Vox pops predictable? Tell me something I don't know

Sat, Feb 16, 2013, 00:00

There’s a lady on my television talking about horsegate. Apparently, she likes to eat processed lasagne now and then. It’s convenient, you see. Not everybody has time to shop at posh butchers, prepare ragu and keep the oven clear for half an hour (or however long grown-up cooking takes). Thank you for that, madam.

Elsewhere, Irish Mass-goers are being interviewed about the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. It appears they didn’t expect the unexpected event to happen in such unexpected fashion. They are all a bit depressed about it. One or two seem to be harbouring mild conspiracy theories.

Oh no. Some ghastly murder has taken place in a grim corner of Minnesota. The news people have tracked down a man in an anorak. It seems the incident was a terrible thing and everybody is very shocked. Tell me something I don’t know. Why don’t you locate somebody who thinks the slaying was a blessing and that more innocent people should be murdered in their beds? Now, that would count as news.

Aggrieved lunatics

We have, over the past few years, got used to the fact that “ordinary people” deserve a place in mainstream news media. This can be a good thing. Every online comment that appears at the bottom of this column counts as a worthy contribution to whatever feeble straw man I have elected to lazily incinerate on Saturday morning. None are from aggrieved lunatics. All are worthy of serious consideration. Have I made that absolutely clear?

Twitter rules. I don’t use the medium myself. But it remains a useful agency for propagating serious consideration of world affairs. This stubborn parody of the tweeters as a mob of torch-bearing yokels advancing angrily towards Frankenstein’s castle is a sad manifestation of creaky 20th-century thinking.

All that is magnificent. I really do take seriously BobaFett4656’s remarks on the Internet Movie Database’s comments page for Star Wars: Episode VII. JJ Abrams’ taste for lens flare could very well be a manifestation of poorly concealed psychosis.

It was not ever thus. In the good old days men in double-breasted suits sat behind desks and lectured us like the worthless plebs we know ourselves to be. When Dr Jacob Bronowski was presenting The Ascent of Man he didn’t ask passing citizens of Berne for their opinions on Einstein’s theory of special relativity. “Oh, in my day, it didn’t matter what speed you were moving at,” a man at a pretzel stand didn’t say. “Your watch always ran at the same pace. I prefer that nice Mr Newton.”

Okay, that’s not really fair. He may have a teenager’s haircut, but Dr Brian Cox retains a similar air of untouchable omniscience. No bystander is allowed to interrupt his current musings on biogenesis. Creationist maniacs are contained in their social-media corrals.

Quizzing citizens

Broadcast news has, however, changed. And it changed some time ago. Long before internet 2.0 (hey, remember that buzzword?) introduced a new class of democracy, passing citizens were being quizzed about the latest assassination, hurricane or alteration in interest rates.

Like too much that has gone wrong with contemporary TV news – funky graphs, presenters lounging in front of their desks, an obsession with celebrity tittle-tattle – the innovations crept in from the world of light entertainment.

In the 1970s and 1980s, we were happy to watch Mike Murphy and Michael Barrymore interact with genuine “members of the public”. New employees at pop-music radio stations were, on their first day, invariably dispatched to Grafton Street for meaningless conversations with indifferently informed layabouts. (People who actually knew what they were talking about didn’t make for such good radio.)

Like European fascism or zombie infestation in horror movies, the phenomenon began slowly before infesting all areas of public life. One moment, a serious lady at a petrol station was pondering the intransigence of Opec; the next, a gaggle of teenagers was complaining about the EU’s policy of straightening bananas.

Rolling news is partly to blame. Filling up those endless yawning hours must be a truly daunting project. If you can’t get an expert to ponder the latest atrocity then any old nut will do.

Should we just let it slide? Well, though the public do deserve to be heard, the average vox pop simply does not count as news. Keep the waffle for magazine shows (and op-ed pages).

More importantly, it is just so desperately uninteresting. Dealing with sensitive issues, the editors make sure to include only reasonable people with reasonable views. Where’s the fun in that? If we must have passersby on news bulletins (and it seems we must) let’s hear from the red-meat racists, holocaust deniers, believers in alien visitation, conspiracy fruitcakes and evangelists for the coming apocalypse.

Might this not constitute dumbing-down? Too late to worry about that, I fear.

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