Big Bruv

There is perhaps no better illustration of the decline of politics than the rise of Big Brother. I don’t mean that as a criticism of Big Brother.

That original show was one of the innovations in the last ten years of television, and I imagine that with some planning it would now be possible to watch reality TV from morning till night without a break (other than for advertisements). It has been much criticised – with John Humphrys and Bob Geldof being two of its most recent opponents. John Humphrys thinks that it is shallow, exploitative television, which it is. Others have said that telephone voting is less audience participation than a revenue stream, which is also true. But one of the most interesting recent criticisms was from Bob Geldof, who said that people are tired of reality television and want to see more reality. I don’t want to disagree with Mr Geldof, but I think that he has missed one of the most important aspects of reality TV – that it is reality. The things seen on screen are actually happening.

I’m not going to defend Big Brother against its critics, but I am a great fan of reality. For me, the real nature of the show, and the real people displayed on it, are the principal draw of the whole programme. The voting element is interesting, in its way, but if you watch the programme, it is only a small part of the show in terms of airtime. The prize money is, frankly, entirely irrelevant. I would think the producers could reduce the prize to a matter of pence, and they would still be oversubscribed by twenty or thirty times.

No, the real appeal of the show is the fact that real people are put through extraordinary things on television, for our benefit. They may not be a representative cross-section of society – indeed, they may be self-obsessed bundles of insecurity, desperate to secure C-list celebrity status – but people understand that. No-one thinks that Big Brother is some sort of demographic study, but they appreciate, I hope, that the show is a true picture of what people like that would do in a situation like that.

It should be said that in that respect, at least, Big Brother is a richer and more real experience than many soap operas, dramas or novels, or any other form of popular entertainment that is patronised by the elite. In any Shakespeare play, for example, the most eye-stretching assumptions are accepted as perfectly normal, and behaviour that would have most people under restraint and heavy guard is seen as illustrative of the general human condition. Timon of Athens goes and lives in a hole, but finds a pile of gold. Macbeth meets three witches. Hamlet and Laertes between them kill most of the Danish royal court with no intervention from outside. All these things are wonderfully written, beautifully crafted and of great applicability to the human condition, but they are not reality.

And so we come back to Mr Geldof’s point about reality. I am not sure what sort of reality Mr Geldof believes that people want, but I assume he means political reality. But what reality is there in a statement like, for example, “British school children’s performance is more strongly correlated with birth inequality than in any other country in the West”? That statement is true, as it happens, and a major concern for the Department for Education and Skills. It is real for students of the topic, real for the civil servants who are trying to do something about it, real for the Ministers who have to defend themselves on the issue, but entirely unreal for almost everyone else.

It is unreal for several reasons. First, it is a statistic, and so people are understandably greatly suspicious of it. Second, it is a political issue, and so people might plausibly believe that it could be presented in a different light by a different political party. Third, it is a matter over which the generality of people can have no influence whatsoever – who could possibly be interested in something like that?

This lack of reality, while a problem in itself, is really the symptom of a wider split between politics and the people, which leaves us prey to irrationality, and open to the most dangerous and anti-democratic elements in society. The solution, I believe, lies in a transformation that makes politics more personal, and shows people that their actions can change things, and thereby change the world.