The Military Army Blog

Maurice Smith: Americanisation of EU campaign was less than welcome

If the last few weeks have told us anything, it is that what passes for British political culture is being consumed relentlessly by influence from America. The televised debate so beloved of the US networks and introduced cautiously to the 2010 UK general election campaign is now a fixture and not one likely to ensure rational thoughtful politics. By its nature, prime time television equals entertainment. Producers think in audience figures, reach and share. That is their job, so we cannot blame them for the hyped-up confrontations that reached their nadir during the EU campaign, where a momentous vote was presented as an unlikely merger of Blind Date and It s a Knockout. When politics reached beyond the late-night and Sunday morning ghettoes and its prime slots on BBC, ITN and Sky, perspectives changed. Consider the last BBC Question Time epic, from Wembley arena, where two teams of three let s call them Remain and Leave played tag in front of an over-excited audience passionately committed to one side or the other.

Here the six contestants conformed to the cliches of prime time entertainment. There was Boris, the Blond Bomber, awaiting the opportunity to flatten an opponent, if only he could get near one. Opposite him our very own plucky Jock, Ruth Davidson, a one-time kick-boxer apparently and certainly not someone to whom one might dare serve a watered-down pint of heavy. Poor Boris under-estimated his opponent, thinking he could put her down with a haggis crack. The response was quick and fearsome. She was in Kosovo, you know! She joined the Territorial Army! Go Ruth! Smash him! Kill! Kill! How the Remainers cheered. And so it went on. There was the German Gisela Stewart, backing up Boris with statistics, so ardent in her support for low-regulation Brexit that one wondered what on earth she was doing in the Labour Party. She exchanged sniper fire with the TUC s Frances O Grady. Meanwhile another Brexiter cut in to remind us she was a grandmother, more than once; eerily, she only reminded me of Gordon Brown in those awkward moments when she flashed sudden smiles, unexpectedly, as if instructed to do so by some anxious off-stage flunky.

So this is our politics today, all wrapped up like a special edition of Britain s Got Talent. The panto season moved up from its Christmas slot. Look out, an evil and unelected European commissioner is behind you. Oh no he isn t! Six thousand hyped-up people are packed into an arena. They will have been there for quite a while before going live for two whole hours. It will be hot and stuffy, the expectation, the desperation for their side to win, will have been palpable. The producers might as well have served everyone massive amounts of Red Bull and blue Smarties before the main event. Could George Orwell really have been so far-sighted way back in the late 1940s, when he wrote about the Two Minute Hate? Hilariously, having created conditions for crowd trouble way in excess of allowing a Hibernian pitch invasion at Hampden, the producers master of ceremonies David Dimbleby had the nerve to demand people calm down during particularly controversial exchanges between those gladiators of spin. Yes, that s it, we ve got you all excited and angry, but just calm down while the important people speak. Remember you are the extras in this cavalcade of democratic din.

In another debate ITN this time David Cameron was accused by an audience member, his face so twisted in anger that one thought the PM had left something unpleasant in his shoes, of resembling Chamberlain, bringing back some useless promises from a dictatorship in Brussels! Seriously, dictatorship? Rather than being derided for hyperbole, this nonsensical spouting was applauded by the people around him; certain in their belief that the nation s ills could be solved by a simple vote to leave the EU, taking back control , and so on. Both sides were guilty of inciteful rhetoric. Far too often comparisons with Nazism and dictatorship have been bandied around by Leave and Remain, whose Project Fear backfired with so many voters. People stopped believing much of what was being said, whether or not it rang true. Broadcasters excel at covering elections. News producers make sure strong research briefings are prepared for their journalists, and their greatest tool is the stop-watch. The latter is important because in fact and in law they must ensure fair coverage. So if the SNP complain Labour got two minutes more than they did on Monday night, that s OK because they ll get their extra two minutes back on Wednesday, or whatever. The system works, give or take the predictable whining of spin-doctors and party apparatchiks.

The Scottish and European referendums have presented news channels with a great dilemma: when Harriet Harman accompanies David Cameron on a pro-Remain photocall, or Boris Johnson sides with Labour s Gisela Stewart for Leave, the binary-option campaign trumps that comfortable multi-party norm. In 2014, the presentation of Yes v No was transposed with conventional party representation, which meant Yes looked like it was always at a disadvantage, because the SNP and sometimes a Green were out-numbered on the box. There are news values at issue too. Many newspapers are partisan, some more than others, and it is a mistake to believe their repetitive coverage of a particular line represents public opinion. Yet that mistake is made often by broadcasters. As a result we get a weird selection of angles in coverage and interviews: newspaper coverage can be followed up feverishly, even when a particular line does not really amount to much. Then, wielding their trusty stopwatch, the producer allows a politician to prattle on until their allotted time is up. Have the leading players from Leave and Remain really been examined closely during this campaign, beyond their respective versions of Project Fear? Not really. Can you remember George Osborne or Michael Gove really being interrogated on their positions, rather than simply being given a platform to make partisan assertions? That is why the terrier-like reporting of Michael Crick on Channel 4 News, for example, has stood out. Otherwise coverage has been a routine trotting out of various dubious claims and frankly fictionalised statistics . We have witnessed one more step towards the Americanisation of politics in the UK. The increasingly glitzy, hyped-up debates, the meaningless rallies, the constant supposed surveying of public opinion that can be really misleading, the heightened hyperbole and the hateful exchanges. That Farage poster, in all its horrible innuendo about refugees, would be remembered as the low point of the campaign, were it not for the awful murder of Jo Cox MP.

Today, the owner of the most famous hairstyle to land at Prestwick since Elvis might look around and almost think he was back home. We have just had a campaign here as divisive and spiteful as one of Donald Trump s Vegas rallies. By comparison the Scottish vote seems quite a timid affair, but for some hurt feelings and a few wasted eggs.

The only question unanswered is who might be the next Emmanuel Goldstein to be the subject of British TV s Two Minute Hate .

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