Tuesday, 15 December 2009

The X-Factorization of British Politics II: The Quickening

“We would have a red telephone in the middle…at anytime, someone from Number 10 could call in…”

Two months ago I wrote about what I called the “X-Factorization of British Politics” and now it seems that things are only going to get worse.

On the BBC programme, Newsnight, this week, Simon Cowell, the mastermind behind the pop-music show in question, X-Factor, revealed that in 2010 he hopes to bring a political version of the X-Factor format to our TV screens in a series of referendum-type shows leading up to the General Election.

In essence, the premise is simple: an important political issue would be presented to the voting public each week – immigration, the war in Afghanistan, knife crime, etc – and advocates from both sides of the debate – professional and public – would put forward their arguments.  The issue would then be voted on by television viewers and a “winning” position declared.

But the simple premise of the plan hides its equally simple flaws, especially when Cowell himself describes what he wants to see as a “bear pit” rather than an American-style formal debate. 

Complex issues require a serious level of argument and analysis if they are to be meaningfully discussed, and any real debate on controversial subjects must be first and foremost informed.  Hearing what “the public” thinks is all good and well – indeed, it is the essence of a functioning democracy – but hearing what an informed and educated public believe, in light of all available evidence and the substantiated claims of experts, is one thing.  Hearing what an un-informed and knee-jerk public believe, after hearing only the condensed and sensationalistic TV sound-bite versions of those issues, reduced to a simple “for or against” dichotomy is the ugly politics of mob rule.

Cowell himself knows this of course.  In perhaps a damning Freudian slip, when trying to explain his motivations for making such a show and saying that he was more interested in what the public think than what politicians think, what he actually said was: “what I’m always interested in is what the public fear…” before correcting himself and saying “…think on certain issues”.

Informed public debate on a popular Saturday night TV show would be a wonderful thing.  But after seeing Cowell’s work on the X-Factor for so many years – subtly manipulating the public into voting exactly the way that he wants them to and dividing the country up into fabricated tabloid outrages – the idea of this Cowell-conducted political “bear pit” occurring in the weeks before a hugely important election is very worrying indeed.

More on this one as it develops…

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