The incestuous vortex of cross-promotion

OK! TV is the latest addition to the bewildering circle-jerk that is Richard Desmond’s media empire.

"OK! TV kicked off to a triumphant start," said OK! magazine this week in an interview with the OK! TV host Kate Walsh. The Channel 5 show could be glad of one positive review, at least, even if the more cynical among us might suspect that due to printing deadlines it may have been written before the "triumphant start" had even gone to air.

But then this is the bewildering circle-jerk that is Richard Desmond's empire right now. OK! TV, Channel 5's new brightly coloured approximation of a couple of vapid office drones chattering about celebrities over a water cooler, promotes OK! magazine. The Daily Star and Daily Express promote OK! TV and OK! magazine, as well as giving remarkably positive reviews to the likes of the Channel 5 host Vanessa Feltz; OK! magazine has a two-page feature telling you what's coming up this week on Channel 5 . . . and so on, and so on.

"We are beyond excited by the launch of OK! TV," said the magazine's editor in a leader this week. Beyond excited!

The incestuous vortex of cross-promotion gets to the point where if you see something in a Desmond publication that isn't anything to do with another of his assets, you wonder why it's there at all. And which one is meant to be the flagship? Is Channel 5 the jewel in the crown, or is it OK!, or the Daily Express? Or are they all fighting for the title of least mediocre? It's hard to tell.

It was my own fault, really. I'd decided to watch OK! TV while reading a copy of OK! magazine. I think I got overloaded by it all. But one thing I did notice was that I was reading more than I was watching. I ended up being fascinated by Josie Gibson's Big Fat Gypsy Wedding photo shoot, leaving Kate Walsh and Matt Johnson babbling away in the background.

Of course, this being a Desmond publication, the photo shoot is to tell you that Gibson is a reporter on . . . yes, you guessed it, OK! TV. But even as someone who isn't the target audience of the mag, who couldn't really care less about celebrity culture and all the trashy awfulness therein, I found her tales of growing up in a traveller family (hence the giant pink dress and caravan) quite intriguing.

OK! TV, in comparison, is pretty shabby. Gibson is, by a bus ride, the best thing about it, chirping merrily away about celebrity tweets in that delightful Bristolian burr ("Shane Warne, he's a blancmange, in't he?"), but her segment was a rare moment that strayed beyond the otiose. The rest just makes you yearn for the understated subtlety and class of the show's predecessor, Live from Studio Five.

Besides, they're missing a trick. If they called it Daily Star Daily Express Sunday Express New! Magazine Star Magazine Daily Star on Sunday OK! TV, they'd be able to promote even more Northern & Shell goodies at one go. Surely it's only a matter of time.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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This election has sparked a weird debate – one in which no one seems to want to talk

 The noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background.

If this is a general election in which the tectonic plates are shifting, they’re the quietest tectonic plates I’ve ever heard. All the parties are standing on pretty radical platforms, yet the noise level hasn’t risen above a low gurgle in the background, like a leaking tap we can’t be bothered to get fixed.

Big issues are being decided here. How do we pay for care, or health, or education? How do we square closed borders with open trade, and why isn’t anyone talking about it? Democracy is on the line, old people are being treated like electoral fodder, our infrastructure is mangled, the NHS is collapsing around us so fast that soon all that’s left will be one tin of chicken soup and a handful of cyanide capsules, and we face the prospect of a one-party Tory state for decades to come. All this and yet . . . silence. There seem to be no shouts of anger in this election. It’s a woozy, sleepy affair.

I knew something was afoot the moment it was called. Theresa May came out of No 10 and said she was having an election because she was fed up with other parties voting against her. No one seemed to want to stand up and tell her that’s a pretty good definition of how functioning democracy works. Basically, she scolded parliament for not going along with her.

Why were we not stunned by the sheer autocratic cheek of the moment? With news outlets, true and fake, growing in number by the day, why was this creeping despotism not reported? Am I the only one in a state of constant flabbergast?

But the Prime Minister’s move paid off. “Of course,” everyone said, “the real argument will now take place across the country, and we welcome,” they assured us, “the chance to have a national debate.”

Well, it’s a pretty weird debate – one in which no one wants to talk. So far, the only person May has debated live on air has been her husband, as Jeremy Corbyn still wanders the country like an Ancient Mariner, signalling to everyone he meets that he will not speak to anyone unless that person is Theresa May. Campaign events have been exercises in shutting down argument, filtering out awkward questions, and speaking only to those who agree with every word their leader says.

Then came the loud campaign chants – “Strong and stable” versus “The system’s rigged against us” – but these got repeated so often that, like any phrase yelled a thousand times, the sense soon fell out of them. Party leaders might as well have mooned at each other from either side of a river.

Granted, some others did debate, but they carried no volume. The Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, achieved what no one thought possible, by showing the country that Nigel Farage had stature. And there’s a special, silent hell where Tim Farron languishes, his argument stifled at every turn by a media bent on quizzing him on what sort of hell he believes in.

Meanwhile, the party manifestos came out, with titles not so much void of meaning as so bored of it that they sounded like embarrassed whispers. Forward, Together; The Many Not the Few; Change Britain’s Future: these all have the shape and rhythm of political language, but nothing startles them into life. They are not so much ­clarion calls as dusty stains on old vellum. Any loosely connected words will do: Building My Tomorrow or Squaring the Hypotenuse would be equally valid. I still pray for the day when, just for once, a party launches its campaign with something like Because We’re Not Animals! but I realise that’s always going to stay a fantasy.

Maybe because this is the third national vote in as many years, our brains are starting to cancel out the noise. We really need something to wake us up from this torpor – for what’s happening now is a huge transformation of the political scene, and one that we could be stuck with for the next several decades if we don’t shake ourselves out of bed and do something about it.

This revolution came so quietly that no one noticed. Early on in the campaign, Ukip and the Conservatives formed a tacit electoral pact. This time round, Ukip isn’t standing in more than 200 seats, handing Tory candidates a clear run against their opponents in many otherwise competitive constituencies. So, while the left-of-centre is divided, the right gets its act together and looks strong. Tory votes have been artificially suppressed by the rise of Ukip over the past few elections – until it won 12.6 per cent of the electorate in 2015. With the collapse of the Ukip vote, and that party no longer putting up a fight in nearly a third of constituencies, Theresa May had good reason to stride about the place as cockily as she did before the campaign was suspended because of the Manchester outrage.

That’s why she can go quiet, and that’s why she can afford to roam into the centre ground, with some policies stolen from Ed Miliband (caps on energy bill, workers on company boards) and others from Michael Foot (spending commitments that aren’t costed). But that is also why she can afford to move right on immigration and Brexit. It’s why she feels she can go north, and into Scotland and Wales. It’s a full-blooded attempt to get rid of that annoying irritant of democracy: opposition.

Because May’s opponents are not making much of this land-grab, and because the media seem too preoccupied with the usual daily campaign gaffes and stammering answers from underprepared political surrogates, it falls once again to the electorate to shout their disapproval.

More than two million new voters have registered since the election was announced. Of these, large numbers are the under-25s. Whether this will be enough to cause any psephological upsets remains to be seen. But my hope is that those whom politicians hope to keep quiet are just beginning to stir. Who knows, we might yet hear some noise.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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