Big Brother is teaching us

A recent and oft-repeated urban myth is that more people voted in the 2004 final of Big Brother than in the European Parliament election held around the same time. In actual fact "only" slightly more than one third of the number of public election voters participated in the Big Brother vote - 6.3 million as opposed to 17 million. Well that's a relief then. In fact the figures are still alarming, particularly when one realises that it costs the caller 50p for every vote cast in the Big Brother bonanza.

The highly motivated and politically addicted readers of Liberator may well be wondering what on earth this has to do with current political life. The answer is that a survey of Big Brother voters carried out by Professor Stephen Coleman for the ultra respectable Hansard Society has produced a number of valuable insights into why large chunks of the UK electorate is brassed off with politics in general and cannot be bothered to turn out to vote.

The research was carried out with a representative sample of 200 Big Brother viewers. Those of us who wouldn't watch the programme even if bribed, bound and brought before the television screen can easily dismiss the research findings as the inconsequential views of members of the public whose television preferences put them beyond the pale. To take such a line would be foolish, particularly at a time when politicians need every insight they can dredge up in order to find answers to the alienation problem. If the British political class cannot engage the millions of Big Brother viewers, it is primarily a problem for the politicians rather than for the viewers.

The over-riding message of the research is that we now live in an interactive age and that there is a significant section of the public - possibly even a majority - that enjoys, and has got used to, participating in the scenario presented before it on the television screen. Not for nothing are these programmes known generically as "reality TV"; they deliberately show intimate aspects of the lives of the participants and judge them according to the aspects of personality thus depicted.

I suspect that just about every Liberator reader will have been appalled at George Galloway's appearance on Big Brother and at his reported antics. We probably thought that these would be highly damaging to him and his party. The received truth amongst the protagonists of Big Brother is quite the opposite - that his participation actually enhanced his electoral popularity. Arguably the recent local election vote for Respect in his constituency bears that out.

The lesson for politicians and for political parties is clear: that they need to expose themselves more to the electorate at the other side of the television screen and to make themselves available for a live time dialogue with these potential voters. This is not about "dumbing down" but about methodology. The content can be, and should be, intellectually rigorous even if the channel of communication may well foster simplistic questions and comments. What is clear from the research is that the Big Brother audience wants honesty and consistency. The consequence for the politician exposing himself or herself to such cross examination is a requirement for better preparation coupled with an ability to admit fallibility and, even, ignorance. The few occasions when viewers and listeners have been able to question politicians direct have been salutary. One still recalls with glee Mrs Thatcher's mauling at the hands of Mrs Diana Gould during the 1983 election campaign over the sinking of the General Belgrano.

Stephen Coleman's research findings do not depict the Big Brother viewers as disinterested, bored rejectionists. Roughly the same proportion claimed to have voted in the 2005 general election as the actual turnout and a higher proportion of younger people on the panel (18-25 year olds) claimed to have voted than the equivalent figure for the general electorate: 49% as opposed to 39%. Similarly, 64% of panel members regarded voting as a duty and 34% were even in favour of compulsory voting. Even more significant is that when asked whether asked whether they would rather vote in Big Brother or the general election, a clear majority (69%) placed greater value on their political votes.

The research elicits opinions on the worthiness of politicians which, whilst bringing no comfort to election candidates, may well be little different than those of the electorate as a whole. They sought "genuineness" as the main quality in a candidate, but more characterised the candidates standing in their constituency as "slimy" (29%), "arrogant" (35%) and "false" (53%), than "ordinary" (17%) or "straight-talking" (9%). The participants in the survey demanded more exposure of candidates in interviews, particularly, on television - which they regarded as the most trustworthy medium - and it is clear that, at least for this audience, political candidates are now to be judged in much the same way as Big Brother contestants.

One's first reaction is to be appalled at this parallel, but, within the parameters of a general election campaign, it is not so much more than an extension of the political beauty contest involving kissing babies, cycling to Westminster or appearing on chat shows. The sole difference is the more relentless exposure and the ability to cope with interactive television. Stephen Coleman himself makes the comment that:

The success of Big Brother in generating the kind of participatory enthusiasm amongst its interactive audience that most politicians would wish to engender amongst the people they claim to represent ought not to be read as evidence of a terminal political malaise. On the contrary, the convergence of popular and political communicative styles could have an invigorating effect upon democracy, releasing civic energies which have atrophied over the long years of separation.

If the published views of panel members are to be taken at face value, this new audience does not want, and nor does this very different style of communication require, simplistic answers but rather an open and honest discussion of issues they regard as important. The issues involved, including the presence of British troops in Iraq and global warming, are no different than the preoccupations of the electorate as a whole.

What is striking to me about this survey and its analysis is the resonance it prompts with the American political series, The West Wing. I find the programmes compelling, not just because they portray the often cynical wheeling and dealing of American politics with ruthless honesty, but also because they often demonstrate a formidable ability to explain complex issues in clear terms through actors and their scripts. Many times I have been lost in admiration - and sometimes moved to tears - by the brilliance of the dialogue. It seems to me that, albeit in a different format, there are similarities with Big Brother in that no concessions are made in terms of complexity or of politically dangerous subjects. The exposure of the key players, warts and all, makes them more rather than less attractive. There are vital lessons to be learnt by "real" politicians.

Of course there are problems in taking on such changes. There are also limitations in how far the logistics of interactive techniques can be taken over. For instance, all absentee voting methods are flawed and unsafe, and I am sure that the polling station and the stubby pencil is still needed to guarantee the legitimacy of the ballot, but, as Stephen Coleman concludes, it would be a mistake for politicians "to dismiss or disdain formats, methods and strategies that have the potential to generate a connection between the political democracy and popular culture."

I came to mock Big Brother but, to my chagrin, I stayed to ponder whether it had useful insights into the solution to our political malaise.

22 June 2006

How the other half votes, Big Brother Viewers and the 2005 General Election, Stephen Coleman, Hansard Society, May 2006, ISBN 0 900432 18 7, £13.50. Downloadable as a pdf file from