Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Playing It Safe with the Vox Pops

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Playing It Safe with the Vox Pops

Article excerpt

If there's one thing the election debates have failed to do it's to capture the depth and range of opinion of the voters. The row instigated by Nigel Farage about the BBC audience for the so-called challengers' debate focused on whether some opinions were applauded more than others, which is a sign of just how uncontroversial the public's appearances have been in those events so far. What we've had is polite people putting polite questions, and the ITV leaders' debate in Salford was so well organised that for most of the transmission you hardly knew there was an audience at all. It was therefore more reassuring than alarming that the people assembled by the BBC at Central Hall in Westminster occasionally proved that they hadn't dozed off.

For these big events, broadcasters want to be fair but they also know that the parties would be unforgiving if a debate generated an awkward encounter between politician and public--of which the classic remains Diana Gould's televised interrogation of Margaret Thatcher about the sinking of the Belgrano during the 1983 campaign. But this desire to avoid ruffling feathers seems to be the instinct when the public is allowed to speak in the most viewed news bulletins, too. The BBC has been running a series entitled "My Election", which features voters from around the country, and it is pleasant viewing--but it seems to focus on nice people doing picturesque things, whether it's going for walks in the Peak District expressing mild worries about planning or bantering amiably at their fishmonger's stall.

Vox pops, as they are universally known in newsrooms, are a staple element of many reports year round. Even outside a campaign, they tend to be rigidly balanced--so an interviewee in the street who thinks the NHS is marvellous will be followed by one who thinks it needs improvement. It perks up a piece otherwise full of talking heads but it is seldom illuminating. In campaign reporting, I was struck by the blandness of many of the vox pops featured in the run-up to the Scottish referendum. There was the battle you could witness being fought on social media, with its raw emotion and at times brutality, and then the standard Yes/No fodder that appeared in the flagship news programmes.

I had a similar insight at the recent Lincoln parliamentary hustings at Bishop Grosseteste University. There was a passion that gets squeezed out of a lot of the broadcasting, whether it's the commitment to issues close to students' hearts or the anger at a disenfranchising political system. This is of a piece with some views that are underplayed in the media: a report for the BBC Trust in 2013 identified the relative absence from the airwaves of the case being made for the renationalisation of the energy companies or for active trade unionism--opinions held by millions on the left--or for private education and more private health care from the right. …

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