The worm: How television has subverted the election campaign


    {jcomments on}Kenneth Roy

    There was a time when last week’s abortive coup against the photogenic leader of the Liberal Democrats by elements of the Tory press would have had an influence on public opinion….

    Kenneth Roy

    There was a time when last week’s abortive coup against the photogenic leader of the Liberal Democrats by elements of the Tory press would have had an influence on public opinion. Inspired, no doubt, by some dinosaurs at Conservative Central Office, the Daily Telegraph, Daily Express and Daily Mail all ran disobliging stuff about Mr Clegg. Some distant remark of his about it being time to put the second world war behind us was reheated as a ‘Nazi slur’ – a risible example of how marginalised the mainstream press has become in this campaign. The boy wonder/political revolutionary/ deputy prime minister in waiting, or whatever else Mr Clegg turns out to be, brushed aside the insult and his poll ratings went on rising.
         Then there was the barn-storming visit of James Murdoch to the offices of the Independent, where the son of Rupert harangued the editorial staff about a headline suggesting that the British electorate, not Rupert Murdoch, would determine the result of the election. Perhaps James Murdoch had forgotten that he and his father do not actually own the Independent, which was bought recently by a Russian oligarch, apparently not called Murdoch, for the market value of £1.
         ‘It was the Sun wot won it’ was the infamous boast of the Murdoch press when it saw Neil Kinnock off the premises in 1992. But if David Cameron enters 10 Downing Street as prime minister the weekend after next, with or without the help of the Liberal Democrats, the traditional media will not have put him there; and if Gordon Brown is ejected from the same address in a humiliating manner, the last people who will be entitled to claim the credit for his political demise are the various versions of the Daily Beast. This time, it will not be the Sun wot won it. It will be the new world symbolised by the worm.

    If you are one of those sad people who have not yet heard of the worm, let me explain: it is a graph-line of instantaneous public reaction to the three leaders. For the moment we are not shown the graph-line during the debate itself (possibly this facility will have been arranged in time for the next election), but as soon as the formal part of the evening is over, we are transferred to the spin room (so-called) and are able to see for ourselves how the leaders have performed from minute to minute, question to question.
         Then, with bewildering speed, we are given the results of polls determining who has ‘won’ the latest debate and, by a process of elimination, who has ‘lost’. These are anticipated with the same eagerness as the votes of the national juries in the Eurovision Song Contest. In this febrile atmosphere, only one thing can be guaranteed. Mr Brown is doomed to be the Norwegian entry.
      The drip-drip effect of such immediate tests of opinion on the prime minister’s standing must, by now, be devastating: the worm’s eye view is that Mr Brown, whatever he does and says, is a loser. On any rational judgement, he has acquitted himself reasonably well in the debates. Yet still he finishes last, the worm giving him more troughs and fewer peaks than his prettier rivals. This suggests that, for the worm, style counts for more than substance.
         But there is something more disturbing still about this radical new accessory to the light entertainment of the crowd; something I discovered only as I was preparing this piece. I will put it in the form of a question. That graph we see endlessly replayed in the spin room, slithering across our screens on breakfast television the following morning, repeated at intervals throughout the next 24 hours – how representative of public opinion is it? How many voters make a worm? I would have guessed a few hundred.
         The answer is: 20.
         Let us not judge this imperfect cross-section of the electorate too harshly. The worm is a slight improvement on Rupert Murdoch, who once boasted of settling the outcome of general elections on his own. He has been replaced by an unnamed collective of 20, each representing no more than 2.2 million electors. Yet there may be a residual issue, a small area of doubt. It could be that what we are witnessing in the spin room, more than in the debates themselves, is not the exercise of democracy but the subversion of it by the facile values and restless demands of showbiz.

    There are 76 rules governing the conduct of the debates and I have read every one of them. Not one prohibits the use of such techniques as the worm. There is no rule which would put a stop to the spin room. There is no bar on instant opinion polls on the ‘result’ of the debates. These rules have been cooked up to manage the debates, such as they are, not to regulate the conduct of the ludicrous charade which follows. The prostitution of new technology has become as much an issue in this campaign as any party policy. Television, abusing its enormous power, has reduced democracy to the level of a worm.
         Even now, at this late stage, it would be possible to restore some dignity to the proceedings. Our public service broadcaster is in charge of the last of the debates, which will be chaired by a serious-minded man called David Dimbleby. How reassuring it would be if the BBC banished the worm, ignored the spin room, and refused to publish the results of the meretricious instant polls.
         Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath.

    Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.