Kathy Sheridan: Spare me the people’s voice

In a world where social media means no opinion ever goes unexpressed, the vox pop is hauling sand to the desert

Brenda from Bristol became the British vox pop breakout star of 2017, when a BBC reporter broke the news to her of another general election and she responded: “You’re joking Not another one! Oh, for God’s sake. Honestly. I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment”

Brenda from Bristol became the British vox pop breakout star of 2017, when a BBC reporter broke the news to her of another general election and she responded: “You’re joking Not another one! Oh, for God’s sake. Honestly. I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment”

 

A news programme decided to run something to mark the Taoiseach’s 40th birthday and went with a jolly vox pop. Well, the worst that can happen is that someone tells him where to stick his birthday because of homelessness right? Which someone duly did.

Cue guffaws of laughter, especially when the camera lingers a little too long on one vox pop interviewee’s awkward courtesy and someone on social media dubs the editor a legend. Basically the birthday feature is just a pretext for an easy laugh. Send an unfortunate young reporter running around a small area with a question and a camera and prepare for a laugh as a few eager-to-be-helpful, unprepared members of the public trip over their 30 seconds of fame.

Such features can be regarded as the equivalent of traditional “. . .and finally” segment on otherwise serious news shows. But whole websites are now devoted to eye-boggling images of dogs forming efficient doggy pyramids to unlock doors. As therapy for viewers of news shows traumatised by images of children in cages, it’s probably run its course.

Brenda perfectly encapsulated the pointlessness of vox pops. She was funny but added precisely nothing beyond the fact that people were fed up with politics, which is no news at all, ever

But are vox pops ever useful for more serious purposes? It makes sense to canvass the views of locals, say, on a plan to site a methadone clinic in their relatively leafy suburb. The topic is a deeply serious one. There are 10,000 methadone users in the country, some highly visible, many not at all. The issue deserves generous space on programmes whose purpose is to tease out complex issues that will lead to greater understanding.

Or, the opposite, as often happens in a vox pop. When locals’ responses to a binary question are reduced to a soundbite that comes across as cruel, dismissive and ignorant. What have we learned? That they are cruel and ignorant or that a one-line answer is no guide? With some exceptions, answers to a recent vox pop on just such a methadone clinic amounted to “but what about the children . . .” What was the purpose of the exercise?

Defends vox pops

The BBC’s home editor, Mark Easton, vigorously defends vox pops, arguing that “there is so much to learn from listening to people, giving them the chance to offer a view, however incisive or ill-informed we might think those opinions are”. But the obvious problem with vox pops is that there is no real listening. A vox pop is neither an interview nor a consultation. It’s a hit-and-run, an instant answer to a binary question. And we know too well where binary questions and poorly informed answers can take us.

It might be argued that the unplanned, blurted-out answer is the most honest one, but since Donald Trump voters revere that as his singular virtue (“he’s not a politician”, they say proudly ), we can hardly claim that it leads to a safer, kinder, more reflective world. Easton argues that vox pops “often tell us something important about what is bubbling away below the surface” – which is a very fine mission if the purpose is to take away all those bubbling somethings and harness them for more in-depth reporting. Instead they are given an instant, nationwide platform, amplifying the lies and misconceptions peddled by the elite charlatans.

No useful answers to Brexit are to be found by sidling up to cranky 70-somethings or a gaggle of carrot-waving market-stallholders (a Brexit vox pop interviewee below the age of 50 is a rarity). Yet British television is rife with their Brexit opinions. The suspicion is that producers prefer leave areas because that’s where the decisive, one-note voices will be (“we voted to leave, well do it”).

In February when Nissan announced it would not, after all, be manufacturing the new X-Trail model in Sunderland – where not incidentally, nearly two-thirds had voted leave – a woman on an ITV vox pop blamed “too many people trying to stop Brexit. That’s what’s causing the uncertainty”. In whose world was that useful?

Then again the upside for the vox pop reporters is that no-one expects them to argue it out because there isn’t time and it might look dangerously like the metropolitan elite parachuting in to flaunt their knowledge at the “real people”.

In fact, it can sound far more condescending not to take the time and trouble to tease out the points. In any event, it’s the one- or two-liner that gets aired.

Brenda from Bristol became the British vox pop breakout star of 2017, when a BBC reporter broke the news to her of another general election and she responded (imagine pantomime levels of exasperation): “You’re joking. Not another one! Oh, for God’s sake! Honestly. I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment.”

Added precisely nothing

Brenda perfectly encapsulated the pointlessness of vox pops. She was funny but added precisely nothing beyond the fact that people were fed up with politics, which is no news at all, ever. Yet paradoxically, a vox pop is meant to be the antidote to that apathy, the splash of colour that allows them to think they are all part of the great democratisation of news.

But who needs a vox pop for that? The “democratisation” of news through the internet and social media is the story of our time. Want to know what “real people” think of politics? It’s all there.

In a world where social media means no opinion ever goes unexpressed, the vox pop is hauling sand to the desert.

Has anyone ever learned anything useful from a vox pop? Can we end it now.

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