Category Archives: broadcasting

Rumour, Fear and the Madness of Crowds

Scanning TV and radio yesterday was like watching a mob of yokels milling around a railway crossing waiting for a train wreck.

The rush was on to be the one to deliver the first, worst, and most bad news about a world-wide stock-market crash and a new global financial crisis,

For some commentators, their ghoulish excitement was so ill-concealed they were practically drooling as they strained for the first rumble of wheel on steel.

Today, so much news is not news, it is speculation; pre-news if you like.

Enough speculation, and god knows there is more than enough of it, creates news; it makes things happen.

Some people have worked out that many major events that sweep society are not driven by fact or reason, but by rumour, fear and the madness of crowds.

Not enough people, unfortunately.

Take any opportunity for misfortune or catastrophe, add a few dubious experts, apply heat, stir continuously and, voila, the sky falls!

“See, we told you so!” chortle the commentators like a ghastly Greek chorus.

The mob as an organism

There is a point at which individuals linked by circumstances, accidentally or by design, give up their individuality to be totally absorbed by the mob. The Borg in Star Trek was a cosmic example.  They no longer think or act or reason as a person, but exist solely to serve the mob.

I saw it once. It both fascinated and frightened me.

A Hong Kong night in 1981 or 82:  my wife and I together with another couple were walking in Central district. We were leaving, or possibly enroute to, or even between Christmas/New parties.  From somewhere in the streets lining the canyons between tall buildings came the sound of many voices. Not happy, holiday voices, more  a chorus, deep and course, swelling and ebbing.

I was curious but pretty much ignored it. Not so my companion — or his Chinese wife.

He froze, like a stalked animal, head scanning side to side, jaw slack, his usually pink cheeks now chalklike.

This was odd, I thought. All the more so for a man who was an experienced officer in Special Branch of the Royal Hong Kong Police.

Actually that was exactly what made his behaviour not odd at all. For one thing a requirement of his position was fluency in Cantonese. For another was that he had been a uniformed cop during the lethal riots of 1966 and 1967.  He had heard that sound before.

“Come on! Quick!” he urged and walk-ran in the direction of a multi-story carpark. As the four of us reached an intersection we could plainly see a large crowd less than two blocks away. Close enough for, let’s call him Tony, to comment “Mostly young, no women, come on!”

We did.

The lift seemed to take an age but eventually opened on the appropriate floor. Half running to Tony’s car, the sounds had become more of a roar.  Over the parapet in the street below we glimpsed the swarm, undulating, swelling, joining, moving quickly — as one.

Tony was very proud of his Alfa-Romeo, even though it was a modest saloon and always seemed to have some finicky thing that needed fixing. I had once seen him bring his sweet and gentle wife to tears after she  confessed to acquiring a small scratch in an unavoidable traffic incident.

You wouldn’t think so now.  Even if Tony bothered to look for his parking ticket, it wouldn’t have mattered. He had not stopped to pay it on the way in.  The Alfa’s Pirellis yelped  loudly on the smooth concrete as he charged the barrier, smashing it open and steering hard into the tight spiral ramp to ground level and out into the street.

The news next morning told of the violence; cars overturned, some incinerated; shop fronts vandalised, injuries among both innocent and guilty and the police. No fatalities as best I recall.

On reflection I am pretty sure we all could have got safely clear that night with far less fuss and drama, but Tony knew that sound and its possible consequences. He responded from calm analysis of the situation and weighing of options? Uh-uh. Instinct? Perhaps. Fear based on past experience — his own or anecdotes of others?

That fits.

Whatever the reason I will now remember for the rest of my life that other-worldly sound and the sight of hundreds of individuals becoming willing cells in a powerful and frightening mass mind to wreak what havoc it will.

That takes me pretty much back to the beginning.

E.T., film home?

“Bystanders filmed the incident on their mobile phones and we will bring you the footage after the break.”

Could be almost any newsreader on any day on any channel anywhere in the world.

You have probably noticed that there is no practical way to shove a reel of movie film into your mobile phone.

You may also have noticed that your mobile phone records video on a solid state memory chip which is usually measured in bytes rather than feet.

These facts seem to have escaped Telstra, one of Australia’s biggest telcos. Their current commercial shows a family at a beach as mum captures the scene on her mobile phone which a CGI pelican proceeds to gulp. “You are filming at the beach and a bird steals your phone.” proclaims the voice-over. “Never mind, your footage is safely stored (along with your other important documents for you to retrieve whenever you want.”)

That’s some pelican that can steal a phone,  unload a reel of movie film from somewhere inside it and fly that footage to have it processed in a lab and stored ready for you to edit on your Steinbeck and project on a bed-sheet to persecute your hapless relatives.

Of course mobile phones have never used film and, these days most cameras, amateur and professional, record not even on tape, but on tiny memory chips similar to the one in your phone.

TK-76 ENG camera

An ad for the RCA TK-76 ENG camera

The shift from film to videotape and eventually solid-state recording emerged through news coverage with the first “electronic news gathering”  (ENG) camera, RCA’s breakthrough TK-76.

I previewed (OK, played with) a pre-release PAL model at RCA’s research and development laboritory at Cherry Hill, New Jersey.  It was officially  introduced at the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) convention and show in Chicago in 1976 (hence the number in the name) where I got to play with it mounted on another breakthrough presented at that convention,  Garret Brown’s brilliant  SteadiCam.


Garret Brown's revolutionary Steadicam

Wearing that rig for the first time was an amazing experience. It felt as if the camera was controlling me and its operating principle and mechanism totally baffling.

The TK-76 was still tethered to an external  video recorder, usually a Sony U-Matic or  Betamax Professional. Later developments of course combined the videotape recorder with the camera body;  the three vacuum tubes used to record the red, green and blue components of the image were replaced with solid-state chips and the digital image data recorded on digital tape — now on memory chips.

It has been more than two decades, a whole generation, since TV news crews recorded events on film or TV networks handled a foot of the stuff.

It is probably about time that news writers and announcers woke up to the fact.