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The Toxin of Televisuality

As the democratic dangers posed by social media are exposed, the degradation of our politics by the small screen should not be forgotten, writes AC Grayling

Conservative MP and former Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock eats a camel’s penis in a bushtucker trial on ‘I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!’. Photo: James Gourley/ITV

The Toxin of Televisuality

As the democratic dangers posed by social media are exposed, the degradation of our politics by the small screen should not be forgotten, writes AC Grayling 

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A fact now accepted but not yet satisfactorily addressed is that democracy faces challenges from social media – not least its use to micro-target profiled groups with political messaging that others cannot see or challenge. This, and the other ways in which it undermines democracy, needs much more attention. 

But significant aspects of what has happened in the political culture of ‘advanced’ democracies owes itself to a much longer-term change in communication technology – one that dates all the way back to the mid-20th Century and which, because of its familiarity, is overlooked as a major factor: television.

Donald Trump is the culminating example of its most negative influence on politics. Of course, television has a positive influence too, bringing the world and some of its realities into living rooms and allowing people to see and hear more of politicians. But when one weighs the negative against the positive, the result – arguably – is that television has a detrimental effect because of how viewers respond to it. 

For television confers recognisability, which when repeated becomes celebrity – and, unlike the content of discussion on radio or in print, what is said on television is often quickly forgotten so that what anyone says is vastly less important than the fact of their being seen to say it. Repeated visual exposure to the public eye, especially if one looks good on camera, makes for fame, and ‘being famous’ (sometimes, even infamous) is enough to confer a big head start in political terms.

Trump ticks every box for the kind of person no one should ever vote for. A critic might be forgiven for describing him as a shallow, narcissistic, uninformed, unprincipled, bloviating, childish egomaniac – and even if that goes too far, it remains that he has repeatedly been seen and heard to say stupid and ignorant things in public, to give vent to unpleasantly sexist sentiments, and to mock disabled people. You would think few could give him credence. Instead, he was elected President. How can this be? 

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Sheer televisual familiarity means he has filled American television screens for decades and that trumps (yes) all the negatives for that portion of the population who might consider putting him back in the White House in 2024. He has learned that the celebrity created by visibility excuses almost everything said or done, however crass or repellent, among a big enough section of society to get him into the White House without the intellectual or moral equipment to sustain him in it.

Televisuality’s key role in political careers began in the 1950s and has grown along with its technical capability to provide 24-hour coverage from almost anywhere on the globe. 

Some will remember, on grainy black-and-white screens, Harold Macmillan’s matching droop of eyelids and moustache, clad in tweed plus-fours with a shotgun over his arm on the moors; the skull-like visage of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the last Earl to be Prime Minister; or the more cosy image of a pipe-smoking Harold Wilson telling everyone in his warm northern accent that the pound in their pockets had not been devalued. 

Across the Atlantic, John F. Kennedy’s handsome face and Lyndon Johnson’s avuncular one were compared with Nixon’s sweaty visage to the eventual detriment of the latter. Even at that point, one might have thought such things as personal reputation (Eisenhower, Churchill) or policy (Roosevelt, Attlee) played at least a significant part in public evaluation of politicians. 

But by the time of Mrs Thatcher’s cosmeticised hairstyle and voice – the one sprayed high and the other pitched low – televisuality had become a significant factor. 

Tony Blair is an accomplished politician but he was aided by his fresh, youthful face and manner, which went down well on the small screen. The man who would have been the greatest British statesman of modern times if had he been allowed to get on with his job, Gordon Brown, was defeated by his grim visage – one blind eye and an inability to tolerate the media 24/7 like terriers at his ankles.

Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband were central casting post-Blair fresh-faces, though the third of them had ability too. 

Boris Johnson bucked that trend, successfully parading his rumpled facetiousness on our screens in order to stand out from the crowd. He joins Trump as evidence of the final triumph of mere familiarity – without the depth and ability needed for a minimum of statecraft.

But, although television has promoted some politicians far above their competence, it has also paradoxically brought politics itself low, contributing to the reason why politicians, as a class, have a poor reputation. They are often in bad odour with the public for seeming unprincipled, slippery and self-interested and, when in ministerial office, incompetent – an appearance reinforced by almost every television interview. 

This general opinion is unfair to good MPs, who are branded negatively along with the mediocre and the bad; under-appreciated because the work they do in constituencies and on select committees is mostly invisible. But although the blanket mistrust of politicians is not invariably fair, neither is it without foundation.

The nature of party politics itself is inimical to the virtues desirable in representatives – principle, honesty and dedication to the public good – because party political pressures and careerism make for a toxic mixture, in which these virtues are dissolved in the need to toe a party line.

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Then there is the amateurish and inadequate way in which politicians are chosen by parties and constituency organisations. One of the basic democratic pieties is that voters choose representatives to serve their interests in Parliament, which means that if those chosen prove unsatisfactory, the ultimate responsibility lies with voters themselves. The low regard in which politicians are held suggests that voters fail in that responsibility too often. 

Consider the contrast between the way politicians are chosen with the way candidates for Civil Service posts are selected.

The latter are appointed to carry out the former’s will, on the democratic principle that elected politicians embody, in turn, the will of the people, this is as it should be. But note that the elected-appointed difference is in effect an amateur-professional one.

There are excellent reasons for having amateurs in charge of professionals – as the RAF wartime saying had it, ‘have the experts on tap, not on top’. The requirement is that the amateurs in this relationship should have sound principles, are well-judging, and can identify and act on good advice. Such therefore are the kind of people voters should choose to represent them. A civil servant must have not only these qualities but others besides, not least among them dispassion, expertise and a high degree of intelligence. Such therefore are the kind of people government should choose to serve it.

What kind of selection process would result in appointment of good civil servants? How about this. One or more people present themselves to some self-selected members of the public, and make a presentation in which they talk about their experience and views. If there is more than one candidate, the presentations take the form of hustings. The appearance, eloquence and alignment of the candidate’s opinions with those of the assembled company are among the factors that determine the outcome. The standard of judgement of the assembled company will have been largely shaped by what they see of leading public figures on television.

This is how political candidates are chosen. I doubt many would think it a sound way of populating the Civil Service, especially for ‘fast-stream’ officials in government ministries, where the career path for the most successful of them might lead eventually to appointment as permanent secretaries or heads of departments of state – the highly experienced and accomplished senior officials caricatured by Sir Humphry in Yes, Minister.

Applicants for fast-stream posts have to be university graduates and are subjected to a lengthy and rigorous process including interviews, vetting, an examination, attendance at an assessment centre, and – if they get through all that – a final selection board. The process is designed and run by personnel experts. Appointments to the Foreign Office and the Treasury, in particular, are extremely competitive. 

Choosing parliamentary candidates, by marked contrast, takes little more than the informal love-in described above. There are no examinations, the interviews are not real interviews, the vetting is parti pris. The qualification ‘little more than’ leaves room for an important prior step: the choice of the candidate, or at very least the granting of approval, by party HQ. Herein lies a clue.

In the Conservative Party, candidates are chosen by HQ and offered to constituencies. In the phraseology of the pre-1832 Reform Bill, ‘safe seats’ are pocket boroughs – they belong to the party by virtue of their demography and voting history. This prompts that cliché about constituents in ‘safe seats’ voting for a donkey if it sports the right rosette.

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Labour’s party leadership has a less easy ride when it wishes to see a candidate adopted – or not adopted – in a given constituency, because Labour members are often more fractious and independent-minded, and place greater weight on candidates’ local credentials and proof of long-standing commitment to the cause. But because the party’s central organisation has disciplinary ambitions of its own, Labour is the party most likely to see disputes arise over candidates. 

The Liberal Democrats are strict on party democracy and, like Labour, privilege fidelity and length of service when choosing candidates. The Conservatives are happy to parachute a lately-joined member into a constituency if their jib is of an especially good cut, though candidates who pass muster to be jobbing MPs – lobby fodder – have to cut their teeth on electoral defeat first. 

At the leadership level, the additional requirement is public visibility – and the more of it someone has, the greater the chance they will be viewed as an election-winning prospect by other party members. Here is where the toxin of celebrity really enters the picture. The only medium with the power to provide literal visibility and therefore, by repetition or egregiousness, celebrity, is television. Imagine if our civil servants were selected in this way.

Though the rise of right-wing populism has more causes than just the televisual familiarity of political leaders, it is no coincidence that Johnson and Trump – and with them Putin, Orbán, Bolsanaro, Modi, Berlusconi, Le Pen – are instantly recognisable to all in their domains, sufficient to attach the support of those there who find nationalistic, anti-immigration headline policies appealing. 

In the US, the imperative of celebrity in politics has reached further down the ranks. Republican candidates in this year’s midterm elections – such as Dr Oz (made famous by Oprah Winfrey); Herschel Walker (made famous by football); and J. D. Vance (Hillbilly Elegy) who the Independent said has “a celebrity draw that Mr Trump respects and understands” – are examples. 

Combine this tendency with the inadequate means of vetting and selecting candidates for elected office, and a major reason for the unsatisfactory quality of too many in the political classes becomes clear. 

Without changing anything else, using genuine merit rather than celebrity as the criterion for choosing politicians would go a long way to making the world a better place.

Television has made the slogan ‘the medium is the message’ a literal truth. Perhaps it is too late to counter the effect it has had on democracy, but we should keep trying. In turning our attentions to social media’s new and yet more insidious potential for challenging democracy, television’s already established role in the field should not be forgotten. 

AC Grayling is a philosopher, Master of the New College of the Humanities, and Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College at Oxford University

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