Sunday, 28 January 2007

Reality TV and Unreal Politics

With the ongoing fiasco concerning "Celebrity Big Brother" due to end tonight, it might just have the effect of calming down politicians and policy wonks who want to make politics into one big reality TV show. I remember that glorified ex-TV PR officer "Call me Dave" Cameron saying that the next General Election campaign could learn a lot from "Big Brother" ("Second week of Election '09 campaign: major diplomatic incident with India.."), which shows that when it comes to superficial gestures, the current Tory leader is the true heir of Blair.

Although ITV keep quiet about it (as they should do with 99.99% of their programmes over the last decade), they did have a politics "talent show" at the last election: Vote For Me. I didn't watch much of it but I remember the bloke who won the nomination. If I remember rightly, the public had no say in choosing the candidate. There was a panel of three judges, the most influential was former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie (once parodied in Steve Bell's If... comic strip as "Bustin McMammary"). The bloke who was chosen was basically Kelvin's mini-me ie I Blame The Immigrants & Political Correctness Gone Mad- Bring Back National Service & Hanging. Obviously Kelvin thought he had found a Man Of The People ie a loudmouth know-nothing, who would rock the British political world to its foundations. In fact, the daft sod stood in the then Tory leader Michael Howard's constituency of Folkestone, got next to no votes, lost his deposit and was openly courted by the BNP. I bet Kelvin puts that triumph of having his finger on the popular pulse on his CV...

However, it seems Canada is going to try something similar, apparently to get "the kids" interested in politics. This is really the most patronising load of cobblers. I would suggest that instead of gimmicky TV shows, voting figures would go up amongst "the kids" (and the public in general) if:

1. Political parties offered a clear choice of policies, not aped each other with platitudes;
2. There was an electoral system where every vote counted ie PR so everyone's voice is heard in national (and local) politics; &
3. Parties stuck to their election promises, not doing policy U-turns once in office.

Perhaps that's too much to ask for. Instead, it seems we will get gimmicks (text voting anyone? If that isn't a field day for ballot riggers, I don't know what is) and further electoral disengagement, until the politicians stop treating the public like idiots. Over to you Canada...

There is simply nothing to be learned from reality TV at all: The quack new orthodoxy that young people will never pay attention to politics unless it's like Big Brother is utterly absurd.
Marina Hyde, The Guardian, Saturday December 2, 2006

News that Canada is to stage a reality TV show in which former Canadian prime ministers grill contestants on their leadership qualities before choosing a winner is, strictly speaking, not news at all. The Next Great Prime Minister is actually on its second outing, and the fact that the international news media have only just noticed it suggests that the wider world is even less engaged with the country's politics than are Canadians in the hallowed 18-35 age range, to whom the format is presumably designed to appeal.

Allowing former PMs Brian Mulroney, John Turner, Joe Clark and Kim Campbell to pick a notional future prime minister is probably no worse an idea than allowing Margaret Thatcher, Iain Duncan Smith and selected members of the old gang to pick a notional Tory leader. But the obvious comic horror of the latter aside, neither of them's a cracker. In fact, there's something infinitely tiresome about The Next Great Prime Minister, something that really saps the spirit. It's not the discovery that the contest will be held in the venue that hosts Canadian Idol. It's not the slight confusion caused by knowing that by next March, when the programme is aired, Canada will have a backlog of two next great prime ministers and counting. It's not even the fact that part of the first prize is to be a trainee in a Canadian public policy thinktank. But do feel free to insert the obligatory second-prize gag here.

It's the sheer wrong-headed inevitability of this exercise in engaging youth, which appears to be inspired by that endlessly quacked modern orthodoxy that more young people vote in big reality TV contests than in general elections. In the vague interests of accuracy, this is complete nonsense. In Britain's 2005 general election, Mori research showed that voting among 18- to 35-year-olds was in fact 3% up on the 2001 election, with 5,696,907 people in the bracket taking part. Across all ages, a total of 6,363,325 votes had been cast in the most recent Big Brother final, but that figure does not take into account widespread multiple voting, so graspingly encouraged by Channel 4. Naturally, one is loth to ask the awkward questions. But if someone is willing to spend time and money voting 17 times for some spiteful dimwit to win a cash prize, perhaps we should not expend similar seducing them into voting in a grown-up election till they are at least 35.

Nevertheless, it appears to have been decided that, by 2016, young people will neither comprehend nor be interested in anything at all unless it has been refracted through the familiar prism of a talent show with celebrity judges. Even food items will have to compete for their all-important text vote before they can be persuaded to upload them off their plates, while a table-side panel of Gordon Ramsay, Lorraine Kelly and David Icke bickers stagily about the respective merits of the chip and the steak.

Yet, before EU trade disputes are settled by pitting commissioners against each other in witchety-grub-eating trials ("I'm afraid the public has selected you to face another one, Mr Mandelson"), perhaps the powers that be might care to call a halt to what can only be described as the obsessive over-democratisation of democracy. Having elected their government via a democratic system (we'll save arguments about first past the post for another day), are voters not entitled to see them actually govern decisively, as opposed to wasting time on endlessly needy consultation exercises such as Big Conversations, which end up signifying very little?

It was Lord Reith who once opined that the BBC "has never attempted to give the public what it wants. It gives it what it ought to have." For all his yesteryear patricianism, politicians still take a leaf out of his book when it suits them, which is, unfortunately, at all the wrong moments. It's a shame, for instance, that our prime minister is so able to apply this "I know best" dictum to foreign policy matters, yet affects quite the opposite domestically, when we might wish for strong leadership and confident decisions, as opposed to procrastinatory websites, church hall chats, and "partnerships in power".

When asked to explain her choice of Lester Bowles Pearson as Canada's greatest ever PM for the programme, something Kim Campbell conceded seems worryingly significant. "Pearson's colleagues often regarded him as a weak and vacillating leader," she wrote in her citation. "It was said that he told the people what they wanted to hear, and held the views of the last person who'd spoken to him." He'd have made an excellent reality TV judge, clearly.

In the end, if Brian Mulroney wishes to pass his twilight years dispensing Cowellian putdowns to youngsters - "That was the worst fisheries policy we've heard in Montreal" - then that is a matter for him. But if current politicans are hell-bent on "learning" from reality TV, they ought to note that, time and again, these formats produce nothing of lasting value whatsoever, be it someone who can shift more than two singles, or a celebrity worthy of admiration as opposed to ridicule.

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