Friday, 12 December 2014

Who won Nigel or Russell? The x-factorisation of politics


Like most of the British population I didn't watch the Nigel Farage and Russell Brand show on last night's BBC Question Time. I have now watched the popular clip of a bloke in the audience asserting that if Brand was so keen on changing things maybe he might consider standing for parliament. And I've also read selections from the avalanche of commentary about this occasion.

However, I remain - politcally at least - depressed about the whole thing. Not because of the opinions that Nigel and Russell express - I like people to have opinions, even wrong ones. My sense of gloom stems from the nature of the programme and the way in which our national (and state-owned) broadcaster presents politics. Question Time is the BBC's flagship political debate show, yet they run it as if it was part of their light entertainment offering. Which is why getting Farage and Brand on the same show was important - not because they offer thoughtful and considered analysis of complex questions but because they have a 'brand' (pun entirely intended).

And the media entirely buy into this x-factorisation of political debate - the reporting of Question Time isn't about what anyone said except where it's couched in terms of who 'won' between the two personalities. In the Metro, that throwaway newspaper we read on the train the report even ends with a vote!

Won what exactly? The argument - surely the point of the show isn't to have a winner but rather to allow politicians (and people who aren't politicians but have something to say - like Brand, I guess) a place to respond to questions from an audience. Indeed there were five panellists not just the two - or should I call them contestants?

Even the questions selected last night played to this artificial contest - starting with the 'petty, adversarial nature of politics' (a deliciously ironic question given the petty and adversarial nature of this edition of Question Time) we then ran through privatising the NHS, immigration and grammar schools. A set of question designed to provide some entertaining exchanges between our two protagonists.

Yesterday was a particularly stark example of how politics is treated as a branch of entertainment but we shouldn't think that it is unusual. Indeed the majority of political discussion that we see is either so brief - a two or three minute interview on the Today programme or Newsnight or else structured so as to guarantee contest and confrontation - even when people are crammed onto a too small sofa. The result is that nearly all of political debate is conducted on the basis of sound bite, posture and slogan, which rather explains why a jack-the-lad comedian like Russell Brand finds it so easy - there isn't much different between his political exposition and his stand-up.

On one level I guess this doesn't really matter - we get the politicians and the political debate we deserve. But we should consider what we are losing. In the dumbed down, lights-flashing, show biz world of today's politics there isn't any place for nuance, for looking at the actual evidence (other than trite 'fact-checking') or for trying to explain complicated systems, situations or proposals. And there is no time given for developing ideas, exploring options or properly examining proposals. I know this stuff happens because I do it every day as a councillor but the politics we're presented with by the media is almost entirely one of personalities, of who's up and who's down, gossip, tittle-tattle and the machine-gunning of listeners with carefully crafted slogans.

Which is why I don't watch BBC Question Time, seldom see Newsnight and can only manage very brief snatches of the Today Programme - all they offer is argument without substance, snarky interviewers and the constant idea that all these interactions must somehow have a winner and a loser. The political parties - and the gossip-mongers of the media - pour over the utterings of every politician looking for the clumsy phrase, the hesitation or the words than might offend some group or other. We're routinely presented with allegations of sexism and racism constructed on the flimsiest of grounds. Why? Because it's another win for the opposition or for one or other newspaper or website.

This game - slogans, soundbites and poses mixed with back-biting and character assassination - makes politics seem like, as Paul Begala observed, show business for the ugly. It doesn't matter much whether the actual policies actually work, that can be glossed over. What matters is who wins and who loses. Not just at the election (at least that's a real contest) but in every engagement and encounter. We pull down the opponent - focus on their silly face, their school or their resemblance to Parker from Thunderbirds - rather than engage with what they are saying.

Whatever the truth, it really is pretty sad that the presentation of politics has reached this point - a sort of x-factor for the political anorak rather than a way of helping the public understand what politicians are actually proposing. Perhaps Russell Brand and Nigel Farage - inconsistent, flash blokes from the edges of London with the gift of the gab and a degree of likeability - really do represent the future of politics. After all they don't offer positive policies, just lists of things they don't want and people they don't like.


No comments: