I’ve been developing a growing concern lately that the only reality we experience comes via tele-visual events. By this I mean that important national or cultural happenings are conceived and delivered purely to a tele-visual market, and subsequently retain very little reality outside of the box. As viewers, we receive and judge these events for their tele-visual or entertainment value, not for their veracity. Whether it is a political election or a song and dance festival, it’s how the event looks on TV that ultimately matters and determines its value. My concern is with the people who wield power in this medium: I suspect they control and partition their information accordingly, always with that tele-visual angle in mind. And no, I’m not a conspiracy nut.
For politicians, this game is old hat. Anyone who’s ever followed an American election will know that stage management and controlled-image messages are crucial to a campaign, despite the reality that these messages may be at odds with the real consequences of the politics they disguise. As long as the candidate smiles and appears smart while surrounded by enthusiastic supporters, s/he can get away with policies that may harm the (unsuspecting) public in many ways. You might say it’s in the nature of representative politics to use television for its own ends, that this is standard operating procedure in line with everyone’s best interests and the only way to run a campaign — with the footnote that manipulation of facts and images (or even the truth, as with the Swiftboat scandal) are normal and acceptable means to this end. And besides, the critical cynics who disagree with such manipulation being fed to the public are a disgruntled, disenfranchised lot who don’t matter in terms of votes. Yet as the tele-visual arena continues to represent a vital component in image building and maintaining that image, it’s becoming more and more relevant to be aware of how subtle and pervasive the political (mis)use of media has become; it’s important to see how misrepresentation, dissembling, and spin form a package of slick lies and skewed disinformation — especially at election time — which directly affects our collective future.
In terms of historical precedence, this all began with the Nixon/Kennedy debates of 1960. People who listened in on radio thought Nixon was the clear winner in terms of verbal content and delivery; but on black and white TV he was a sweating, uncomfortable hulk next to the debonair, naturally executive look of Kennedy. The television chose JFK.
Believe it or not, what got me thinking on this tack was the annual Eurovision Song Festival, which just ran in Kiev. Achingly kitsch and bordering on absurd, the Eurovision festival gives new meaning to television endurance both in the sense of an event whose format has changed little since the ‘70s, and as an extraordinarily drawn-out viewing affair that inspires spontaneous invention of drinking games. Its tawdry hosts swap tepid gags from the autocue; it has song and dance routines more revealing than maniacal interpretations of ‘80s music and aerobics; it always has a bunch of guys banging drums in a pointlessly dramatic spectacle; there’s more sweeping camera angles and fancy lighting than your average awards ceremony or Lionel Ritchie video.
The second half of the show is devoted entirely to taking in the judges’ votes through live feeds from the represented countries (some, like Andorra, you never knew were actual countries). Imagine watching ice-skating results being read for two hours; such is the tedium of about 20 judges reading out their scores. Each of the judges habitually phones in a lame come-on or a garbled greeting in the host nation’s language. In short, everything has the glossy veneer of Eurotrash: appalling songs and hokey national themes mixed with shining optimism and hammy backing tracks, as well as that over-produced feeling of slick and scripted stage-management, that there’s not so much genuine competition at all.
As an event, it’s a depressingly pure, made-for-TV television affair that doesn’t have any validity outside of television: the crowds in both the audience and behind the judges (who always insist there’s a really big party off camera) seem more subdued than the overdubbed sounds of wild cheering and screaming seem to imply. The throngs of photographers at the bottom of the stage (jostling for the winning photo) simply seem to be waving their cameras in the air, or maybe the free alcohol has something to do with it; and the perennial drollness of British commentator Terry Wogan gets more familiar every time (“All right, get off the stage now!”). Despite launching the career of Abba, it’s hard to find any way in which the Eurovision connects to the outside world. The reality is that it doesn’t connect at all, that it’s an absurd artefact of the ‘70s that should be shot and buried like the embarrassing, shameful institution it is. The show hasn’t moved on or progressed with the times, with the exception that now viewers at home can participate in the voting through expensive text-messaging (SMS) numbers.
The program’s saving grace, of course, is in the details, and in this case the interesting details are genuinely political. For the Ukraine, hosting the Eurovision symbolically represents the embrace of Europe and the sloughing off of Russian hegemony. Ukrainian president Victor Yushenko is happy to hand out the grand prize to the winner (this year, a J-Lo-esque Swedish Greek named Elena Paparizou). Yushenko said earlier in an interview leading up to the Eurovision that “any events that contribute to the integration of Ukraine into Europe are important and sacred.” For the Ukraine there is nothing camp or kitsch about the event at all; there’s an air of empowerment and acceptance in the eyes of the EU that furthers their own independence — something also reflected by the former Yugoslav and Baltic states voting politically against their former masters. Rather, it’s the new nations coming into the Eurovision every year that keep the musical farce interesting, as far as that is possible. But for Europeans it’s almost sad to see kitsch and camp being embraced so optimistically and enthusiastically: it makes European politics appear that much more insignificant and pathetic in contrast.
I wish that Terry Wogan could’ve brought his droll and world-weary commentary to the recent UK elections, because that, too, turned out to be a slick media-manipulated competition with equal amounts of stage management and tired familiarity. Prime Minister Tony Blair took a few leaves from the American book of campaigning by running a cynically manipulated “grass-roots” election played specifically to television audiences. In a recent documentary for Channel 4 called Undercover in New Labour, reporter Jenny Kleeman posed as a volunteer to lay bare the media tactics used by Blair’s office to win the election.
Political letter writing campaigns of the kind perfected in America (particularly by the GOP) and various deliberate discrediting tactics like organised protests and obsessive media control were the norm for this election. For example, dozens of employees and professional New Labour operatives wrote proactive letters praising this or that facet of Blair without disclosing their political allegiance. In most cases the letters were pretty much dictated by templates from the campaign office and were distributed primarily to local and rural newspapers where people actually read and trust the letters section, and where they don’t expect to find propaganda. At the same time, Blair stayed on-message with controlled and camera friendly meet-the-people spots or slogan launches where the people were actually staff or flunkies deliberately arranged to form an attractive demographic sample. The groups’ work done, they’d be swept away to the next photogenic photo op.
Meanwhile, following the campaign of Blair’s opponent, Michael Howard, would be another group of flunkies, seemingly spontaneously-appearing to protest his policies while bearing suspiciously on-message posters. They’d make their presence felt for the television cameras, then disperse and regroup wherever Howard went, as long as he was made to look consistently unpopular. All of these troublemakers were Labour operatives — some even parodied the vampiric demeanour of Howard by dressing up as grim reapers. But the net purpose of all their dishonest tactics was not to be a political disruption or provide a sarcastic side-show to the dull familiarity of electioneering, but rather to control the tele-visual environment (and perceived reality) of the whole election; as one of the commentators in the documentary said, the election became an exercise in “organised deception”.
On the other side, Michael Howard adopted a dubious election strategy from his Australian right-wing political namesake John Howard, by running a campaign based on suggestive, jingoistic immigration control messages (his party’s slogan: “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”). The problem was that in comparison, his campaign was nowhere near as controlled and managed as Blair’s dissembling machine. But as usual with staged and controlled media events, it wasn’t until afterwards that the election’s cleverly constructed and manipulated nature became apparent, and by then the winner (Blair) didn’t have to account for anything. Any early hopes of a “clean” election seemed like so much wishful thinking. For the purpose of winning, Blair’s campaign team created a synthetic, mediated reality, a string of controlled events and underhanded tactics totally at odds with real political issues or genuine democratic dialogue (important issues like Britain’s future place in the EU, or the shambolic road to war in Iraq, were simply ignored). A contrived reality that was somewhat at odds with, well, reality.
In addition to serving as a clever undercover piece, Undercover in New Labour can be read as a how-to guide for emerging democratic candidates elsewhere. Election Rule Number One: To make yourself look superior in an election, always surround yourself by endorsers and applauders. Make them seem like spontaneously gathered bystanders; make them nod and clap on cue; ensure they sell the party’s message and plan everything in advance for optimal televised exposure. Rule Number Two: Keep all critical journalistic voices (or “hecklers”) at a distance and keep them out of the campaign-planning loop. Obstruct them from the action if necessary. Instead, bombard the media with reams of information about your opponent’s gaffes and inconsistencies. Essentially, divert attention away from your own shortcomings and consistently focus on your opponent’s negative attributes. Rule Number Three: Keep yourself crisp and camera-clean by not mentioning any pressing or real political issues for the length of the campaign, steering well clear of unscripted Q&As or unflattering discussions.
For better or worse, modern politics is all about this cynical manipulation and control of media, or rather, this polite form of misinformation and disingenuousness. How can voters make informed decisions when they’ve inadvertently swallowed such a glossy, skewed media package? Yet this is also the package of values and perceptions our fearless leaders propagate to other world leaders (especially in the former Soviet Bloc) when exporting Democracy and Freedom, as Bush did on his recent visit to the Baltic region to sell those woolly concepts. This supposed “democratic” notion he’s so fond of is a malleable media product just like any other. The voters are encouraged to support whomever they think looks best for the sake of the cameras (and, er the nation).
Like the Eurovision, the tallying of votes may be the dreariest part of the election, but it’s an essential part of the game and has to be watched closely, patiently. Similarly, the idea of “freedom” here entails the ability to present politics as a series of controlled events which gives the market, I mean electorate, the notion that they’re making fair and independently formed decisions about who shall govern them and how. But in fact the voters are merely participating in the flatteringly lit and well-scripted embellishment of reality that television perpetuates. If an election candidate is very lucky and successful, bearing in mind the additional rules above, then other countries might get to watch that election event too, broadcast it live, or even organise a night of drink and tired commentary around it; and then bemoan the absence of genuine reality and concern for the future expressed by it.
On television, the Eurovision and the UK election seem to indicate a future where both mediated politics and televised entertainment are interchangeable, both equally glib and manufactured — presenting contrived and distracting fare to disguise the bending away or complete departure from reality. It might seem like a swish and flashy show now, but it begs considering a rather dreary future where reality and real issues are just trifling and superfluous tele-visual elements — and that would be a disaster for us all.