TV UK, 15 June

'If not for the star turn by Peter 'Gloria Gaynor' Mandelson, election night TV would have been very dull indeed.'

Dolan Cummings

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Topics Politics

Channel 4 began the new series of The West Wing last Tuesday (11 June) on E4, its digital-only channel, only a week after the first series ended with a cliffhanger on Channel 4 proper. Clearly, the hope is that people will have gone digital to find out who got shot in Virginia. Well I know now, but I’m not telling.

In passing, I will say that the programme’s sentimental strain is threatening to get out of control, but there is a more pressing observation to be made. The opening episode included flashbacks to President Bartlet’s election campaign, which he won by ditching his spindoctors and straying from the approved script. What a wild idea.

Last week I attended a discussion at the London School of Economics, featuring bosses from all the main British TV stations. The aim was to assess and appraise the general election script.

Adam Boulton of Sky News revealed that the nightmare scenario had been a uniform two percent swing to the Tories, which would have meant that the only action on the night would have been the Tories winning seats, while the overall story remained a massive victory for Labour. You can’t have the drama working against the narrative thrust like that – people get confused. Still, the election was never going to make great TV anyway. If not for the star turn by Peter ‘Gloria Gaynor’ Mandelson, the night would have been very dull indeed.

Boulton believes that the way TV covers politics is changing. Specifically, he thinks that the future belongs to 24-hour news channels (like Sky News), and that evening bulletins have had their day. The former can provide instant pictures of Prescott popping protesters or the Democratic Unionists trying to partition Northern Ireland first minister David Trimble’s body, which everybody gets to see well before the 10 O’Clock news.

Of course, neither incident had much to do with the narrative thrust of the election, but at least they made good pictures. In the absence of a scintillating political contest, maybe you have to make your own entertainment. Indeed, towards the end of the campaign, the Labour Party accused the BBC, Sky and ITN of doing just that, by collaborating with protesters to generate what action there was. If only they had that much imagination.

David Lloyd of Channel 4 said that he had promised himself after the last campaign that he would refuse to let politicians dictate the agenda this time. He would address important issues outside the box. Come the election, though, he got carried away by the election dynamic. Really? To be fair though, Channel 4 did more than most to find interesting alternative angles on political issues, and the struggle goes on.

Somehow, whenever somebody suggests discussing issues outside the political mainstream, the first issue to come up is drugs. Okay, it’s an interesting and important issue, but one suspects that its ubiquity has more to do with its supposed yoof appeal. Drugs Laws Don’t Work: The Phoney War (Tuesday 19 June at 9pm) is a TV essay by Nick Davies, who argues for legalisation.

Refreshingly, Davies feels under no obligation to include opposing views in his programme. If the political parties were to be represented, as in an election campaign, there would be virtually no room for debate anyway. On the downside, Davies replaces the demonisation of drugs with the demonisation of the black market: his argument is really for medicalisation of drugs rather than legalisation. It is safer than arguing from an explicitly libertarian perspective.

If there is an approved script for general elections, there is also an approved script for alternative manifestos. Maybe Channel 4 will try something really outside the box before the next election. If you want to see it, though, you’ll probably have to go digital and get E4.

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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