The happening place

“I’m standing here, outside a building, where something is going on. Or not.”

It's hard to pin down exactly when it happened, but at some point in the 1990s we started seeing the outside of buildings on the news. It was a boon for architecture students or people who enjoyed seeing houses or offices in all their glory over the shoulder of a serious-looking on-the-spot reporter, slightly less interesting for the rest of us.

"I'm standing here, outside a place, where something is happening," the reporter would say, in the kind of hushed tones reserved for David Attenborough intruding on a couple of copulating gibbons in a rainforest.

"Hang on," I must have pondered the first time I saw it, "what are they doing, standing outside a building? Why do that? Why not show something happening, or nothing happening, or just admit that nothing's happening, and have someone in a studio talk about the nothing that's happening?"

Of course, you're not allowed to say nothing's happening. Something is always happening. Not on camera, but somewhere near where the camera is pointed. And once in a lifetime, looking at the outside of a door has brought joyous success – Bernard Ingham barging John Sergeant out of Margaret Thatcher's way as she crashed his OB to tell the world that she was fighting on in the Conservative leadership battle against Michael Heseltine.

Every other time, though, no. It's just been the outside of a door.

"Here's someone's front door. They might open it; they might not. They're . . . not opening it. Ooh, is that someone behind a curtain? No. It's a leaf blowing in the wind. We'll just stay with these pictures for a moment, in case . . . no. No, I just thought I saw a flicker there, no." And so on.

When the world went mad during the general election campaign last April, you could look at a stalker's-eye view of a door belonging to a house of someone who'd been called a bigot by Gordon Brown. As if we wanted to. Or might be interested in the door. "Oh, there's a door, much like one you can buy in B&Q," we said to ourselves. "And there it stands on its hinges, resolutely staying shut, while something of mild import happens behind it."

There's a new layer of ennui that's been added to the "house where something might be happening" news trope; it's the "football stadium where nothing is actually happening" shot. Transfer deadline day this week saw camera crews rushed to football grounds where the floodlights were off and nothing was demonstrably happening, where players may not have even been, where ink may not even have been applied to contracts with telephone-number salaries on them. But that was the nearest thing to a location, so that's what they filmed.

It's surreal, when you think about it, to have a reporter standing outside a football ground where nothing is happening, reporting on the nothing that's happening, telling you that perhaps something might be happening, then telling you about the "sources" they've been hearing about telling them about what might (or might not) be going on over their shoulder, in that giant stadium that's closed.

More surreal to think that clusters of fans actually start arriving outside these empty stadiums to celebrate/commiserate/burn things, depending on their mood. Are they doing it just because the cameras are there? Which means, all of a sudden, the cameras aren't there in vain; they're finally filming people who've turned up to celebrate the nothing that's happening in the stadium behind them, because someone was on TV reporting on the stadium in which nothing was happening, so they thought they might come down and see what was going on – even if it's nothing.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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