Leading Article: The Broadcasters say politicians on television are bor ing. They're quite right

Share
Related Topics
What a performance, what a lawyer, what a woman. Politics on television not fun, not gripping entertainment after Hillary Clinton's appearance yesterday? But that is over there. Over here, it is pretty much political business as usual on the box, which, says the BBC, is causing it to haemorrhage viewers. Once the state broadcaster thought it had a duty to bore for Britain by deferring to Parliament, giving Secretaries of State the run of its studios. Even in this Paxmanite age, the BBC and to a lesser extent ITN probably still do too much formal party-political coverage, second- rate stuff justified neither by its intrinsic interest nor the liveliness of the material. That, we fear, includes a large amount of what happens on the floor of an unreformed, out-of-touch Commons.

But now the BBC is asking questions. The acid test is audience appreciation, because if viewers don't like what they are served they will exercise their zapping option. According to the research, they profess themselves ignorant of the archaic terminology of the Commons and indifferent to much of the talking-head interviewing they are offered. They tend to be bemused at what they feel to be the irrelevance of the political conversation to their daily lives.

One response - which the BBC in masochistic mood is tempted by - is that it is the broadcasters' fault for not making politics interesting enough. The BBC has been berating itself, asking whether its political stories can be repackaged to bring in "real lives" or whether it should introduce commentators from charities and other organisations who are not obviously partisan. And yes, of course, broadcast journalists, like their colleagues in print, should permanently be looking for better ways of presenting material. That is commercial logic.

But the fundamental problem is not the broadcasters' - it is the politicians'. If it turns out that very few people could name the Secretary of State for, say, Defence, the reason is not that he has been roughed up on Newsnight or (as he might claim) ignored by The World at One. It is more likely that the incumbent of this important job (yes, you at the back? George Robertson, well done) has failed to engross the country in what he is about - in his case, a major review of what the defence of the realm will entail in the technological and international conditions of the early 21st century.

So, pursuing this line, why hasn't he? The reasons are systemic and personal. The culture of the Ministry of Defence, and the Foreign Office, still prefers private discussion to messier and noisier forms of public debate. Interest groups, notably the Armed Forces, are too readily deferred to, and lines of discussion blocked off. Mr Robertson, an able politician in conventional terms, has not in office proved able to raise his game and fire the public's imagination and interest.

Others, too, simply fail to engage, inform and entertain. We now have a class of politician in Britain which has been too well-schooled in Mandelsonian media management. In Opposition they felt they needed to play a straight bat, stick to the message. What they have failed to see is that, in office, the game has to change. People want to be inspired, provoked and, yes, entertained by their representatives.

There is no good evidence that the reservoir of public interest in politics is any less than it was. But we do need to be cajoled, challenged and surprised by MPs (isn't it strange how strange that idea seems). Across the range of programmes, we are used to professional talkers, entertainers and propagandists. Beside them, politicians seem stumbling amateur communicators. We slump in front of arcane rituals in unreformed legislative chambers. We hear, without really hearing, the same stilted lines. We are treated to official spokespeople with as much charisma as the proverbial I-speak- your-weight machine.

But what we hardly ever experience is a spirited and honest riposte, a disarming piece of wit, an ingratiating defence, an invitation to accompany the decision-maker down the hard road of balancing competing interests. Instead, what we too often witness is terror of argument and intolerance of dissent. Labour support in the Commons has been lobotomised. In order to ginger up discussion broadcasters favour those prepared to say anything interesting - and that quest takes them to the party fringes and the extremes.

All politicians are now cunning about the media. They know the grammar of television and the foibles of interviewers. But they have become too good at second-guessing, too cunning - so much so that they cannot actually communicate effectively, so focused are they on the medium itself. The salvation of public debate in Britain is not up to the broadcasters. It lies firmly in the hands of the politicians themselves. If they don't wake up to how boring they are then one day we'll start saying democracy is dull too.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bathroom Showroom Customer Service / Sales Assistant

£14560 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Even though their premises have...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Manager

£44000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Marketing company based in cent...

Recruitment Genius: IT Installation / Commissioning Engineer - North West

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An IT Installation / Commission...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Mininster: I would legislate for abortion on demand and abolish VAT on sanitary products

Caroline Criado-Perez
 

Election catch-up: Just what the election needs – another superficially popular but foolish policy

John Rentoul
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence