TV UK, 7 April

Two elections, a wedding and a funeral: history as a spectator sport.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

Two elections, a wedding and a funeral loom, and TV bosses are rubbing their hands and eyeing the schedules like bad boys eyeing sandcastles.

There is now some dispute over when Pope John Paul II actually died, but we were left in little doubt over the weekend that he is indeed dead. Still dead. Still dead. It was a historic moment, we were told, but the kind of historic moment to which you can only be a spectator, or indeed a spectator of spectators, watching endless footage of the crowds in St Peter’s Square. After the funeral, the cardinals will gather to elect a new Pope, a deeply political process not very well disguised as a religious one, and we will watch the white smoke signifying another historic moment pass us by. Meanwhile commentators will pontificate about the second marriage of Prince Charles, and we will be invited to watch the historic occasion and perhaps to text in our comments.

Then the general election. Television loves elections. Britain lacks the American drama of presidential head-to-head debates, but Newsnight last night dug out footage from 1992 of Blair and Howard going at it over something or other, as some kind of consolation. Elections are historic occasions of which we, notionally, are the subjects, but television has perfected the art of covering politics as a spectator sport, reflecting the disengagement of even those people most interested in politics. We are invited to observe the developing tactics of the parties like football pundits, speculating about their likely effect on ‘the voters’, whoever they are. ‘This won’t play well with X’; ‘the Tories are unashamedly targeting Y’.

Newsnight has even signed up a group of clueless youths for us to observe over the course of the campaign in a ‘Student House’ in Nottingham. Last night we were introduced to the scruffy urchins: one likely Lib Dem voter, one likely Tory and the rest undecided, or not voting. None seemed to know anything about politics, and it seems unlikely that a general election campaign is the best time to learn. Anyway, that isn’t the point, because this general election is less about politics than the process of the election itself. Can the politicians get the vote out at all? Will they get their tactics right and appeal to the right people in the right places? Will the students ever get the washing up done? To take an interest in politics in 2005 is to be an anthropologist rather than a citizen.

At the end of the whole, mysterious process, the white smoke will rise over Downing Street and we can sit back and toast the new pontiff with our misdated royal wedding commemorative mugs. History. Behind it all, of course, is a complicated world of politics, in which real human beings make decisions, albeit in circumstances not of their own choosing. Television struggles with that, most of all when it is entranced by big events. I will be eyeing the schedules over the next few weeks, and awarding a prize for the programme or report that best reveals the reality behind the circus. Perhaps a bucket and spade?

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