Show Hide image

Smashing the lens

"Well, that's what happens when you have three Weetabix for your breakfast." So said the Sky News anchor as the camera cut back to her after Adam Boulton's interview with the Prime Minister at the Labour party conference last month. Angry that Boulton was "filtering" his precious policy initiatives through the lens of the Sun's vote of no confidence, Gordon Brown had given his interlocutor a decidedly cold sign-off. The clip exists in many forms online, including one that shows Brown flouncing off after the shot has cut back to the studio. Each has attracted tens of thousands of viewers.

But aren't we all a little sick of it? Even before they've had their Weetabix, Today programme listeners have digested several rounds of linguistic shadow-boxing as presenters try to force the statements made by their Westminster guests into this week's media agenda. It would seem that the benchmark of a successful interview is that its subject is left flailing around on political ground his handlers have briefed him to avoid - no matter how inconsequential that ground be to the real issue. The growing trend for a BBC editor to come on after the 8am politics interview to tell us all what just happened surely indicates a widening communication gap.

The day of David Cameron's speech to the Conservative party conference, Newsnight supplied an eye-watering interpretive line-up. After an authored report, two Westminster heavies weighed in, followed by the programme's own panel of experts. In total, less than four minutes of the actual speech were played.

Online, these orchestrated analytical spectaculars are far less popular than the raw footage they dissect. A YouTube search for each party leader shows that the most popular clips are of the odd gaffe (Brown's flounce, Cameron's Twitter "twat-gate"), or footage from parliament and conference. Like middle-class mothers, it seems, we prefer the raw ingredients of our politics to the pre-packaged, sugar-and-spite-laced alternative.

It is fashionable to condemn internet culture for shortening our attention spans and deepening our prejudices. But is it possible that the increased availability of political speeches, online and unmediated, might be good for our democracy? Parliamentarians, take note: there may not be anyone in the galleries, but that doesn't mean we're not watching you.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England