So after all the hype, the ads, the contorted build-up, the dozens of days of negotiations, the thousands of headlines, the millions of words of pre-match and post-match analysis, just over three million people bothered to tune in for the first ‘big debate’ agreed between the parties and the broadcasters. That is a shamingly low figure for all of us.
The kneejerk anti-politics line is to blame the politicians, to moan and groan and say none of them inspire, they’re all the same, nothing ever changes, blah blah blah, crap crap crap. People in politics might be tempted, as I am from time to time, and as Nick Clegg does in our interview for GQ next month, to blame the cumulative impact of years of relentlessly negative media coverage about politics and public life.
I’m afraid the time has come to throw a bit of blame at a public which on the one hand complains about disengagement and on the other hand cannot be arsed to get engaged if it means having to engage our own brains in something other than a soap opera, a reality TV show or a trivia quiz.
It is like the business people I speak to, including this morning, who shake their heads and say ‘why are there so few people in politics who have ever run a business?’ to which I now have a ready made, bluntly delivered reply. ‘Because people like you don’t want to do it. Because even though the money isn’t great, you want to carry on saying MPs get paid too much and you could do a better job.’
As for the cumulative media impact, it is surely time to accept it has created a more dumbed down society many of whose members couldn’t care less what the only two people who might be Prime Minister after May 7 have to say to or about each other; but care passionately if offered a ‘vote’ in one of Simon Cowell’s productions, and care so much about the fate of Jeremy Clarkson that they march on the BBC, sign petitions in their hundreds of thousands to keep him on Top Gear and have the Prime Minister feeling he has to rush to their side. We are becoming a demeaned and diminished country by this sort of nonsense, and it is driven by a combination of public, media and politicians – in that order.
Moving around various parts of the country today, most people seemed to be aware the programme had happened, many I met had seen it, but many I met had not.
Fine. People lead busy lives. There are lots of pressures on time. But I do think all of us have a responsibility to inform ourselves and to be engaged in a debate as important as the one that ends in a general election. If people feel they don’t understand the issues, they need to start doing a bit of thinking of their own. And if people feel not voting makes no difference, let’s see how they feel when they wake up one day and find millions of people thought the same, but a few million others didn’t, and voted to elect a bunch of extremists.
I am developing something close to contempt for otherwise rational, often well-educated, well-heeled people who say things like this – that they would like to see Boris Johnson as Prime Minister because ‘he makes me laugh,’ – elect a comedian then …. or they will vote for Nigel Farage because ‘he likes a pint and a fag’ … let’s elect a drunk, shall we? …. or that there is no difference between the parties when you just had to watch five minutes of last night to see what utter nonsense that is.
David Cameron did democracy a disservice in refusing to have head to head debates with Ed Miliband. The broadcasters did democracy a disservice by handling the negotiations in a way that allowed Cameron to wriggle out of them. And what’s more they should all be on terrestrial television, not part of some commercial broadcaster power struggle, with Kay Burley weaving in Sky App plugs as she goes.
As for the programme, I freely admit my bias. I am Labour. I don’t like David Cameron very much and I think he is not a good leader of our country. I do like Ed Miliband and I think he could be a good leader of our country if he gets the chance. I think he did a better job of showing last night what he stands for and what he would do than David Cameron did of defending what he has done in a first term or explaining what he wants to do in a second.
In normal circumstances, that would cheer me greatly. But I find little cheer in the way so many millions seem to think it didn’t really matter much at all.
Ps. A final thought, and another whack at the media if I may, over coverage of the tragedy of the German plane which crashed in France. Many people with depression are capable of doing difficult jobs despite their illness, including flying aeroplanes, or leading troops in battle, or doing operations in hospitals, or protecting our streets, or even, dare I suggest, editing newspapers. Headlines today have reduced this tragedy to a very simple notion – that anyone with a history of depression has no place doing a job that involves looking after other people. It is as backward a view as it is possible to imagine, and underlines just how far we have to to go in breaking down centuries of taboo and stigma surrounding mental illness. The editors of the Mail – no surprise there then – the Sun and the Express should be ashamed.