Television Review

  • @RobertHanks
LITTLE BY little, the world is being taken over by advertising. If you don't believe this, just watch New Labour, New Language (C4). In this series, broadcast in the short slot just after Channel 4 News, a series of speakers have been analysing the language of Tony Blair's government (or, to put it another way, a series of media types have been whingeing on).

In part, this has been an assault on the way that New Labour has substituted advertising techniques for substantial policy. On Tuesday night, Stephen Bayley, former creative director of the Millennium Dome, was effective on the vacuousness of the word "New" itself, his reasoned discussion of Labour's need for re-branding intercut with clips from adverts for products such as "New Toilet Duck".

But more dispiriting than this was last night's programme, in which the comedian Donna McPhail seized on the phrase "Blair's Babes" (to be fair, a tabloid coinage rather than a New Labour catchphrase) as the starting point for her complaint that having more women in government hasn't made a substantial change to the way politics is carried out. The force of the grievance was dulled by McPhail's delivery - even if you didn't know she was a comedian, you could have guessed from the way she shouted and gesticulated, apparently under the illusion, common among stand-ups, that the dull becomes funny if you say it loud enough. But the odd thing was the realisation that McPhail had swallowed the advertising in the first place: a party which for some years had been widely praised for the professionalism of its campaigning and its newly media-friendly ways had still got her (and many others) to believe some patently unrealistic claims. Even when we know we're being conned, we're happy to go along with it if the conman is eager to please.

By far the most rebarbative programme so far, however, has been Trevor Beattie's attack on focus groups on Monday. Beattie, an advertising "creative", felt that Blair's Labour relies too much on other people's opinions and neglects something important: "It's called conviction, passion, creativity, innovation, disrespect for the mundane." Beattie suggested that people might think that, as an adman himself, he would be in favour of focus groups; in fact, he said, he hates them. Actually, I don't think being in advertising should stop Beattie complaining about focus groups. But I do think it should stop him pretending to be an authority on the moral importance of conviction and creativity, which in the world of advertising are nothing more than facilities to be put at the client's disposal.

Arena (BBC2), meanwhile, was devoted to Salman Rushdie, one of those rare advertising men who pulled the novel out of the top drawer and got it published. As it turned out, Francine Stock's interview was little more than a PR puff for his latest work, and it didn't gain much in the way of critical weight from a guest appearance by Bono. But there was a sense of euphoria behind the programme - the happiness not simply of a man who's just received a batch of favourable reviews, but of a man who no longer has constantly to look over his shoulder - that made the puffery easier to bear.