Viewpoint: Oh! What a lovely war game

One could not accuse the BBC's World War Three: Inside The War Room of understatement. From the giganto-epic title of the show (and let's give it its due as an entertainment show, not a documentary) to the high production value dramatizations of civil unrest and war crimes in Daugavpils, it certainly went for it.

Indeed the show, and particularly the 'Latvia' sections (which appear to have been filmed in Lithuania, if the names in the credits are any indicator) were made with the dramatic professionalism one would expect from the makers of Sherlock and Peaky Blinders.

That is probably explained by the fact that the 'Daugavpils rebellion' was about the limit of what was logistically possible on the show's budget. It takes some organizing but is not prohibitively expensive to hire a handful of actors, a couple of hundred extras and stage a demonstration or riot for the benefit of the cameras.

But when you start to depict large-scale, violent civil unrest among a real population that has shown no inclination to participate in civil unrest, and you show them waving the flag of Latgale as part of that fictional revolution, you are running into dangerous territory and probably stretching your narrative too far.

The warning sign came early. After a brief and accurate description of Putin's underhand gambits in Georgia and Ukraine, we stepped back in time to the Bronze Soldier riots or 2007 in Estonia. Or did we? Because at that point, the archive footage of what actually happened started to be mixed with brand new dramatized footage. It was very well done, in film-making terms, but momentarily disorienting - are we watching the past or the present? No doubt this was precisely the reaction the producers wanted to achieve but it signalled the point at which fact and fantasy were to be irredeemably mixed.

The riots "spread to the Latgale region of Latvia" we were told. There was no further mention of how the situation in Estonia was resolved and we switched instead to a Georgia/Donbas scenario in Daugavpils, whose real-life mayor was probably becoming apoplectic as he watched his henchman-like screen version calling for independence from the evil yoke of Riga. There was little or nothing to suggest the people of Daugavpils weren't wholeheartedly behind him.

Soon afterwards came the second thing that sounded alarm bells - or air raid sirens. A group of British troops were captured by the Russians. The elite Special Air Service (famously the largest regiment in the British Army if you believe everyone who claims to have served in its ranks) was sent in to rescue them. The operation was a complete success. At this point one could almost hear the producers in the their script meeting saying:

"Well, yes, we are prepared to depict nuclear annihilation on a huge scale but we definitely can't broadcast something in which the SAS gets shot to pieces. Imagine the uproar!"

And despite its claims to verisimilitude, the format of World War Three: Inside The War Room was fundamentally flawed.

From the Bronze Soldier on, what we were essentially served with was Putin's Greatest Hits transposed onto a Latgalian backdrop. The Little Green Men came from Crimea, the bogus humanitarian convoy and the separatists from Donbas, the shooting down of a helicopter from across the border was a take on the downing of MH17 over Ukraine... and so on.

Yet at no point did anyone point say: "Hey, isn't Putin just doing all the things he has been doing for the last few years, only now he's doing them all at once? We've encountered all this before, so we know exactly how to deal with it because we've actually given it some thought!"

Indeed events came so thick and fast that there was no real sense of tension building. The 'characters' in the war room - and let's not call them real people because all to some extent and some to a huge extent were mugging for the cameras - lacked the 'chemistry' the producers must have hoped for, with a couple of exceptions.

The exercise might have had some validity if the protagonists really had been shut in their war room for days or weeks. But it felt like the work of an afternoon and occasionally veered into Dr Strangelove territory, particularly when the Russians phoned in to apologise that they had - whoops apocalypse! - accidentally used a nuclear weapon in the Baltic Sea.

The great get-out the BBC will likely employ is that the show could not be regarded as propaganda simply because the ending was problematic.

But this is a false argument. If the experts had decided to unleash nuclear retaliation, it would be propaganda, but the fact they opted for a sort of conscientious self-immolation is supposed to acquit them of the charge and show how thoughtful this entertainment drama is after all.

Well sorry, but that's not good enough. When Russian TV runs "dramatizations" of its tanks rolling into Finland or nuking New York we condemn it and say fact and fiction should not be mixed in such a way, that it contributes to the general erosion of the line between news and entertainment.

World War Three: Inside The War Room employed precisely the same techniques - only done rather more effectively than is usually the case with Russian TV, who one suspects are even now offering the BBC a handsome royalty for the right to re-broadcast the show - and perhaps slightly edit it here and there...

Reacting to the show, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics described the scenario as "rubbish" but said it had "many lessons" to teach us. It would be fascinating to hear him outline precisely what those lessons are.

 

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7 comments
Janis
This is exactly the kind of scenario I addressed in my second post. People need to learn how to recognize good info from bad. If used for propaganda purposes it's a drop in the bucket of endless propaganda. Really makes no difference in the big scheme of things. Where it could make a difference though is in the minds of people in the UK watching it. Perhaps they'll have a better understanding of the threat that Russia poses to all of Europe. For what it's worth the creator of the film has a history of making politically provocative movies. He's the guy who made Killing George Bush. (Exact title might be wrong, but it's something close to that.)
Janis
What exactly is the problem with using real symbols in a part of the world that faces real threats? Russia is a threat to Latvia, while there is little sentiment of separation in Latgale it's not a huge stretch to imagine Russia trying to stir the pot there. Or in the Narva region for that matter. Does it hit too close to home when you see symbols that you identify with being used this way, or is there a real and rational danger?
Tom Schmit
The problem is illustrated by something I saw yesterday. I wandered onto an anti-immigration/refugee page on FB because of a video purporting to be refugees rioting in Germany. The language and southern (American) accents made it clear that the video was from the USA. A bit of hunting clarified that it was from riots in Baltimore after a killing by police. But, nobody on the page would see the truth. They blindly accepted that this was video from Germany and quite easily spewed hatred based on things that were a lie. Using these real symbols could lead to this video passing for a real fight or conflict if used by nationalists. It seems far fetched, but is it really?
Janis
As for Tom's comment regarding 'playing catch-up' vis-a-vis propaganda, that's exactly the strategy that propagandists want. They through out so much propaganda that it's impossible to counter it all. What needs to be done is to educate people on how to properly vet their sources. For example if it comes from RT or Sputnik there is an extremely high chance that it's fabricated in whole or in part and best look for a more reputable source. A hell of a lot more effective than trying to debunk every story they put out.
Tom Schmit
Or, to expect that the BBC would act responsibly and not use real symbols in such a way or project highly unlikely events.
Janis
Can someone clearly explain exactly what they fear from this piece of television? There is a collective freakout on Latvian social media over this. but all I'm hearing are the same vague terms I hear whenever Latvians are presented with something that either offends them, scares them, or they simply don't want to face. Western media has made pretty clear that the war in eastern Ukraine was engineered by Russia, and in this context it seems that the program shows that Russia is a threat to the West and needs to be countered. Does anyone really believe that a program such as this is going to radically change anyone's mind regarding the invasion of Latvia? Time to take a step back and a deep breath if you think it will. Latvia loves to take itself far to seriously.
Tom Schmit
I think that your description of the blurring of the line between facts and fiction is very important. From the moment I saw the Latgale flag in clips from this, I wondered how long it would/will be before this footage shows up as "real" in either or both the Latvian nationalists propaganda or the Kremlin funded opposite. Once that happens we will perpetually be playing catch-up in pointing out that it is from tv and fiction.
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