TV UK, 30 March

'I seem to have a knack of saying the wrong thing when I'm on TV - but then TV debates don't lend themselves to sophistication.'

May 3 or not, the election approaches. And I’m not talking about your chance to vote for the next unfortunate victim on Celebrity Foot-and-Mouth. I mean an actual election, for the government.

Observant readers will have noticed that there hasn’t been a great deal of stimulating political debate in the run-up to this exciting event. Even more observant readers will have picked up concerned rumblings about the lack of public engagement. Suspecting that the two phenomena might be related, I joined the audience on Jonathan Dimbleby on 25 March 2001 to discuss young people and voter apathy.

I arrived at the LWT studios to be ushered into a room full of not-very-pensive youths drinking coffee and ignoring GMTV. Some feisty young girls were tormenting a Labour Student and laughing at his pager. I thought it was very funny until one of them turned on me and said I was looking bemused. Bemused? Maybe it was because I’m not used to being the oldest person in the room.

Luckily, it turned out that I knew one of the researchers, who took me aside for a word. Would I like to make a general point at the start of the programme before the panel debate starts? All right. Half an hour later I was sitting in the front row arguing that it is irresponsible to vote for people you don’t believe in. A couple of the kids piped up, too, and then it was time for the venerable panel.

Tony Benn (Old Labour) tried hard to provoke Stephen Norris (Maverick Tory), who insisted on agreeing with everything he said, while Matthew Taylor (Old New Labour) insisted that the left-right divide is alive and well, but that young people just aren’t interested in party politics. Ruth Lea (Institute of Directors) spoke for everybody when she urged the kids to get involved in politics, whatever their politics.

There followed demands from the audience for more political education in schools, though it wasn’t clear why this should be any more interesting than politics on TV. Still, kids asking adults for political inspiration is rather more realistic than the same request coming in the opposite direction, as it often seems to nowadays. Some of these kids seemed to sense that there is more to democracy than constantly being asked what you think.

‘So who’s definitely not going to vote?’ asked Dimbleby. I put my hand up. ‘Why not?’ Why not? I thought I’d had my 15 seconds of fame already, and frankly I wasn’t expecting to have to explain my position again. I had to think on my feet. ‘You only have to look at the way politicians have grabbed on to the foot-and-mouth issue as an excuse not to talk about politics’, I said, ‘to know that they don’t have any ideas worth voting for’. Phew! Good point, Dolan.

Dimbleby wasn’t so sure. ‘That is a view’, he said. A view? Of course it’s a view. It’s my view. ‘But foot-and-mouth is a very serious issue.’ And they wonder why people aren’t interested in politics.

I seem to have a knack of saying the wrong thing on TV. I once took part in a studio debate on Scottish TV, in which the feminist Bea Campbell talked disapprovingly about men’s preference for male company. I said something along the lines of, ‘Maybe men prefer the company of other men because women aren’t that interesting’.

Hey, it’s a subtle point, and maybe it didn’t come out quite right, but TV debates don’t lend themselves to sophistication. Anyway, the other audience members didn’t seem to warm to me, and Campbell was positively frosty. I haven’t seen a look like that since I told my RUC joke to Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, but that’s another story.

Despite all the talk about encouraging public participation, political debate tends to be conducted within very narrow parameters. The current preoccupation with foot-and-mouth threatens to be as debilitating as any political prejudice. With our leaders apparently too busy burying dead pigs to come up with ideas about how to make a better society, is it any wonder that the kids would rather stay at home and watch The West Wing?

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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