The all-party pop music and polling station: Steve Blame tunes in to Vote Europe, MTV's US-inspired campaign to get young people out to the polls

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The Independent Online
IN THE run-up to the 1992 American elections, MTV ran an aggressive 'Choose or Lose' campaign alongside the US music industry's drive for voter registration. The effect on the turnout at the election was dramatic. The number of 18- to 24-year-olds who voted in 1992 went up by 20 per cent compared with 1988. This was the first increase in the turnout of young voters for two decades.

But could the same thing ever happen in Europe? How do you entice young people, who feel disillusioned and disenfranchised, away from their television sets and out to the Euro-ballot box?

At MTV Europe we started by looking at how young people both differ and conform across the continent. One of our guides was the 1993 Yankelovich Youth Monitor study of 15- to 34-year-olds around the globe. It found that they shared more than they differed. The central issues on which it focused were sex (social mores, marriage, adultery, safe sex, homosexuality, nudity and abortion), race (immigration, inter-racial marriage and border controls), health and nationalism.

On regular overseas assignments, I have observed similarities and parallels between the lifestyles of young people of different European nationalities. They feel that what is common to them as Europeans is more important than what divides them. Apart from their social concerns, youth priorities centre on music, fashion, sport and going out. Euro-consciousness is high among those under 30 and has a definite cut-off age. Older people are more interested in domestic issues. In this way, Europe acts like a new musical genre, appealing to the young and alienating the old.

We felt that if we could determine the paramount concerns of our viewers, this positive attitude towards Europe could be directed towards political action. As we saw it, these concerns were issues that transcend borders, language, religion and social differences: issues such as crime, drugs, nationalism, unemployment, environment, racism and prostitution. We approached them by tackling those who have the power to change things. For key interviews we went to the top: we spoke to Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, Tansu Ciller, Turkey's first female prime minister, Gro Harlem Brundtland, female prime minister of Norway, and Mikhail Gorbachev.

As Gorbachev stressed in our broadcast: 'Young people have to understand the nature of politics, what it stands for, why and how it came about . . . I invite all young people to get rid of their scepticism about politics and understand its necessity, to participate in it actively with all their energy and understanding and also to bring in a new point of view.'

Gorbachev's call to the ballot box ran as part of our 10-week MTV Vote Europe campaign, culminating in an hour-long live debate in which viewers were able to question MEPs representing each of the European parliament's four major political groupings.

Bill Clinton's open forum on US MTV had played a key role in securing his election, but Europe is a very different animal. One of the most difficult questions was choosing politicians for interview. Could Helmut Kohl relate to the audience we were seeking? Would John Major ever inspire a new generation?

Once we had made our choices, the real fun began. MTV proved as much of a challenge to the Euro-bigwigs as they were for us. Many had never faced an interviewer without a jacket, let alone one in a T-shirt, goatee and bovver boots. In mostly Muslim Turkey, Tansu Ciller's attache made me promise I would wear 'that outfit' again. I complied, in what became a pattern for each of the interviews. Gorbachev, especially intrigued by it all, was close to removing his own jacket.

Aside from the sartorial challenge, the depth and range of questioning often surprised the interviewees. We were careful not to appease them just to capture their faces on camera. Ciller was grilled on Turkey's human rights record and Brundtland on Norway's intransigence on whaling.

We also faced the problem of how to temper these interviews with the normal diet of MTV. One reponse was Euroquiz, a prime-time game show with pop star participants, designed for the Vote Europe weekend. Although designed as lightweight fun, the programme had a serious purpose. It provided a link between the political elements of the weekend and the pop star content of other station formats.

But it was perhaps on a practical level that we made the most gains. As a pan-European station, we now know more about our audience. We explored their deepest fears and dreams over 10 weeks. And, judging by the immediate response, they appreciated it.

For those who still feel alienated from politics, perhaps Jacques Delors, expressing his passion for Europe, summed it up best when he said: '(Young people) have to do at least one thing . . . vote. Because if, in 15 years, shame or tragedy lands on Europe, they will be guilty; guilty for not doing one small civil gesture - voting.

'And if they have a little courage, pass on the message: we are peace messengers, we are people who preach accepting others as they are, we do not give them moral lessons. We are for a fairer society. We are for more equality of opportunity for everyone. Of course, we have variations between conservatives and progressives, between left and right.

'But all share the same idealism, and if that collapsed tomorrow, I tell you Europe would be history like a stone swallowed in the sea.'

The hope is that our viewers went out and voted.

The writer is managing editor and presenter, MTV News

(Photograph omitted)

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