Letters from a Swing Voter
I’m not sure about you, dear readers, but the media-fest that has now become the voice of our election has left me feeling a little bloated and fatigued. This week, in particular, has been quite a broadcast binge: full-fat live and breaking news, extra portions of commentary, sides of wry digest and poll chasers. With all these extra political pounds around my person, it’s a wonder I can haul myself from my computer and find a living, breathing person to help me form an opinion of my own, as opposed to regurgitating those I’ve been force-fed. In a bid to ape our cousins on the other side of the Atlantic, our fast-food isn’t the only thing to have become super sized.
For good or bad, I have a television on the wall next to my desk, and my office has slipped into an inevitable, slothful grazing on the election throughout the day. I often find myself starting from some BBC News Channel trance, broken only by the unadulterated boredom of watching a reporter desperately fill air-time before an average MP arrives at an average constituency to speak to some average people. Before lunch I’ve consumed thousands of empty calories, delivered via rolling news, Twitter updates and virals, but I’m still hungry for a meal, something I can really sink my teeth into.
This is not to say British media can’t learn a good deal from the American election diet, but we’re evidently still working it out. We appear to have strayed towards shouty-graphic-heavy-package territory with the BBC, by rolling night and day and launching BREAKING NEWS feeds every time a politician so much as breaks wind in case that might just swing it. There’s poor Emily Maitlis, hammering away on her Fisher Price interactive election map, and I wish someone would relieve Michael Crick of his hair shirt quest to find Normal Voters Like You and Me around the country, as he visibly sweats with discomfort any time he’s north of the Watford Gap. ‘Randall and Boulton Unleashed’ sits even closer to the utterly terrifying FOX approach, bringing to mind rabid pitbulls savaging what remains of our old and dysfunctional constitution. We’re making it all bigger and louder and more colourful, but is it really good for us?
So for all the keenness to stuff our faces with the election, it should have been a ruddy good meal when we sat around the gogglebox to eat up each of the manifestos delivered throughout the week. A feast of policies, promises, dedications, realisations – a taste of what could be and what it might mean for us. But even before Gordon Brown was anywhere near his gleaming hospital, I was flagging. I’d spent so much time listening to whether the front cover of the Labour manifesto looked more like a cereal packet or a communist poster, that I’d almost forgotten there was anything inside it to begin with. And there was stuff inside, lots of it: from the increase in NI, to a £1bn future jobs fund, minimum wage rise, a father’s right to paternity leave, £7.5bn for new homes… Challenging policies, some good, some not so good, all worth the time of day to be heard by anyone who was interested. But before the hour was even up, the media machine had moved on – leading questions and jeering crowds, one soundbite to the next, crass exposés and baseless predictions. Before I knew it, BREAKING NEWS about Cameron’s true blue hardback manifesto front cover, presumably fashioned so it can withstand being violently flung at the wall. All of it felt like junk and snacks and fast food. Eating out of boredom.
Then came the televised debate. Cutting through the stodge and the fat-laden interviews of the week gone by, this was the point during the election where you might be forgiven for realising, for the first time, that there are more than two parties on the ballot paper. This was 90 minutes of fresh and deftly handled broadcast, painting a starkly truer picture of what’s actually on offer than any media outlet would have us believe. Ok, it was by no means perfect, and who are we to say that days and days of gruelling preparation and doggedly invoked rules of conduct made this any more real or appetising than Newsnight, say, for many people. But it was big and loud and colourful, it was more super sized than anything else I’ve seen so far, and it was good. The most important thing was that this was relatively editorially clean air-time – no interviewer or reactions, no interruptions or insinuations from Messrs Paxman, Humphrey, Snow et al. It was like a palette cleanser, for all the junk gone down. That’s a revelation for someone who remains both sceptical of the media and undecided about where to cast her vote.
Believe me, the irony is not lost in my only serving to feed the machine I’m so quick to criticise, in writing this piece – but for all I’ve said, I’m still really excited about the fact that I can turn on the TV or open a paper and be reminded that I’m in the middle of an election people can’t stop talking about. Like all the best binges, there’s an end date and resolution to cut down on the excesses. As part of a balanced diet, our new American-style debates are an incredibly valuable addition to UK politics, and as broadcast and newspapers and bloggers feel their way around this super sized election, I will merrily gorge on what’s on offer. After all, there’s lots of time after May 6th to slim down in time for the next one.