Two things have made me think about the role of television in the current wave of disaffection from politics. One was a satirical song from Mitch Benn on a recent Radio 4 Now Show with the refrain “I don’t want to see the news no more”. The other was the impassioned keynote from Prof Susan Douglas at our recent Hands On History conference where she argued persuasively that television can be used either as a telescope, opening up world vistas as in its early years; or, as now, as a microscope, investigating ever more constrained topics in an ever more detailed way. Is it true, then, that television is deeply implicated in a flight away from political engagement towards the ‘navel-gazing’ of reality TV?
Political disaffection has two sides. One is the distrust of politicians. Southampton University researchers reran a 1944 Gallup poll question and found that “only 1 in 10 of us think politicians try to do their best for the country now [which] represents a large drop, both from the wartime poll (where 36% were willing to see politicians as trying to do their best for the country) and from the 1970s poll (where 28% felt that politicians were out to do their best for us).” The other side of disaffection is the feeling expressed by the Now Show song, a feeling of powerlessness in the face of events.
This feeling of powerlessness is hardly surprising. News consists of depressing economic information at home, appalling scenes from Syria and elsewhere, and a constant theme of terrorist threats, all against a background of catastrophic climate change. This feeds a pervasive sense of impotence in ordinary citizens. Turning away from the world is a perfectly understandable attitude in these circumstances, and may indeed be a necessary one. At the political level, no-one in power seems to be able (or sometimes willing) to do anything about these issues. Politicians seem ineffectual or powerless. This fuels an increasing distrust as their promises of action prove to be empty. It is a self-reinforcing cycle.
Behind this cycle of disillusion lies a second, wider, trend: the post-war development of a consumer culture. Our primary definition as social actors is now as consumers rather than as citizens. In many areas, the consumerist relationship is replacing that of citizenship: in schools and universities for example. Citizenship implies both rights and responsibilities. Consumers, on the other hand, have rights but few (if any) responsibilities. So over time our attitudes become more rights oriented and less responsibility oriented.
However, consumers do have responsibilities, even though they are largely concealed in most transactions. Every commercial exchange involves a contractual relationship: the infamous terms and conditions that no-one reads… Once, this didn’t really matter, and, indeed, there was a time when more consumer-focussed attitudes helped to loosen up the statist structures that had developed in the wartime emergency, and overly constrained the rights of citizens. However, the development of online living has transformed these contractual consumer responsibilities into a potent means of undermining citizenship. Our passively engaged contracts with companies like Facebook Google and Amazon exchange our use of their services for their right to track our behaviour. Initially, this just exposed us to rather badly targeted advertising. But now the data about all our behaviours derived over several years enables these companies to move increasingly into spaces that hitherto were the concern of state or public bodies responsible to the citizenry. Uber’s replacement of the regulatory structures for taxi drivers is a good example. Insofar as our politicians have encouraged these attitudes, then they have engaged in destroying the basis of citizenship on which their activity is based.
So where does television sit in all of this?
Television is central in two ways. One is through the practice of public service broadcasting which is centrally concerned with citizenship. A rare success was that of the determined campaigners including David Puttnam and Sylvia Harvey who managed to include the term ‘citizen’ as well as ‘consumer’ in the act that set up Ofcom. With both BBC and Channel 4 under pressure from the relentless marketizers of the Tory party, this will be a constant theme in blogs over the next year.
For now, I want to concentrate on how television expresses attitudes to politics. This is not an issue of news or current affairs which are constrained by rituals of their own making. They are more part of the problem of political disaffection than its solution… “I don’t want to see the news no more”… (and TV journalists also debate the declining audiences for TV news in its traditional forms). Political disaffection appears in news and current affairs as yet another problem, to be analysed from a detached point of view. The emotions which lie behind political disaffection find no expression in TV news, unless it is in some of the throw-away remarks of a presenter like Tom Bradby on the new format ITV News.
The feelings of powerlessness, of being subject to arbitrary powers, do pop up in the TV news space in the most unexpected way, however. They are too pervasive to be excluded entirely. This single exception is in the increasing concern with weather. Susan Douglas’ paper remarked on the way that TV news in the US has contracted in scope to personality politics and traffic accidents, but that weather news continues to expand on all fronts (as it were). At first sight, it seemed to me that the weather is the perfect metaphor for the mindset that gives rise to political disaffection. Weather involves huge forces, beyond the influence of mankind, and is both arbitrary and uncompromising. Look beyond that and it becomes clear that weather is more than just a metaphor. Weather is the return of the ideas that are repressed in the process of political disaffection. Weather is certainly the ultimate form of being caught up in something that is impossible to do anything about. But equally weather coverage implicates its aficionados in a profoundly different sense of everyday to do with connection with nature, and the disruption that can result from the intervention natural forces. The problem is that this remains a latent sense, inaccessible to arguments about its causes in global warming and climate change.
News may be failing to pull in the audiences, but that is not true about TV drama. And the really intriguing thing is that television drama seems to be filled with the examination of politics at the moment. Shonda Rhimes has come up with the magnificently over-the-top White House drama Scandal. Netflix launched its bid for global domination with House of Cards. European drama to grace our UK screens has included the French series Spin (Les hommes de l’ombre) with its presidential election in series one, and its examination of longer term manoeuvring in series two. Norway has given us the dystopic Occupied (Okkupert). The Night Manager provided a politicised version of the espionage thriller: as much Eric Ambler as John Le Carre in the BBC’s triumphant adaptation. And of course there was Borgen, the series that Nick Clegg would have done well to study.
All these are direct representations. In addition there are historical depictions like Deutschland 83; the counterfactual Man in the High Castle; or the confected politically driven world of Game of Thrones. All enthral us with the inner workings of political processes. And what do they tell us about them? That there are secrets that must be kept because some kind of disaster will happen if they are revealed. The disaster is that ‘the public’ will find out. Scandal revolves around the work of Olivia Pope in diverting public attention from problematic issues by misleading the media. The final arbiters of the political process are the electorate, the public. The whole edifice of these dramas relies on keeping the public away from the truth of what is going on. Ironically, of course, we the public are seeing all the dirty secrets when we watch these series.
So do these dramas feed political disaffection by showing the duplicity of politicians, or do they represent a point of development because they show the complexities of political action and the fragility of political alliances? These are dramas, and so safe places to work through things that are too scary in real life. And unlike real life, they provide resolutions, even if we have to wait a bit (the end of series cliffhanger in Spin, echoing Borgen’s series strategies, was whether or not Anne Visage had won the presidential election). So their relationship with actual political engagement is oblique and indirect at best.
They do, however, constantly remind us that we are citizens rather than consumers, and that as citizens we have the power (and the responsibility) to act politically.
JOHN ELLIS is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London. He leads the ADAPT project on the history of technologies in TV, funded by a €1.6 million grant from the European Research Council. He is the author of Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation (Routledge 2011), TV FAQ (IB Tauris 2007), Seeing Things (IB Tauris 2000) and Visible Fictions (1984). Between 1982 and 1999 he was an independent producer of TV documentaries through Large Door Productions, working for Channel 4 and BBC. He is chair of the British Universities Film & Video Council and also oversees the Royal Holloway team working on EUscreen. His publications can be found HERE.