overthinking the idiot box

May 2, 2005

Bonafide British Person C.J. Quinn covers the strange intersections between British television and American television in

London Calling
The Super-groomed Spin-Fest Of an Election Month
by C.J. Quinn

First up this Episode , another confession. I get all my news (and I do mean all) from print media, and from the bountiful teat of Mother Internet. I gave up watching TV news when I left home to go away to university and couldn't afford the TV license (the annual tax by means of which people who have tellies keep the BBC on its financial feet), except for watching the occasional big story on my Junior Common Room's massive TV, which had Sky News. I went back to TV news while I lived in Japan, where the only telly I could get in English was BBC World (and a few hours of The Real World: Las Vegas per week on MTV Japan).

Emergency Back-up Mr. Quinn?
For a while there, I experienced the druggy daze of the 24-hour rolling news junkie, in which eventually one's whole world becomes infused with a weird, unsettling sense of deja vu (that's French for "I have been bored [by this news] already"). I watched hours of shaky, heavily pixellated Iraq invasion news when I should have been studying kanji, and came away feeling vaguely unclean and a bit in love with Rageh Omaar. When I got back to the motherland, though, I fled swiftly back to the bosom of The Indie and the BBC News website.

I grew up with TV news, mind, watching and discussing the 6 o'clock BBC bulletin over dinner with my parents — evenings with my dad were bookended by the teatime news, which started just after he came in the door from work, and Newsnight, which he would usually be dozing off in front of as I went to bed. Since then, however, primetime BBC1 news coverage has declined to the point where my dad refers to the 6 o'clock news as the Nursery News, and my parents have started watching Channel 4's later, hour-long, consciously high-brow news show. Both the BBC's 6 o'clock and 9 o'clock news bulletins have been infected by the false matey-ness virus — presenters bat stories back and forth with a grinning "So over to you, Fiona" here and a "Thanks very much Huw, [insert fatuous attempt at joke here]," never really delving into the substance of stories.

The BBC still has some of the best field reporters out there — the terribly severe, mad-haired Orla Guerin in the Middle East; the venerable World Affairs Editor John Simpson, liberator of Kabul, still getting himself blown up with alarming regularity in Iraq or Afghanistan or wherever the latest hotspot is; Rageh Omaar, the thinking girl's dreamboat, who talks smart and looks good in a flak-jacket — but they seem to do less and less reporting, and more and more pointless live chit-chats with the jovial newsreader du jour.

However, with an election looming (Britain goes to the polls on May 5th) and a column due, I thought this might be an opportune time for me to investigate how British telly 'does' politics. Although we don't have anything like the marathon of primary season followed by the real election, by now the election phony war has been going on for what feels like donkey's years — The Dear Leader has been submitting himself to regular trial by studio audience, apparently in an attempt to atone for his Weapons of Mass Deception-related sins, while Michael Howard, the Leader of the Opposition, has mostly had to be satisfied with being flagellated for his party's alleged racism by radio phone-in callers. Various satellites of the Prime Minister and Howard appear nightly on Channel 4 news, to be politely savaged by Jon Snow, and on the BBC's Newsnight, to be savaged without any pretense at politeness by the inimitable Jeremy Paxman, the attack dog of British TV news coverage.

Paxo: Deflater of politcal ego.
C.J.: Polygamist.

Paxman, or Paxo as the Great British Public affectionately know him, is another of my not-so-secret TV crushes. Where Jamie Oliver is the bouncy, eagerÂto-please, shaggy Golden Retriever of TV crushes, Paxo is the stern-but-sexy headmaster type. He has wire-rimmed specs, fabulously plummy Oxbridge tones, and a stare that can drill through titanium at ten paces and make lying, inept politicians burst into flame on the spot. He's essentially made a career out of being wonderfully, wonderfully rude to well-known, powerful people. Famously, when grilling Howard in 1997, Paxo asked the same question twelve times (you can watch him in action here — the fun starts about 4 minutes in). He's awesome, and he makes the long, dull grind of a British election worthwhile.

This week, Paxo has been let loose on the leaders of Britain's three main political parties. Poor Charles Kennedy, the leader of the left-wing Liberal Democrats, got the Paxo treatment on Monday night, even though his wife had just given birth to their first child and Kennedy was so sleep-deprived that he got details of his own party's tax policy muddled up at a press conference. Tony went up to bat on Wednesday, and Howard wrapped up the week on Friday. All due credit to the Beeb, which could have tucked these half-hour grillings away on BBC 2 at 10:30pm in the usual Newsnight slot — Paxo's interviews went out on BBC 1 primetime, at 7:30 in the evening.

As I type this, I'm watching the highlights of Jezza vs. Tone: The Thames-side Smackdown. Unless I am much mistaken, Tony is wearing blue contacts, which says it all, really. Paxo is getting Tony to say things about Iraq and WMD, and then peering over the top of his glasses to read Tony bits of an official independent inquiry report that proves Tony is talking bollocks. And oh my, Tony is spluttering like a kettle on the boil and getting absolutely furious. Now they are talking about immigration, a hot button Episode in this election, and Paxo has just asked Tony eighteen times how many illegal immigrants there are in Britain. Poor Tony's attempts to do chatting just aren't working out so well. This is good, good television, and I'm struggling to imagine a US news anchor, having secured themselves a half-hour interview with Dubya, being this vile to him.

One lives for these moments, during the super-groomed spin-fest of an election month. I'll give television news this over print news — it comes into its own when you want to be able to look into the whites of a politician's eyes and watch to see which questions bring out the faintest trace of fear. Newsprint can't do this: amid the rustling of the pages, you can't hear the catch in the voice or the ever-so-slightly-too-long pause when a difficult question gets slung across the table.

The real joy of an election, though, lies in the party political broadcasts. You see, in this country, paid political TV and radio ads are banned, but the political parties are each legally entitled to a certain amount of TV primetime on all five terrestrial channels, plus radio airtime — usually a few five-minute slots between 7 and 9pm on a weekday evening. Broadly speaking, the more votes a party got in the last election, the more airtime it's entitled to in this one. Over the years, some broadcasts have become classics — you can even buy a video showing all the greatest hits of the elections since 1951. Brilliantly, this year's Labour party political broadcast was directed by Anthony Minghella — yes, the same bloke who directed The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley.

Bright Orange Man Scares All the Children.
He might as well have called his five-minute featurette Gordon and Tony OMGTHEIRLOVEISSOPURE!!1!1!11!, as the Prime Minister and his Chancellor sought to reassure the nation that in fact that they are not mortal enemies, but very very special friends who like to sit around the House of Commons canteen for an evening in their rolled-up shirtsleeves (matching blue shirts!) having a cheery cuppa together and earnestly asking each other burning questions along the lines of, "KIDS! Kids, being poor. Special, unique, beautiful kids, being poor. I hate that, don't you Tony?" Slow, syrupy strings played as Gordon reminisced fondly about how he and Tony have been in it together from the start, and how, back in the day, they even shared an office for three years. They wore matching bright red ties and were pictured eating breakfast together.

I think I was supposed to think "Wow, Tony and Gordon certainly are a safe pair of hands, and all-around stand-up, decent people!" Instead, my thought process was more along the lines of "Awwww, you guys!" I didn't want to vote Labour after watching it¸but I sure was rooting for those two crazy kids to put aside their differences and just confess their love already. Who says elections are no fun?

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