Penny for your thoughts

No programme seems complete without the views of the under-10s

Ed Barrett

Topics Politics

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‘I was surprised that some papers phoned the BBC to ask why I had been invited on even before the programme was broadcast’, says the Sun’s new star columnist Emma Jones, in an interview in the Independent (1).

‘It’s a democracy and I think the opinions of Emma Jones, a bog standard person with bog standard opinions, are valid. And what a brilliant achievement it was to get on Question Time.’

Where to begin? I too was surprised that newspapers phoned the BBC to complain that its flagship (or should that be ‘only’?) mainstream current affairs programme featured a woman whose previous journalistic experience was as a tabloid showbiz correspondent and the editor of children’s pop magazine Smash Hits.

But I was surprised only by the papers’ hypocrisy – since even the loftiest broadsheets now carry supplements crammed with astrology, alternative medicine, celebrities and all manner of ‘bog standard’ dinner party chit-chat masquerading as opinion.

In a sense, it was indeed an ‘achievement’ for Jones to get on Question Time – in the sense that being on Big Brother is also regarded as an achievement, or being stopped in the street for a TV vox pop. That is, you ‘achieve’ a certain amount of exposure for your ill-thought-out, inarticulate views about things that you know next-to-nothing about.

I am not saying that Jones is stupid, and I am sure that her much-publicised Question Time slip-ups (confusing the CIA with the CID, and hoping that New Labour ‘concentrate more on policy than they do on substance’) were simply slips of the tongue. And although I don’t agree with her views on Big Brother (for) or abortion (against), I have no objection to her expressing them as forcefully and frequently as she likes.

But I do object to her being invited on Question Time. Not because Question Time is anything to write home about – like most people, I find its smug, self-congratulatory atmosphere repugnant. But if it is going to invite non-politicians, then why not invite people who might tell us something we don’t already know, rather than a bunch of celebrities and lifestyle journalists whose views are no more insightful than those found in any saloon bar, golf club or cardboard box in the street?

Of course, Question Time is simply following the herd in its desperate attempts to ‘connect with the public’. It is the same impulse that leads news producers to fill their programmes with reports featuring people ‘reacting’ to World Cup goals in bars.

In fact, if you want to see the future of television, look no further than the current state of TV sport, where many of the gimmicks now found in rolling news shows, current affairs documentaries and even Newsnight started life.

The portents are not promising, judging by sports coverage in the past month. ITV hit a new low when half-drunk former England footballer Paul Gascoigne took to the streets and slurred unintelligibly at passers-by, with excruciating results. Indeed, the level of debate was so poor that when Gazza was unavailable or incapacitated, he was replaced by a football – the ‘Golden Ball’, to give it its proper title – which was thrown at hapless members of the public, who caught it and delivered their opinions in a split-second (‘Yeah! Wicked! Come on the lads!’, ‘Yeeeah! Go England!’, etc).

Some programmes can’t afford their own roving ball-thrower, so they encourage people to email their ruminations, exhortations and ejaculations, which are paraded across the bottom of the screen on an endless loop. This at least brings some pleasure to those viewers who are waiting for their own email to come around, like passengers at a luggage carousel. The BBC, however, has no such excuse for its Wimbledon vox pops, which were broadcast live.

These were the most pointless ‘interviews’ ever (so far, at least), since they made no attempt to pretend to have any relevance whatsoever to tennis. They were conducted by a body double for that woman from the house makeover
programme, who seemed to ask people about the first thing that came into her undeniably pretty head: what’s the best thing to keep the rain off when you are queuing? (Umbrellas, hats, coats.) What have you got in your bag? (Mobiles, sweets, purses, tissues.)

These frank exchanges may be a godsend for producers faced with the third rain-break of the day. But is there a single viewer (Chris Morris apart) who would have appreciated them?

It’s not just professional broadcasters who produce this stuff. Now amateurs seem to be filming their own versions. A recent documentary about penalty shootouts contained home videos shot during Euro ’96 – the tournament during which the media really got into the ‘shared national experience’ in a big way. It featured a bunch of This Life-style young professionals sitting around cheering on the England team in the living room of a man called Hector.

‘I know nothing about football!’ shouted one woman, before turning back to the TV set and cheering wildly. ‘Shearer is God!’ she screamed later. No doubt her name is already in some TV researcher’s palmtop (‘Knows nothing about football/politics/environment, etc, but willing to appear and shout loudly’). Her phone will be melting by now.

If you can’t find an adult, grab a child – no programme is complete these days without the views of the under-10s. I’ve got nothing against the man, woman or child in the street; like Emma Jones, they are also entitled to their ‘bog standard opinions’. But most of us get more than enough of that sort of thing already in our day-to-day lives, without hearing it on radio and TV as well.

Is it unreasonable to ask for a few talking heads that don’t appear to have had frontal lobotomy? Experts may not be perfect – but faced with the alternative I’ll take an expert every time.

Ed Barrett writes for Anorak

(1) Independent, 2 July 2002

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Topics Politics


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