Sunday, December 24, 2006

Belgium gets a fright

In a program acknowledged to have been influenced by the Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War Of The Worlds, a fake news program in Belgium saw 30,000 concerned viewers jam switchboards. But this was no alien invasion, rather it was a salient demonstration of just how easy it is to tap into local concerns and bypass the normal common sense of viewers. Belgium is a country roughly divided between the Dutch-speaking Flemings of the north and the French-speaking Walloons of the south, and recent tensions between the two groups have led to constitutional amendments granting some formal recognition and autonomy to the regions. On Wednesday the 15th of December, viewers tuning into Belgium State Television were astounded to be told that the Flemish parliament had voted for Flanders' secession from the Kingdom of Belgium. The broadcast utilised real news reporters and fake outside broadcasts of jubilant crowds, and even prominent politicians took part. Such was the concern of viewers that the stations website was crashed under the strain. Television journalist Philippe Dutilleul had planned the program for two years, and has received mixed reactions to the broadcast. Flemish nationalists naturally applauded the resulting upset, but the president of Wallonia has called the TV event an "unacceptable" breach of journalistic ethics. Jean-Paul Philippot, the chief administrator of Belgian state television was called in to the responsible ministry to explain himself and receive a roasting. Perhaps the most interesting thing to consider is that despite the vast range of alternative news sources available to viewers (other channels and the Internet), many still apparently took the broadcast at face value, and were genuinely concerned. It makes you wonder what would happen if a big broadcaster did something similar with terrorism. Time magazine has a detailed piece further explaining the tensions that exist between the two regions.