15 December 2007

Democracy and Entertainment

Yesterday's bit on the greater resources of television current affairs departments compared with political parties was more of a question than an answer. I'll try to work out what it means.

There are a few caveats:

  • The money that is spent on news programming includes things like studios and cameras as well as developing the content to put on them.
  • MPs get paid by the government, which is extra resource to the parties not counted in their budgets.
  • The civil service plays a role in developing policies for the ruling party.
  • Political parties have an incentive to be vague about policy, whereas media organisations can afford to be more specific and clearer - they gain more by being provocative than by being right.

Nonetheless, I still think that Channel 4's policy on higher education is the product of more research and investment than went into the Labour party's. MPs are paid to be MPs, not to develop policy, and the civil service has its own goals and constraints and is not under the control of the Labour party.

What does this mean?

First, I should be less sceptical than I have been about the "power of the media". I have always felt that, since the media is constrained to doing what gets it audience, its independent influence on policy is small. However, if what it needs to do is to provide some alternative policy with which to challenge politicians, but it has relative freedom to choose which alternative to develop, then its independent influence is greater than I thought.

Next, why is it the case that we (as a society) invest more in reporting politics than we do in politics itself. Either something is seriously screwy, or we value politics as entertainment more than as a way of controlling government. Or both.

I think it's quite clear that the population does treat politics mostly as entertainment. The resemblance between Question Time and Never Mind the Buzzcocks is too close to ignore. If someone arrived from another planet and had to work out which of the two concerns how the country is governed, I think they might find it tricky. (I think they get similar numbers of viewers). There are even hybrids like Have I Got News For You to make it more difficult still.

Further, I think voters are correct to see politics primarily as entertainment. Since my attempt to construct an argument that voting could have a non-negligible probability of affecting an election - the infamous correlation dodge - died a logical death, I am left with the usual reasons for voting - primarily how doing it makes me feel. Those reasons apply equally well to voting for Big Brother or Strictly Come Dancing.

In conclusion, I think our system of government is one which selects leaders and policies as a byproduct of the entertainment industry. This might not be a bad thing: the traditional alternative is to select leaders and policies as a byproduct of the defense industry, which I don't think is obviously superior.

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