It is repulsive and Orwellian.

Peter Chambers otherwise dismisses “Border Security” as xenophobic. I disagree, at least that such is the show’s main problem.

Being filmed is well-understood as being a way of heightening conflict. Put another way, the actors in reality TV tend to become “actors”. Inter-cultural conflict/misunderstanding - where it exists - is generally itself ample for the show’s narrative requirements.

Conversely, for most Australians being filmed at the airport for possible inclusion on the show, “rateable” conflict needs to be artificially stimulated. This may not be even consciously realised by the customs/immigration staff who obviously hold the power to turn up the conflict-o-meter as required. Nonetheless, such an abuse of power is a natural and inevitable result of Australians mandatorily being filmed for “Border Security”.

Finally, it would be naïve to think that any malicious or “accidental” conflict escalation by a government officer (c.f. the hapless Australian’s response) would itself make it to broadcast – it is clear that Australian customs/immigration have ultimate editorial control of “Border Security”.

What a disgrace.

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