Politics and the media: putting on a good show

Like many of us here at UEA, in the run up to the general election, I am finding myself wondering more and more exactly who my vote on 7th May should be going to. And also like all students, I am increasingly becoming an expert at procrastination, hence why – instead of working on the essay I should have been writing – I found myself listening in horror to the recent car crash of a radio interview with Natalie Bennett.

The Green Party leader appeared on LBC radio with Nick Ferrari on 24th February, only to suffer what she later described as a “brain fade”. For anyone who hasn’t heard it, I can promise that the listeners certainly suffered along with her. While cringing at some of the most awkward moments, including her being seemingly unable to recall the costs of how the party plans to fund their flagship social housing policy, I started wondering about the consequences this disastrous performance would have on both Bennett’s career and on the Green Party’s electoral chances.

In today’s social media obsessed world, a politician’s mistake or slip up can be recorded, shared and retweeted millions of times, sometimes before the interview or speech has ended. Although Bennett apologised for letting down the party’s now 54,000-plus members, the damage had already been done. Are politicians performances in the media now seen as more important than any party’s actual ideas or policies? With every election we move closer to a world in which Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Youtube are the real deciders of the result. Opinion polls matter less than a successful photo op, and quotes are now best when limited to fewer than 140 characters. What does this mean for the crop of first-time voters in May, and should we be worried?

The Green Party is already popular at UEA – Natalie Bennett spoke here earlier this semester, and the designer and activist Vivienne Westwood’s political campaign, We Are The Revolution, plans to visit Norwich in May to encourage students and residents to vote Green. Students are always stereotyped as a more left-wing, liberal voter group, but the assumption that we will overwhelmingly vote Green may be challenged by the Labour Party unveiling their plans to cut tuition fees to £6,000. Coupled with the seeming incompetence of its leader, this could present a serious challenge to the Greens.

Ed Miliband may be better known for his frequent embarrassing media appearances, awkward resemblance to Gromit – and do I need to remind anyone of his spectacular failure to publicly consume a bacon sandwich – but this tuition fee pledge is an example of a specific policy managing to grab voters’ attention and raising a politicians’ popularity. However, this is not always the norm and often it is in fact the silly media gaffes that increase the public profile of those who want to be our leaders.

Boris Johnson seems to permanently rely on his ‘funny hair’ and sense of humour for political success, and surely no one can forget Nick Clegg’s “I’m So So Sorry” song, or the fact that David Cameron once forgot his child in a pub. Meanwhile, Ukip’s meteoric rise as a serious election contender has meant huge changes to their public appearances in order to gain the public’s trust and respect. These media mistakes were things that grabbed the public’s attention, reminding us that politicians can be funny as well as infuriating – if only occasionally.

Despite the obvious humour in seeing those running the country embarrass themselves in public, elections and politics in general remain important. With the ideological divide between left and right being far greater than in previous years, surely it’s time we took things seriously? While some see the one tick on a ballot paper we are entitled to every five years as unimportant or even irrelevant, I am firmly of the opposite view. This is our only chance in the next half a decade to a have a real say in the future of the country we live in. Instead of wasting it worrying about media gaffes and snappy sound bites, we should make it count and focus on the very real choices we all have to make.


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August 2022
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