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The Toews and Harper Show: Virtual reality TV and right-wing fearmongering

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Recent raids targeting migrant workers in Vancouver have sparked protest and justifiable anger -- fueled in large part by the revelation that a film crew was tagging along with Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) agents, filming for a reality TV show, Border Security: Canada's Front Line.

Here at rabble.ca, Michael Stewart has convincingly argued that this security state - entertainment tag team should ultimately be blamed on the right-wing politics of the current federal government: 

 ...the conditions which made Border Security: Canada's Front Lines possible are the deliberate result of almost a decade of Conservative policies by the Harper government. Xenophobic and fearmongering immigration practices, the increased use of migrant workers and attendant reduction of their rights, and the militarization of Canadian border all unswervingly led to the appalling scenario we witnessed this week.

Michael has already ably explained why the show is offensive and why Harper's crew has helped to create the noxious ideological climate in which it can exist. So I'll focus here on reporting some new developments and sharing some thoughts about what this all says about the broader uses of fearmongering for Harper's right-wing political project. 

On Saturday we learned that the Conservative government in fact explicitly green lighted the show, with approval coming from the highest levels. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews signed off on a production agreement, and someone from the Prime Minister's Office even viewed a preview.

It's no wonder the Harper government liked what they saw. Anyone who watches the trailer will instantly recognize the Cops-style aesthetic and perspective. This is embedded 'journalism' meets gutter level TV -- all aiming to get a rise out of the menacing-yet-often-incompetent criminal underclass that looms large in the reactionary imagination. 

Even before this weekend's revelations about Toews' involvement -- let me guess, critics of the show will be labelled as appeasers of child pornography smugglers? -- outrage and concern was widespread and mounting. 

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, for instance, referred to the filming of the raids as "media exploitation," stating: "Even if people have not come here legally, they deserve to be treated with basic dignity."

 Three NDP MLAs, including Opposition multicultural critic Raj Chouhan, said that Vancouver should "take a stand." COPE, the progressive Vancouver political party, noted that dozens of other cities have laws against filming "reality television shows that harass residents or workers based on citizenship status." (These statements from local politicians have been reported in articles by Travis Lupick of the Georgia Straight.) 

Attempting to quiet the growing controversy, Force Four, the Vancouver-based production company that makes the show for National Geographic Network, issued a statement on Friday: 

Border Security is a documentary series that follows the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) as they track and question suspicious travelers and persons of interest. Yesterday’s events occurred as we were documenting the day-to-day activities of the CBSA’s Inland Enforcement team and were in no way planned or staged. We would not sensationalize any situation for this series. Border Security is a documentary, not a reality series.

I'm not sure if this is panic or just chutzpah, but the statement is a howler. Border Security is not "documentary" in any credible meaning of the genre. 

Border Security is Reality TV -- and a particularly insidious kind that works closely with a state security agency. 

Ian Mulgrew of the Vancouver Sun describes it as "tabloid television at its worst," with "no host, no balancing commentary or any journalistic saving grace." In other words, the show has none of the basic elements of documentary productions. 

It was bad enough when we had reality TV shows about cops chasing small-time drug offenders down alleys in their underwear. Now we've got Canadian border security agents with cameras in tow arresting a bunch of construction workers as if they were Hells Angels.

This passage from Mulgrew's scathing commentary hints at a key point. Shows like Border Security and Cops focus on the perfidious small time crooks or cheats, serving up these small sharks as law and order spectacle, while the big sharks -- the arms dealers and extreme energy exporters, among others, so often aided and abetted by states and governments -- swim freely out of sight. (And, of course, it's obscene that super-exploited migrant workers doing the hardest, least remunerated work in our society are being pulled into this televised demonization.)

Border Security, which began airing last year, looks to be closely modeled on a popular Australian show of the same name. The Antipodean version has been running since 2004, and it has come in for criticism. In 2007, the Sydney Morning Herald included concerns about the show in a piece about the ‘Need to curb a PR industry spinning out of control’:

The Australian Customs Service, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service and the beleaguered Department of Immigration and Citizenship have invested considerable effort into ensuring the success of the commercial "reality" television program, Border Security. The soft-focus program gives the government agencies a veto over what gets aired. Border Security far outrates current affairs programs which cover immigration policy bungles.

Similarly, the Canadian authorities appear to effectively have a veto over what airs on Border Security; every episode has to get CBSA approval and material can be excluded for reasons including "national security." 

Again, this is not "documentary" -- it's virtual reality TV. 

In this virtual world, the authorities are always the good guys, and everyone crossing the border (or part of a largely-immigrant construction crew?) is a potential bad guy to be treated with suspicion. A look at the episode synopses gives a sense of this. 

Not to say, of course, that there aren't bad guys sneaking drugs and guns across the borders. But if this were truly a documentary series, some episodes might -- just for instance -- examine corrupt or complacent CBSA staff or management, look into potential security procedure problems, or maybe even spotlight issues like unjust racial profiling. 

The virtual reality this TV show portrays is exactly the virtual reality the Conservative government seeks to create and disseminate, because at the foundation of Harper and his government's right-wing agenda is the politics of fear. They need people to be afraid of something. 

So there was their seemingly bizarre effort to explain away evidence of declining crime rates.

Then there was the dubious and theatrical border announcement by Jason Kenney of a bust against "smugglers" and "criminals," just days away from the long-awaited announcement including Hungary on a list of "safe countries." 

And then there was the Arctic military exercise that doubled as a media stunt for Harper, featuring the fantastical scenario of a human smuggling operation on board an eco-tourist vessel.

Those are just a few of many examples. 

Suspicious, distrustful and frightened people are more likely to vote Conservative, and less likely to get organized or to even talk to their neighbours, let alone to coalesce into powerful social movements.

The only thing we really have to fear is ... the Conservative government itself.*  

So, by all means, let's call for the cancellation of the Border Security show. But let's not stop there. This awful, frightening Harper Show has already had a seven year run on the air. It's well past time we cancelled it.   


There is more information on the CBSA raids and the Reality TV filming, including statements from victims and family members, at the No One Is Illegal website

*Please forgive this rather cheesy paraphrase of the famous line from FDR's first inaugural.

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