TV UK, 13 January

Vote for Me: can reality TV save democracy?

Dolan Cummings

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The first contestant, sorry, candidate, to be voted off ITV’s Vote For Me was considered by the judges to be too much like a politician. He was middle-aged, white and middle class, and most damning of all he wore a grey suit. No, no, no.

That the viewers gave him fewer votes than any of the other candidates might be taken as a vindication of that judgement, and of the programme’s premise, which is that politics has to be brought closer to ‘ordinary people’. Hence the reality TV format and non-party political candidates selected by the judges from the assorted losers and nutcases who responded to the adverts. The winner is supposed to stand as an independent candidate in the general election in May. According to the logic of the programme, that person should do well in the election, but does anyone seriously expect that to happen?

In fact, the viewers are perfectly aware that this is not politics; it’s television. Reality TV has its own rules, and everybody understands that it is no more a popularity contest than is politics itself. You don’t vote for the person you like, much less the person whose politics you most admire: you vote for the person most likely to entertain you by making a fool of him or herself. Seen in this light, the ‘support’ given to the bigots and empty-headed attention-seekers who are winning the votes is less depressing than the programme’s producers would have us believe.

Apart from anything else, with two million people switching off after the news every night rather than staying up for Vote For Me, the programme isn’t particularly popular itself. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this means it’s remotely serious, though. Executive producer Jane Rogers, who spent seven years working on Newsnight, insists that while Vote For Me is very different, it isn’t light entertainment either: ‘ITV isn’t doing this for ratings, it’s to stimulate debate.’ (1) Judged in these terms, the programme is even more of a failure than if judged by ratings.

It is impossible to take the political pretensions of Vote For Me seriously. We were told in the opening episode that each candidate had written an ‘in-depth 500-word manifesto’, as if something the length of a shorter-than-average TV UK could be considered a weighty political tome. In the programme itself, we don’t even benefit from the insights of these magnum opuses, though judging from what we do see that’s almost certainly a blessing. ‘Debate’ is limited to 10-second spiels, followed by Pop Idol-style comments and questions from the judges. Even when these interventions elevate style over substance, we get a dumbed-down discussion of style.

To the extent that the programme does involve ‘politics’, it is purely for entertainment. The star turn among the judges, former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, is, by general consent, ‘good value’. Again, this doesn’t mean that anyone likes him, but that he is considered colourful and funny. This is partly because he doesn’t subscribe to the politically correct orthodoxies on anything from race to global warming, but he clearly enjoys outraging liberal opinion too much to be taken seriously. He does occasionally say something halfway sensible, but this is little more than an accidental effect of his efforts to play up to his notoriety, and the illusion of seriousness never lasts for long. MacKenzie is a political clown, but a clown nonetheless.

In this, Vote For Me demonstrates one of the defining features of reality TV, the tendency towards caricature. As I write, the remaining candidates comprise a comically right-wing former conman, a feisty single mum, a Dave Spart-like disability campaigner, a batty crusading housewife and a young Asian doctor who has yet to earn another adjective. All were clearly selected, or in fact ‘cast’, by the judges on the basis that they would make ‘good TV’, and those viewers who have bothered to vote by phone and text have followed their lead. The back row of the studio audience is made up of boisterous student supporters of the immigrant-bashing conman ‘Rodders’ , and they are clearly under no illusion that this is anything other than pantomime.

It is testament to the sorry state of British politics in the run-up to the general election that anyone could think for a minute that reality TV has anything to offer democracy. It clearly has not. The Labour cabinet already has rather too much in common with Celebrity Big Brother for my liking, and as long as politics remains at this level, I couldn’t give a text about the general election either.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) ‘Never mind the ballots’, Broadcast, 7 January 2005

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