Tackle the turn off of the torpid party conferences

After sitting through weeks of political conferences, Adrian Monck argues the solution to the dreariness lies with journalists
 

WHAT do you call a costly, cynicismprovoking,
apathy-inducing exercise in undermining what lingering faith the public
might have in its political establishment? That’s right, a party
conference.

Under the conventions of public service, broadcasters
come together to film them year after year. For three weeks each autumn
the passage of the seasons is marked not by falling leaves, or birds
flying south, but by a process so boring to observe even Bill Oddie
couldn’t give a toss about it.

It’s not the broadcasters’ fault. They’re obliged. Charter up for renewal? Best organise live coverage.

Public
service cash on offer? You know the score. Go to one and you’ve got to
go to them all. It’s only fair. Yes, broadcasters are only flesh, and
flesh is weak.

News bulletins and news channels, radio programmes
and talk shows supersize themselves with party conference coverage
until they disgorge what viewers consume as political journalism.

They will even convince themselves that it is their duty to force this diet of nutrition-less junk on their viewers.

Like
over-protective parents, they are concerned that their offspring finish
everything on the political plate. And so the empty conference calories
are dumped on audiences, like it or lump it.

“This is politics. It’s not our fault it tastes horrible. Eat it all up.”

Thus
speeches so torpid and dull you could gnaw through your own shin bone,
suck the marrow from your thigh and still drop off, constructed to
appeal to that narrow band of humanity we describe as the
politically-active when we really mean the easily-led, are covered
live. Mercifully, later on, they can be reduced to 20 seconds of
soundbite, some vox pops, a funny graphic and a quick thumbs up or
thumbs down.

But now is not the time to call for some act of journalistic heroism in calling a halt to this dysphoric jamboree.

The
real problem thrown up by the conferences is more complicated. Quite
simply, the journalists who explain, interpret and present politics to
us, the people, are more interesting than the politicians and the
policies they portray.

It’s a problem that first surfaced with
Andrew Marr. Here was an enthusiastic communicator more quick-witted
and curious than the men and women he reported on. His new Sunday
programme has only served to make matters worse. To be blunt, would you
rather hear from, Marr or his leadfooted guests? He holds no government
office, but at least his capacity for independent thought makes him
engaging.

Gordon Brown wouldn’t have to struggle to get something
interesting out of him. Instead the roles are reversed, and the
conversationalist and raconteur faces just the -list and the racont-.

“So what?” say the political hardmen.

We’re
not here to entertain you, we’re here to run the country. We only want
you to like us when we’re on the outside looking in. But they forget,
like the Conservatives, what it means to be attractive, hoping instead
that their rivals will eventually out-ugly them.

An MP friend just blames the maths. There are 649 members of parliament.

In the press gallery there are barely a third of that number. The broadcasters among them are far fewer.

Natural selection, argues my mate, means that the press are likelier to be a far more lively bunch than the politicians.

It’s
the competition. Wouldn’t you sooner hear from Martha Kearney than
David Davis? Wouldn’t Nick Robinson wipe the floor with Tony Blair in a
real debate?

He might be right. But I think political coverage is catching up with a phenomenon we’ve seen across TV.

And that’s presenters with interest and enthusiasm overwhelming their subjects.

TV
didn’t mean any harm. The average exec producer would hardly want an
uninterested, unenthusiastic presenter. But the human response to
television is to people, not the information they’re conveying. Don’t
take my word for it, go ahead and test yourself.

Try food. Conjure up an image of Jamie Oliver. Now try to recall a few of his estuary catchphrases – “pukka”

probably springs to mind. Now try remembering a single recipe. It’s difficult.

What
about Nigella? You can probably recall a finger in the bowl, lipstick
shining in the fridge door light – but what exactly was she making in
the first place? Now try politics, but for ingredients and recipes read
policies.

There is a difference between food and politics of
course. A pork belly can’t explain that it needs plenty of salt and 40
minutes at gas-mark six. Pork bellies are like that. Policies are
different – they have politicians. Politicians are supposed to be their
presenters. They are the missing link between the media and the public.
And that is why their dullness, their torpor and their mediocrity are
the real threat to our politics and our polity. Because, even when
they’re given a week each of free time to reach into our programmes and
clog our airspace, they conspire to fail us.

Instead of blaming
journalists and broadcasters, the politicians need to learn from them.
Or the biggest public service they’ll perform will be to switch off
party conference coverage for good.

Adrian Monck is head of journalism at City University, London

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