Uncanny Valley Colonialism

On the drive from my hometown of Minneapolis to Appleton, I mentioned offhand to my father about how I’d started listening to the BBC’s Global News Podcast. Simply and contentedly he responded to me “I love the BBC.” No more discussion was necessary. 

The Global News Podcast is one of three podcasts I’ve started listening to semi-regularly by the BBC World Service, the other two being World Football and Comedians vs. The News. This small sample of programming has been a strange introduction to the vast apolitical state-sponsored Skynet that is the BBC. Maybe I’ve been tainted by an upbringing with the unhinged American media, but I can’t help but feel unsettled by the reporting of the British Broadcasting Company. 

The bi-daily Global News Podcast starts like clockwork with the same soundbite of a standard British received pronunciation accent introducing the podcast and remaining transparent by reminding the listeners that the podcast is “sponsored by advertising.” The daily march for objectivity has thus begun. Men and women with ethnically diverse names, but the same exact British accent, start reporting on news considered globally relevant. Segments defer to global correspondents: ‘Middle East’ correspondents or ‘Europe’ correspondents. Looking into any particular correspondent shows that most of the time they fit into one of two categories: British journalist covering news from an area they have seemingly no connection to or British-educated and accented foreigner covering news from their home nation. The accent is so pervasive and devoid of character that it has turned a minimum 75% of my listening to the podcast into white noise, no pun intended. 

I’m all for a diverse diet of ‘global’ news coverage, but I become dubious when I’ve heard almost every day what seems like the same exact report from the same British man who has been sent to Minsk to cover the protests and contested election victory of Ukranian President Lukashenko. They’ve really missed the learning curve with this one because my knowledge of the situation peaked after maybe two reports. The issue is that the well-tempered soundbites at the beginning and end of the podcast, welcoming and closing ‘the news,’ have conditioned me into thinking news doesn’t exist outside of this Brave-New Broadcasting Company. You couldn’t convince me something is noteworthy unless my new Anglo-robotic parents have told me so. 

Without fail, most podcasts also have one fun trivia news story. A recent one I found ironically funny was that birds have been, in some instances.. I guess, recorded by scientists as singing louder since COVID began. The sort of thing that makes you think “that’s interesting,” but you have no frame of reference to know how significant it is and after a 3 minute explanation from the ‘science correspondent’ who is not an expert either. At least now if I hear a bird chirping even marginally loud and I can explain to my uninformed friends that it’s because of COVID and science. 

The two other podcasts fall into similar strangeness due to the BBC’s aspirations of what I’ll call global objectivity. The premise of Comedians vs. The World is probably the funniest part of the podcast about comedy, that being that it’s hosted by a Jewish-Palestinian lesbian comedian couple. The podcast features two other comedians from different countries being prompted to joke about globally relevant political news. I think most people could agree that much of a normal comedian’s success comes from being subversive or edgy, but that doesn’t really mix well with the dauntless quest for objectivity we go on with the BBC. 

Most of the comedians seem uncomfortably held back from promoting how funny they really are – they are speaking in English (often not the language they joke in) and often tell jokes that don’t land or make sense to anyone outside of the culture or nation they represent. It’s uncomfortably insulting to their intelligence and necessary social poise as comedians in their respective cultures and nations. This mixed with the BBC’s aversion to controversy and edginess mediates ‘foreign comedy’ as a concept from a joyous cultural in-group experience into something more akin to that bland Thai curry I made for my roomies last week. I forgot to season it, a classic white person moment, before serving it with white rice and tofu – which also went unseasoned. That was my mom’s recipe too! Not only was it a failed white person’s attempt at Thai curry, it was a failed white person’s attempt at another white person’s interpretation of Thai curry. I don’t know if a better metaphor has been used to describe the BBC. The meal got the job done and fed us, but enjoyment peaked after the first bite. 

In these podcasts, I can’t help but feel David Attenborough whispering non-seductively in my ear “this is the news, like it or not,” or, “look! pure comedy,” as if cautioning to be quiet when observing an animal in the wild. All this is to point out the reductively boring Anglophone gaze of the BBC. As an American, I also can’t help but feel evocations of shows that have amassed a cult-following here like Downton Abbey or The Great British Bake Off, fetishizing the British nationality to death in the eyes of middle-class Americans. With all of us, myself included, orgasming over quirky words like “posh” and the funny way some Brits pronounce the word “scone.” I don’t even blame my fellow Americans for feeling comforted by the Objective Broadcasting Empire; we live in the home country of fake news. I’m aspirational too! It’s for this reason that I soliloquize to myself in questionable British accents alone in bed. 

This journey with the British News-piece Trivia Company brings me back to our other favorite conquistador of knowledge, Socrates. All this makes his previously mind-numbing search for objectivity and Platonic forms seem like the height of intrigue in comparison, where some notions of combatting viewpoints, self-awareness, and edginess are seen as valid discourse and where we pretend, at least for fun, that there may be answers to big difficult questions like “What is justice?” Even Socrates would be too edgy for the BBC! 

An old imperialist motto said “the sun never sets on the British Empire.” Never does it set on the BBC either, but it must on this article.