TV must attract the youth vote

When John Humphrys grills a politician the young turn off in droves
Click to follow

Cynicism now counts as the greatest threat to the political process. Apathy and disengagement, the Prime Minister claims, will inflict more damage to the Government at the polls than any policy idea or political alternative.

Cynicism now counts as the greatest threat to the political process. Apathy and disengagement, the Prime Minister claims, will inflict more damage to the Government at the polls than any policy idea or political alternative.

Nowhere is this more the case than among young people. Voter turn-out among the under-25s is lamentable while youth membership rates of political parties are shameful. Campuses that once resounded to the noise of demos and sit-ins now hear occasional grumbles about rent rises and food quality. Last week, the Home Secretary's son, William Straw, attached a ribbon to his nipple and led a demonstration in Oxford against a slight increase in students' living costs. When his father, Jack Straw, led the National Union of Students in the Sixties they were concerned with slightly weightier political questions.

Where does the blame lie? The cynicism of politicians? The broken promises? The yah-boo style of confrontational Westminster politics? Maybe. But I blame the media.

The most popular media for receiving political news and comment is television. News coverage of Westminster politics is of a high calibre. The breaking of stories and quality of analysis is incisive and often amusing. Sunday morning political punditry shows can be equally professional in their dissection of the Westminster story of the week.

And therein lies the rub. Because very few people under-25 are engaged by the political process as depicted by media coverage of Westminster. While BBC and ITN journalists, taking their lead from scandal-driven lobby hacks, are fascinated by arguments over increases in public spending, the rise and fall of the rate of direct income tax, and hints of Cabinet splits over entry to the euro, most healthy young people are not.

From the evidence of direct action on the streets of London, Seattle and Washington to the more academic studies carried out by the British Social Attitudes Survey, the political priorities of the young are totally at variance with the news agenda pursued by Andrew Marr, John Sergeant, Adam Boulton, and the other middle-aged white men standing on College Green.

First-time voters at this year's election are not drawn to the classic modernist struggle between the state and free-market, between "capitalism" traditionally defined and pre-1989 socialism. Yet in any number of reports on public spending, taxation and welfare reform this is effectively what is still dished up by the broadcasters.

What now inspires protest and debate among the young are issues of race and gender; the environment; the ethical consequences of scientific advance; the cultural power of corporate brands; and international development. From the Jubilee 2000 campaign to the destruction of GM crop trials, young people are politically engaged by more esoteric issues, which traditional news coverage seems utterly unable to comprehend. The debate surrounding the vote on reproductive cloning is left to science correspondents; protests in London and Washington about globalisation and the insidious impact of brand capitalism are left either to news reporters or economic commentators. Intriguing recent discussions over Britishness and race were relegated to "home affairs".

The BBC's On the Record provides a template of how not to get young people interested in politics. The programme opens with a sequence depicting the Palace of Westminster as a marauding crocodile - the oldest living dinosaur. Little could be more appropriate to their Jurassic political agenda. How much more refreshing Sunday viewing would be if John Humphrys did not interview Andrew Smith about whether the tax take had increased during the course of the parliament, or Paul Wilenius did not pain-stakingly analyse the latest Whitehall spat. Instead what about a package by an under-40 year old on the environmental and ethical consequences of genetic manipulation; or something on the philosophical basis of the animal rights movement? How about an analysis of the World Bank's structural adjustment policies, or a look at the politics of American nu metal bands?

Radio One's Newsbeat has shown how serious political issues can be covered interestingly and intelligently for a younger audience. Similarly, Channel 4's coverage of cricket has revived a previously moribund format. It can be done.

Science, for example, could be taken out of Tomorrow's World and placed at the heart of Newsnight; the environmental issues covered so effectively on Radio 4's Costing the Earth should be firmly up The World At One's news agenda. It seems that only the Today programme has the resources and space to pursue political and ethical issues outside the Westminster Village. Only once the young are politically catered for by the news media can they legitimately pursue the otherwise virtuous course of electoral apathy.

Tristram Hunt is a fellow of the Institute for Public Policy Research