And now for the news
24 first screened in the US in November 2001. Even though the initial episodes would have been conceived and shot prior to 9/11 the series must be interpreted in the context of the evolving "war on terror". The screening of the fourth series in Australia has been integrally linked to the London bombings with the first episode of the series screening the Monday after the bombings.
The first episode of season four begins with a terrorist training bombing and if this connection to real world events was not apparent it was highlighted by the seven news break which punctuated the show. The introductory double episode ended with the usual promo for the following episode, the announcer urging us to tune in to see “what lengths the terrorists will go to”. After the credits, Seven led straight into an extended news update which included footage of London's mayor Ken Livingston catching a train with a “back-to-work-we-wont-let-them-win” theme.
The dialectic between the visceral build up of tension produced by the “live” structure of 24 and its hero's inevitable triumph is mirrored in the contrasting message of terror and hope embodied in a grim-faced Livingston boarding a train. Although 24 plays the traditional hero myth it also re-wrote the rules of this serial genre by allowing the death of key figures such as Jack's wife in series one. We know that Jack will win but we can no longer be sure at what cost. Similarly the news is constantly telling us that “we” will win even though we can no longer be sure “what lengths the terrorists will go to”.
Other news that night included John Howard's denial that Britain was preparing a withdrawal from Iraq which would necessitate Australia sending more troops, but he confirmed that Australia would be sending further troops to Afghanistan. This reminder of the nexus between Australian, British and US military operations highlighted the “reality” of the 24 terrorists' claim that this was an “us” (muslim) against “you” (western nations) battle.
In this new world the best we can do is get up and get back on the train. Just like Livingston. Just like Jack.
Each episode during season four's initial weeks was followed by the news and each week in the aftermath of the London attacks the fit between 24 and the news seemed uncanny.
The episode that screened in Australia on Monday August 8, which was preceded by a public service announcement in which Keifer Sutherland urged us not to typecast Muslims, again followed this pattern.
First up: the arrest of one of the London bombers and a discussion of his statement that the second attacks were only meant to scare - this was disputed by a legal expert who speculated that this was merely a ploy to establish a story for court. This was followed without a visual break by a piece on a local, Muslim, Qantas baggage handler being tried for terrorist links, he was shown handcuffed and in Arabic dress. Next we were told that Prime Minister John Howard had contested the assertion of those on trial for the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta that the attack was payback for Australian involvement with Iraq.
Where as 24 presents its transitions between the simultaneous events being narrated with breakout frames and multiple screens, the news coverage of these three events was presented with a continuous stream of images and voice overs. Only verbal transitions such as: “In London/In a sydney court/in Indonesia” marked the move into another story. One of the effects of this breathless presentation is the collapse of these events into a single narrative, and the narrative is not about possible motivations or the events themselves, it is about the overarching story line of “Muslim Terrorists” on trial.