It was something a friend said to me about The Revenant, Leonardo diCaprio’s bloody-minded and brutal Oscar vehicle: ‘The problem with the film is once you start laughing, you can’t stop. And for me, that moment was the second time he fell off a cliff.’
I thought about this a lot listening to Into the Grey Zone, a new podcast hoping to educate its audience about the new forms of constant pseudo-warfare that modern states engage in. This is the world of nerve poisoning in Salisbury, airspace incursions over Taiwan, cyberattacks, mass disinformation and remote interference. None of these things can be considered open warfare but taken together, the podcast implies, they do not suggest we are in a state of perfect peace.
I should stress that I believe these things are important, that they deserve public discussion and attention. But Into the Grey Zone, having set out on its virtuous mission, gets one foot stuck in a bucket, the other clamped in a waffle iron, falls down the stairs and ends up accidentally becoming the funniest current affairs show since Brass Eye.
The grey zone, we’re told, is ‘a place where there are no rules, and literally anything can be, and is, used as a weapon’. The podcast has a particular skill for overstating its case in a way that not only undermines its arguments, but contains a small, sweet note of the completely absurd, provided in that last sentence by the use of the word ‘literally’. The grey zone is variously described as being everywhere, encompassing everything, affecting everyone and happening every minute. Its omnipresence, immanence and omnipotence give God a decent run for his money.
Every threat is inflated to insane proportions. Discussing fake news, the voiceover swings for the fences: ‘It’s hard to overstate this threat. Think about it: instead of firing artillery rounds at enemy troops before advancing, just fire off some fake news instead, to persuade them not to bother firing in the first place.’ Eh? Are we supposed to be frightened that human beings might not start bombing each other into oblivion?
As a listening experience, it’s a strident, colourless churn through interviews and newsreel clips, powered along by B-movie sound effects and processed industrial rock music. The experts have a knack of embarrassing themselves by earnestly saying things like ‘You can now tell a lie in Europe and have it livestreamed in Australia’. Another claims that disinformation is ‘older than history’, referencing the Narmer Palette, an astonishing 31st-century BCE Egyptian stone, which displays a giant king Narmer smiting his enemies. It is believed to represent the unification of the upper and lower Nile. Our expert makes his case: ‘You think: was he actually twice as tall as everybody else? No.’ No one tell this man about Michelangelo’s ‘David’.
A section on truth and journalism is the usual snooze-a-thon of bad faith and overweening pride. ‘As a journalist, the truth is like the solid ground beneath my feet,’ says our host. As a podcast reviewer, I can only agree, possibly adding that it is the wind beneath my wings.
Into The Grey Zone is about issues that should concern us, perhaps more than they do. But its bellicose assumptions and alarmist rhetoric are the very worst tools that we could use to tackle those issues. We are shown malice without motive, threat without context, invisible enemies who are everywhere and see everything. You might well feel worried, if you were capable of taking it seriously.
Utterly different in its sense of pathos, its intelligence and its streamlined, economical storytelling is Sideways, by Matthew Syed, whose first two episodes are available on BBC Sounds. It tells stories about seeing the world differently: how a numerical fillip can destroy someone’s life, or a shift in perspective can make hostages sympathise with their captors. It manages to do so avoiding all the obvious clichés, as well as the twin pitfalls of mawkishness and geekery, and arrives as a little clear-cut gem of nuance and interest.
Syed’s ponderous, slow delivery is capable of small affective shifts that register emotion without becoming sentimental or forced. The second episode told the extraordinary — and extraordinarily awful — story of Sally Clark, a solicitor who was wrongfully convicted of murdering her two infant sons. Syed shows convincingly how a statistical misunderstanding helped convict her. There are no villains here, only human biases and flawed systems of thought, coming together to create the undesirable outcomes in which we live. It’s all put together with great taste and skill — very simply, it’s the best thing I’ve heard in months, and it shouldn’t slip under your radar either.