Politics is just a bit on the side

April 29, 2005

Good gimmickry engages viewers in the run-up to an election, but it can go too far, says Philip Cowley

Ronald Reagan once said that the most frightening words in the English language are: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." But he was wrong. The BBC has given us 11 words that are even more disturbing: "We'll be returning to our student house later in the campaign."

To give us the "student view" of the election, BBC Two's Newsnight has adopted a houseful of them. What this means in practice is that viewers have to endure footage of slightly sullen teenagers performing wacky japes before airing their largely vacuous views. What is this supposed to tell us about the election? All we learn is that students live in grim houses, behave like prats when put in front of a camera and think they are the most important people on earth. Is this news to anyone?

It was the late US politician Tip O'Neill who declared that "all politics is local". In this campaign, his aphorism has been taken to heart by the media. Hence all those buses and helicopters zipping round the country to "bring the election to you", as if it can be real only when there's a broadcast crew nearby. BBC Breakfast even has some fat bloke in a sidecar, a vehicle for which they must have been looking for a use ever since Jennifer Paterson of Two Fat Ladies fame popped her clogs.

It is surely a matter of time before we have a campaign hot-air balloon or a submarine ("sampling the political current around our islands"). You can bet there's a TV executive thinking of sending John Humphrys to visit northern constituencies on a sled pulled by huskies.

There is nothing wrong with the theory behind this. For all the guff about the increasingly presidential nature of British politics, the evidence suggests that things are becoming more localised. Most observers expect election night to be a more patchy affair than before. If ever a poll looks set to destroy the concept of uniform electoral swing, it will be this one.

The problem comes with the practice. We are subjected to unending shots of helicopters taking off and multicoloured buses trundling down streets, usually followed by interviews with people who don't appear to know anything, presumably to show us there are lots of people who don't know anything. The result rarely leaves you better informed, unless you didn't know that helicopters fly through the air, that buses drive along roads or that overweight men should eschew sidecars as a dignified mode of transport.

It is similar to the obsession with text messages and emails that pervades news programmes. I do not pay my licence fee to hear what Barbara from Essex thinks of Tony Blair. Why are the views of David from Middlesbrough of any interest to anyone but David and his long-suffering family? We've gone from the BBC motto of "nation shall speak peace unto nation" to "Sandra from Bristol shall speak nonsense unto nation".

This is not to object to either "interactivity" (dreadful word, good idea) or the attempts to make politics seem more grounded in the experiences of "real" people. But the problem - manifest in the Newsnight student house - is that this rarely leads to clarification; more commonly it results in the unfiltered amplification of ignorance.

Here's an example. Just before the election, someone sent a text message to the BBC's The Daily Politics show complaining that while the Government had used the Parliament Act to enforce the hunting ban it was not prepared to do so for the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. The response of the presenter? "That's a good point." But it was a dreadful point. The Government could not use the Parliament Act because it requires a Bill to have been around for two sessions and the Prevention of Terrorism Bill had just been introduced. Andy from Somerset did not know that - no reason why he should - but the presenter ought to have. Think how it could work: Andy texts; presenter explains situation. Result: Andy and other viewers are better informed. Now think how it usually works: Andy texts; presenter relays Andy's views. Result: no one better informed. In fact, because Andy was not challenged, the viewers end up less well informed.

Such an argument lays me open to several charges, the first of which is hypocrisy, based both on the cheap digs I've made at the BBC's motorbiking fat bloke (on the grounds that I would struggle to fit into a sidecar myself) and on the fact that I have been known to take the odd fee from broadcasters when the opportunity presents itself.

Indeed, soon after the election campaign began, viewers of BBC Breakfast were put off their cornflakes by an overweight, balding, thirtysomething academic (me) introduced as their "manifesto maestro". Each party's manifesto saw a separate appearance from said maestro in a grim bookies surrounded by blokes coughing up their lungs as their money went south on the 3.30 from Doncaster. The location dictated that each sentence had to have a betting reference. It was a "banker" that Labour would do "x". It was a "long shot" that the Lib Dems would do "y". The "gamble" for the Tories was "z". The Ascent of Man this certainly wasn't.

But this is evidence that my complaint is not born of snobbery. I'll degrade myself with the best of them if it helps to make a point in a compelling way. This is not a plea for dull coverage, but for lively, intelligent coverage. My point is that there is no point in lively, ignorant coverage.

The other charge is that this is the typical lazy academic criticism of lazy journalism that fails to understand the constraints broadcasters are under or the need to engage with viewers and listeners. Yet, when I talked with political journalists, I was struck by how many privately despair of some of the things they are expected to do. They complain about being forced to dumb down as part of a forlorn attempt to reach those who are said to be detached from the political process. Many are well aware that the result is not to connect with the disengaged but to alienate those who were previously engaged.

In its increasingly desperate attempt to "reach" the uninterested, too much media coverage lets down the interested - viewers who do want to know about the election, about party policies and about how all this might affect them. For their sake, Newsnight should never set foot in the student house again.

Philip Cowley is reader in parliamentary government at Nottingham University.

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