In recent years, it has become apparent that there is a reason why politicians have become less bothered about the actuality of their day to day work – the administration and facilitation of the communities they have been elected to represent – and more bothered about appearing to have the most media-friendly answers to any questions which have been lobbed their way. And it’s a really simple one: television.
It will no longer do to lead well, you have to be seen to lead well, to have constructed a plan which not only works in the long term, but also the middle term, and the short term and which can be explained quickly and clearly, using hot rhetoric with a rousing finish that guarantees a round of applause in a TV debate.
The trouble is, televised political debate is like every other form of television. Once the viewer is bored of the format, the show is doomed. So politicians find themselves thrust into ever more unfamiliar circumstances and expected to come out smiling, or risk the wrath of the viewing audience, as expressed by the political commentators in the media at large – which in the UK means the newspapers and a couple of TV news shows.
It’s no wonder things occasionally go wrong. Here are five moments that probably still keep the people involved up nights, checking for hidden microphones:
John Nott (1983)
If you’re a defense secretary in the middle of a war, even one who has already announced that you are going to step down at the next election (due in a year), it’s probably not a good idea to allow yourself to become nettled by a TV interviewer. John Nott did exactly this during the Falklands War, thereby sending a message that he was easily provoked into moments of irrational temper. Not so much a wise captain with a firm hand on the tiller as a stroppy teen holding his breath until he’s allowed to drive the car. They probably show this film to all political candidates as an example of what not to do.
Gordon Brown (2010)
In what must be a fairly common moment in campaigning, a standing prime minister is confronted by a party supporter who takes him to task on something she feels strongly about. His job is to grin and bear it, while all around him cameras capture his discomfort. To make matters worse for Gordon Brown, however someone else’s microphone records him venting his frustration as his car drives away. And before you know it, his rant about this “bigoted woman” becomes the main news story.
The media claim this was a decisive moment in the last election, a proof positive that whatever Gordon Brown’s strengths may be (and he is still widely considered to have been an excellent chancellor of the exchequer), his people skills never quite made it through the TV screen. There again, they could just have easily have painted him as a tireless campaigner against bigots, so you have to feel a certain sympathy.
Nick Clegg (2011)
If you wanted a clearer illustration of how a coalition government works, it’s this unguarded moment from 2011, between deputy prime minister Nick Clegg (of the Liberal Democrat party) and prime minister David Cameron (Conservative) after a public Q&A session, in which they discussed TV debates at the next General Election. As they will have to campaign separately again, after five years of joint government, it will be tricky to work out where their individual party policies differ, and therefore make any headway convincing the electorate that they are different parties with different agendas. This is something both men agree on. And that’s part of the problem. Or as Nick put it to David, forgetting that his TV microphone was still on: ”if we keep doing this we won’t find anything to bloody disagree on in the bloody TV debates.”
Ed Miliband (2011)
This clip is simply the result of too much media training. Ed Miliband is the leader of the Labour Party, the main opposition party to the current government and the party that formed the last government. He’s being asked about strike action from public sector workers, and has clearly worked out that whatever question he is asked, he wants one message to be taken out and used by the TV news. If you said to him “would you like a cup of tea?” he would answer that the strikes are wrong, that both sides need to negotiate and that the government have acted in a reckless and provocative manner.
John Prescott (2001)
Let’s go out with a bang. Deputy prime minister John Prescott – a man with a temper, it’s fair to say – is attending a Labour party rally in Rhyl, north Wales. His government stands accused by traditional supporters of abandoning the NHS and education, and focusing instead on the war in Iraq. Consequently there are protesters outside the theater in which he will be speaking. As John walks past, one protester throws an egg into his face, and he unthinkingly reacts by punching his assailant on the chin. Once again, the perfectly human response, when captured by cameras and relayed back into the non-egg-thrown world of television news, makes Mr Prescott look like an unreconstructed neanderthal, when in fact he didn’t really know what had just hit him, or if he’d been seriously hurt.
And lo, the “egg on his face” puns did flow like wine at a brewery wedding.
For a comedic look at British political dysfunction, check out The Thick Of It, Saturday nights at 12 am/11 pm c.