Politicians should take a stance against fake news, not fiction

The British government’s asking “The Crown” to come with a warning that it is fiction is just as silly as Turkish politicians wanting to “set Turkish series right.” The governments’ efforts would be put to better use by taking a stance on fake news or inaccurate statements, including their own, rather than fight against artistic license.

Why would one need to buy more shoes in a lockdown?

Why would one rather risk death than be vaccinated?

Why on earth would one need to be told that a Netflix series is fiction?

Yes, like the rest of Turkey whose movements are limited due to the increasing Covid19 risk, I am at home, poring over newspaper articles, academic papers, scientific research on vaccines and pondering upon the meaning of life.

No, not really.

Having had my dose of conspiracy theories and pandemic figures that first go mysteriously down only to go tragically up again, I’m now binge-watching Netflix series and glancing through parody news of the Onion, Private Eye and Turkey’s own Zaytung.

So when I came across UK Cultural Secretary Oliver Dowden’s suggestion that Netflix should warn readers that “The Crown,” the popular Netflix series on the monarchy, is fiction, I honestly thought that it was made-up news by some satirical newspaper. Dowden was quoted as saying that without a warning, generations of viewers who did not live through those events would mistake fiction for fact. He also spoke of “great damage to the monarchy” and to Prince Charles – as if the poor prince’s fate as the constant-prince-and-never-the-king was not almost totally assured.

But then, Helena Bonham Carter, who has played miserable Margaret, joined in to say that “The Crown” has a “moral responsibility” to tell viewers that it is drama. “I do feel very strongly, because I think we have a moral responsibility to say, ‘Hang on guys, this is not … it’s not a drama-doc, we’re making a drama.’ So they are two different entities,” she interjected.

The debate on whether fake history and contemporary history in particular is as corrosive as fake news is one that the Turkish audience is familiar with. Some ten years ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – never one to shy away from getting into our TV rooms and bedrooms - raged against the Ottoman soap opera “The Magnificent Century.

Erdoğan maintained that Suleyman the Magnificent, along with his merry entourage of décolleté odalisques and wine-devouring ministers misrepresented Turkish history. Unlike Dowden, who merely contented himself with writing a letter to Netflix, Erdoğan urged legal action over historical inaccuracies such as Suleyman the Magnificent staying too long in the palace, rather than waging war. The series’ producers, quick to recognize the trouble these words could cause both to the present series and those in the offing, sent Suleyman to a long war and covered the mighty bosom – as well as the hair – of his conniving paramour, Hurrem.

The Second Big Turkish Debate on Fact vs Fiction is, of course, about the recent Turkish series “Bir Başkadır” or “Ethos.” Several writers have written excellent pieces on the series from the pages of Duvar and Duvar English, so no need to get into detail there. In a nutshell, the series that claimed to be a reflection of Turkey’s polarization and fault lines, was accused by its critics of being as distorting as a carnival mirror. The critics said that the conflict between secularists vs conservatives sounded hollow and the characters did not correspond to real life. One would think that Berkun Oya, the producer, had pledged publicly to create a simulation of Turkish society than a fictitious series.

Aygen Aytaç, a journalist who spent years in London and co-host of Turkish Coffee Podcasts, fervently argues that “The Crown” is different than both because unlike “Ethos,” it is about real people and unlike “The Magnificent Century,” it is about now. She is certainly right on both.

Yet it may not be fair to insist that it is the writer’s/producer’s responsibility to keep saying that a series is just a series. To my fiction-fed mind, this seems as obvious as saying that Caesar’s meeting Cleopatra when the latter was hiding at the feet of the Sphynx was a fragment of Bernard Shaw’s imagination, that Raymond Reddington did not help the FBI catch 100 criminals and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk danced the tango in Ankara as one of the Turkish movies claim. So obvious that it would be silly to say it all the time.

In case there is ambiguity, let me spell it out as a public service: The documentaries are the carefully researched programs that you turn off after 15 minutes and drop into the conversation so you can pretend to have seen them. The soaps are those that you watch all night – ten episodes in 24 hours and share on social media to get a hundred likes – and discuss at length with friends over coffee, with particular stress on decors and clothes.

Despite the series and streaming services’ role in our lives amid COVID-19, it amazes me when politicians or opinion leaders claim that the public gets its historical facts from fiction. I am not sure at all whether that’s the case, but if it is, then it is not the artistic license that should be censored to ensure that it is not so. Providing financing for documentaries, more accessible and user-friendly historical research, better media literacy education and even modern and interactive history museums might be part of the answer.

As for the politicians sticking their nose into someone else’s fiction, shouldn’t they be worrying more about fake news, post-truth statements and outright lies - some of which are of their own making?

September 10, 2021 Turkey's small festivals