This page carries
two articles based on my participation in the Channel 4 TV show, "Without
Prejudice?". The first is a 7-day diary column, published in the Sunday
Herald. The second, published in The Herald and
originally titled by me,
"A brush with reality", appeared under the title, "How I won 50
grand on TV" - to go directly to it click here.
days in the life of … Alastair McIntosh, writer and campaigning academic
Published in the
Sunday Herald, 25 January 2003 (7 Days, p. 9)
BUMMER! My agent rings. She's reached the end of the road seeking a
separate American publisher for my book Soil And Soul. They all love it. But
since September 11, the US market for non-US books has shrunk. The good news
is that Aurum Press, happy at shifting 4000 copies in the first year, will
assume US distribution rights.
ACADEMIC Board day at the Centre for Human Ecology, and I take in the
latest student MSc theses. Great to see folks coming on in leaps and bounds!
Fantastic, too, that the Centre is flourishing under Open University
accreditation. It's now seven years since Edinburgh University axed us --
without explanation -- at the height of my work for land reform and fighting
the Harris superquarry.
Verene comes home troubled by a work issue. She can't sleep, so in the
middle of the night I challenge her to a wrestling match in bed. Yoga's made
her one hell of a strong woman -- in both senses of the word -- and we end up
laughing our heads off.
IT utterly hacked me off last week watching MSPs betray Scots
internationalism as they debated Iraq. In today's Herald, Iain Macwhirter says
how Blair's dictatorial rights derive from 'royal prerogative'.
My blue touch-paper blazes. I pull down the law books, and blast out a
stinging letter to the paper. This 'royal prerogative' song and dance is a
residue of the English divine right of kings. Now Lord Hailsham's 'elective
dictatorship' is roughshodding democracy and threatening world peace. What
Blair's overlooked is that while the sovereign -- for whom he stands in -- is
commander in chief of the armed forces, she is also 'defender of the faith'.
At a minimum, that makes anything other than 'just' war unconstitutional.
I conclude: 'Constitutionally, it may rest with the established English and
Scottish churches to say whether a prime minister's warmongering is
Pressing the 'send' button feels like dispatching an intercontinental
ballistic missile. I hope the churches rise to their constitutional power and
name, unmask and engage the powers that be. No wonder, as I complete my tax
return, do I find I made just £5000 last year!
While yesterday was for condemning the Scottish Executive, today I warmly
sing its praises. On founding the Isle of Eigg Trust back in July 1991, the
London press had incredulously scorned us as, 'a group [who] admit they would
like to see the law on land ownership changed and the concept of landlords
abolished.' Today, and from many folks' efforts, the Land Reform (Scotland)
Bill is passed by 101 votes to 19.
TONIGHT I give the Centre for Human Ecology's public lecture. It's about
Spiritual Activism, meaning the spiritual (or life-giving, interconnecting,
and love-related) basis of working for environmental sustainability and social
justice. It's what my book Soil And Soul is all about, but I wonder how, in a
lecture, to really communicate the sheer providential magic by which spiritual
serendipity can shape an activist's life.
WELL, last night's audience didn't have to wait long for an embarrassingly
personal public example! If they watched Channel 4's Without Prejudice?
gameshow tonight (repeating late on Monday), they'd have seen me win the £50,000
prize. Ten year's pay in one day!
STILL mulling over my win. I only got invited on to the show after its
researchers found my website.
They said it was about debating, in a context of personal life, the kind of
topical social issues raised there. But really, it was scarcely about such
issues. It was mostly about the outrageous prejudices of some panellists.
What, with secret filming as well, it must have been quite hurtful for some
participants. Oh well, Verene and I live without a TV, so we've got all day
left to think about it!
I won 50 grand on TV
The Herald, 28 January 2003, p. 14. Subsequently reprinted as
"Reality Cheque" in ECOS: Journal of the British Association of Nature
Conservationists, No. 24(2), summer 2003.
Eco-warrior, ALASTAIR McINTOSH, who doesn't even own a television, tells of
a strange and lucrative encounter with a game show that double-dealt him the
It was a call from out of the blue. "I hit on your website," said the
researcher. "You're just who we're looking for and we'd like to invite you
on to Without Prejudice? It's the latest Channel 4 game show."
"Sorry," I replied. "I don't even have TV, and when I do go on
for things like land reform and social justice - not for game shows."
"But this is not going to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary or anything
and embarrassing," she insisted. "It's right up your street - a chance
say what you think about major social issues."
"Like war with Iraq, royalty, fox-hunting, and capital punishment. This is
about getting strongly opinionated people to say their piece. And whoever
the panellists likes best will go home with £50,000."
Well, I presumed that the cash-carrot would be like one of those
junk-mailings that promise you a million that never comes. But with a book
to promote, and a message to communicate about environment, community, and
human dignity, I was game for a game.
A producer explained that the exact format of Without Prejudice? was still
undecided. She said it would probably entail a two-minute video story about
each contestant's background. The panel debating our views on eight topical
issues would then eliminate us, one-by-one.
So it was that a production team flew up to Kinghorn, Fife, from London.
They took over the house, leaving neighbours leaning out of windows
wondering what was going on. They grilled me all day about foxhunting,
homosexuality, punishment, and so on.
Then it all got a bit strange. A foot slipped in the door.
"There's one last thing," said a producer. "We need you to come
London next week to sign consent papers and be eyeballed by a Channel 4
executive. We know it's a humbug, but do you mind?"
If I'd known this at the outset I'd probably not have participated. But by
now I'd invested too much time to go back. Ecologist though I try to be,
they said they'd fly me down as I had to get back quickly. Being warned
there'd be a lot of hanging around, I just had to write the day off in my
Sometimes, when your time's been derailed like this, the unexpected can
break in. I decided to take it in that spirit. So it was that I headed off,
intending to observe the day carefully, and see if I'd learn anything. Sure
enough, a string of happenings came about that ended up making it rather
There was a profound conversation about racism with a black London taxi
driver, who got out at the end and warmly shook my hand.
On another taxi trip, a lost mobile phone started doing its thing under my
seat. It was an anxious owner at the other end, but the taxi driver was a
real misery who wouldn't help return it. I said I'd leave it at Channel 4
Then, at the offices of the TV production company, 12-Yard, another
contestant was overpaid on her expenses under my very nose. She, an
accountant, avariciously stuffed the money into her bag.
"Aren't you going to give it back?" I asked.
"They've got plenty of money," she said, miffed at my question.
"What?" I demanded. "You're going to steal it?"
"It's not stealing," she sniffed. "They can afford it. They're a
"But somebody might get into trouble," I said. "In some places
have to make good discrepancies."
Well, this woman just walked off. When the receptionist returned, I asked
who was responsible for the petty cash. "I am," she said. I told her
Finally, at the airport on the way home, I got let off paying a £45 charge
for changing my flight. But in the parallel queue I witnessed a less
fortunate scene. A wee Glasgow hardman was virtually in tears. He'd been
stung for £40 excess baggage, but lacked excess cash. They told him to pay
up or get off.
Mindful of my own good fortune, and that here was a fellow Scot in need, I
did the decent thing.
Dumbfounded, he kissed his wedding ring and promised to repay.
Only on rounding the corner to airport security did the penny drop. There,
right in front of me, was the very same 12-Yard TV crew who'd been at our
house a few days previously. So - that was the game. It was a series of
set-ups. They'd had a camera on me.
But no. They were just hard-working folks, heading out on the next flight to
Just a few days before the studio finale, the phone went. It was 12-Yard
again. They had a confession. The programme format was now to include an
additional component: personal behaviour. "You see, when you were down in
London, we were secretly filming you."
Well, that mad day ran back through my mind like crazy.
Which bits had been shot? Had it even been safe to go to the loo? Had that
wee hard man from Glasgow been just a stooge?
No, none of that. It was merely the phone in the taxi and the £20 expenses
fiddle. They were scams. All the rest was reality - which is a great pity,
because I'm still waiting for that wee Glasgow hardman to send me his
I gave my permission, but by this time, I was getting worried about the
nature of the programme. I'd gone on to get some points across, but by now
it was becoming clear that the programme was more interested in us as people
than in our views.
When the studio day came I pushed the producer about how much air time my
thoughts on topical social issues would receive. "Probably about 45
seconds," she confessed, "unless you make it through to the final, in
case you'll get to be quizzed direct by the panellists."
The other four contestants were a very sweet astrologist, a charming
professional model, a gay activist doing work with autistic children, and a
sweet woman married to the chairman of a major football club.
I asked the latter if it was a real diamond on her finger. "Seven
she told me.
I'd decided that if I won I was going to send each of them £500 so that
nobody went away empty handed. I can't stand winner-takes-all scenarios. Who
knows, maybe the rich woman had her own charitable causes in mind.
As the studio filming got under way, contestants were eliminated ,
one-by-one. None of us liked how this was done. At each announcement,
"Robo-Cop", wearing a huge camera fixed to his body in a remarkable
swept into our studio and zoomed in as the disappointed contestant was asked
how they felt about it.
The astrologer, the model, and diamond lady dropped out. Finally, it was
down to me and Andy - the gay guy with a spike through his eyebrow. We
wished one another well and even discussed strategy. I said to hell with
playing to the gallery. I was going to rant full-on about the spiritual
underpinning of social and ecological activism. I was in it for the message,
but the money could be nice, too.
To my enormous relief, the panel seemed like switched-on people. They asked
challenging but searching questions. And I won the £50,000.
However, after viewing the first few programmes broadcast, not everybody had
it so good. It was brutal to see a woman exposed to the nation on falling
slightly short with the phone honesty test. Somebody else was ridiculed
about his sticky-out ears. One guy e-mailed me saying he'd been promised
three times he'd not get bashed for his homosexuality, but he did.
The outcome for myself? Well, late that night after the studio session, I
got talking to a famous architect who was staying in the hotel. We
blethered. I explained that I'm attached to Edinburgh's Centre for Human
Ecology. I mentioned that the price of academic freedom in this day and age
can come high. Some of my work - Eigg, resisting war, the Harris
superquarry, and so on - has been controversial, getting up the noses of
corporations, major landowners, and governments.
I've had to live on the margins of the mainstream, earning as little as
£5000 in recent years. I told the architect about the day just passed. I was
exhilarated by the outcome, but troubled that some folk had maybe got hurt
by being drawn into an agenda that had not been entirely upfront. I was just
lucky that I'd had panellists who, if the best isn't edited out, had enabled
me to say what I'd wanted.
Finally, I showed the architect a cheque in my bag. "Look," I said,
caught in the emotional crossfire between process and outcome. "There's 10
years' pay in one day."
"Well, my friend," he replied softly, generously. "Maybe God has
3 paragraphs were added to the ECOS version in response to the editor asking for
a reflection on the aftermath]
Since the TV screening and its repeat there's been
loads of response A small amount of it has been negative. One retired Edinburgh
University professor, for example, said he considered it in “poor taste” to
go on such a programme. An old friend thought it “narcissistic”. An e-mailer
sent congratulations but added, “The money appears a contradiction to your
life though and makes you appear hypocritical.” Well, not only do I take such
points very seriously, but I multiply them by ten since it is rare to get honest
face-to-face criticism. I also think that these are inevitable challenges of
public life. Rather than hide from them, the best approach is to hold them in
the light of one’s community and see how everything feels in the balance of
vast majority of responses, on the other hand, were incredibly positive. These
included many strangers who still come up on the street to say how astonished
and delighted they’d been to hear such ideas shared on prime time TV. Letters
and emails said such things as, “[It was] like a
breathe of fresh air on our telly that night! You made it worth the license fee
alone!”; “It may seem stupid, but in a way it seemed
like a ray of light in so much of the darkness of the world of late”; and,
“That's what you get a bhalaich [‘my boy’ in Gaelic] for spending too much
time with the fairies! Maybe just a tiny wee bit of the revolution was televised
In retrospect I would not have taken part in the programme had I known
the tactics they were going to use. That said, I’m not sorry it happened. Such
are the contradictions of … what … “reality”?
Alastair McIntosh is author of Soil and Soul:
People versus Corporate Power,
described by Robin Harper MSP as "the book of the decade".
25 January 2003