It is characteristic of the dyspeptic new editor of the Today programme, Kevin Marsh, that he should celebrate the festive season by inviting his listeners to vote to kick a fellow citizen out of the country. Initially – entering into the mean spirit of the thing – I considered casting a vote for the editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre. But then I thought better of it. The question I asked myself was: where would it all end? Might I later find myself ringing premium-rate phone lines to cast my vote in dozens of the hundreds of polls being run by broadcasters, newspapers and magazines?
In my house, over the past few years, we have already voted for a ridiculous song from Estonia to win the Eurovision Song Contest; for somebody whose name eludes me to be evicted from the first Big Brother house; for Will Young to win Pop Idol; and for Tara Palmer-Tomkinson to be kept in the jungle. And that, I judge, is enough.
It's partly the BBC, through its clamorous and super-hyped investment in Fame Academy and in the Great Britons competition, that has put me off further voting. God, once they have a ratings-winning format, don't commissioners just kill it off as fast as they can through repetition? I don't want to encourage them to do it any more.
But then there's my intellectual snobbery. Why should I participate in a process that ends up with Diana, Princess of Wales, being voted a greater Briton than both Shakespeare and Darwin? Or a poll in which I can decide between a Burmese dissident and an Australian cricketer being given a citizenship for which neither has applied? On Sunday night, Channel 4 repeated its programme of the top 100 movies of all time as voted for by its viewers. Star Wars came first, miles ahead of anything by Bergman, Pasolini or Woody Allen. Buñuel, Truffaut, Renoir, Wajda and most other inconveniently foreign directors were unplaced. Pshaw!
Last week, Rod Stewart beat Elvis, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in the Legend of Legends poll for the radio station Capital Gold, with 52 per cent of the votes. "Silent Night" was voted top hymn by listeners of the radio station Classic FM ("In the Bleak Midwinter" came second). The readers of a music magazine called Blender, invited to elect the "50 rock geniuses of all time", put Bob Dylan in first place, over John Lennon, Chuck Berry, Eminem and Bob Marley. Doctor Who was named as the greatest science-fiction character of all time by the consumers of SFX magazine, whose top 10 included no fewer than four characters from the American TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Buffy herself was beaten into third place by a vampire called Spike. Bristol residents voted Wallace and Gromit their favourite Bristolians, over Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Cary Grant. Even more parochially, Only Fools and Horses was selected as the best Christmas TV programme in a poll of shoppers at a British department store.
Perhaps the best poll of all – because it was the most evidently arbitrary – was that conducted by the BBCi website, in which thousands of internet-users were invited to choose the "newsmaker of the year" from a list including Bill Clinton, Mike Tyson, Charlotte Church, Henry Kissinger and Michael Moore. Moore won; though for what reason, who can possibly tell? Perhaps he was considered a tougher boxer than Church, a sweeter soprano than Kissinger and a better lay than Tyson.
It is obvious why media people like the phone vote so much. For a start, it makes for incredibly cheap programming. The main cost is in advertising the poll. After that, the callers pay to be a tiny part of the programme. The phone poll, in that sense, has superseded the phone-in.
What is not so obvious is why the callers keep on doing it. Do we now feel some investment in Will Young because we voted for him? And what difference does it make to vote for the dead Winston Churchill as being greater than the dead Diana? Or is this the millennial equivalent of the old-fashioned riot, in which the populace could let off steam for a few hours before the yeomanry was called out? Ring this number to vote "Yes"...