TV Review from the March 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard
Political programmes on TV are generally as brainless as the major political parties themselves. However, it must be an unenviable task to create a watchable and interesting TV experience with such a paucity of raw material. There are only so many times you can run items about Tony Blair and the Labour modernisation or the Euro-rift within the Conservative Party.
Despite this, TV producers seem to have been queuing up recently to make the politicians look interesting. One such attempt, House to House, Channel Four’s weekday lunchtime effort, is set in a large restaurant in London's Millbank to give it that extra air of seriousness (luncheon is, after all, where all the great political fixes are concocted and where gossip is fermented). The producers of this programme have got it sussed — it is always going to be much easier to entice MPs to the familiar surroundings of an eating-house round the corner from Westminster than it is to a sweaty studio on the other side of London.
As its title suggest, House to House concentrates on Parliamentary affairs and the legislative programme, and does so solidly and without imagination. It is serious stuff, though still slightly more exhilarating than watching Alan Titchmarsh on Pebble Mill at the same time on BBC I.
Rather more interesting, at least at first sight, is BBC2’s The Midnight Hour, an end-of-day political bun-fight which often gives the impression of being a rather ill-tempered editorial conference on one of the broadsheets. This is partly because its hosts tend to be rather bad-tempered journalists and press people (notably Bernard Ingham and Andrew Neil) and partly because the guests are required to take their jackets off before being seated at the debating table. Roy Hattersley has commented after his first appearance that this boded ill from the start, and has since claimed that The Midnight Hour is the worst political TV programme he's ever had the misfortune to appear on. He is probably being rather harsh. Regular viewers of this programme — if it has any — will have noticed a splendid back-projection of a marine fish tank in one corner of the room. The fish tank might not be quite as colourful as Bernard Ingham's braces, but one suspects that the fish perform a rather more useful function at this time of the day than the braces' owner has at any stage in his particular career.
A load of ecus
One of the longest-running political programmes is BBCI’s Sunday On the Record, now hosted by John Humphreys. Its former host, Jonathan Dimbleby, hot-foot from his successful toadying to Prince Charles, has swopped sides to take over from Brian Walden for ITV. On 29 January On the Record decided to hit back at Dimbleby with an action-packed, hyper-charged edition on the European Single Currency. Well, at least they made a better fist of it than they normally do.
The theme was that it was 1996 and some of the European Union states had decided to go ahead with a single currency. Britain was to have a referendum, with two opposing cross-party campaigns vying for the attention and support of the populace. In the Yes camp were those two intellectual giants of the TV age, Roy Hattersley (again) and Edwina Currie. Opposing them were the Tory Euro- sceptic Iain Duncan-Smith — a protege of the Chingford skinhead Norman Tebbitt — and veteran Labour Keynesian Peter Shore. Their objective, pursued via Party political-style broadcasts made with the help of advertising agencies and then via some cross-questioning of the teams, was to convince an evenly-split audience of the efficacy of their case. Not surprisingly, the No campaign won handsomely. This was not principally because of the latent nationalistic tendencies of the audience, though this may have played a small part, but because of the total and transparent economic illiteracy of Hattersley and Currie.
The entire exercise demonstrated something socialists have known for years — it is far easier to knock down proposals for running capitalism than build up new ones. Without doubt, the Euro-sceptics were able to effectively demolish the argument that a single European currency — if it is possible — would be an economic panacea. The Yes camp responded with an appeal to transcend narrow nationalism, their most positive argument of all, but with an electorate that largely votes with its wallet in mind, this cut little ice next to woeful tales of the ERM disaster, impossible convergence criteria and the enormously wasteful Common Agricultural Policy. It was simply a case of one group of reformists being outmanoeuvred by another set, largely because the proposals of the Euro-sceptics themselves were not under any real scrutiny.
So On the Record has done something useful at last, short of having socialists on. The latest reformist panacea for capitalism, when put to the test, was found wanting. Hattersley. Currie and their ilk were debunked.
Of more than passing interest was that the programme also showed up the deep division between the capitalist class and its representatives on such a central political issue. All the major newspapers produced a dummy-run edition for the programme with their views on a single currency, and they were divided too. The Sun and the Times were against, the Daily Mirror and the Independent for. The Guardian, under its forward-looking new editorial team, couldn’t make its mind up. So the capitalist class and its leading thinkers continue to dither when faced with the non-alternatives, and well they might.
Having convinced an audience that genuine political and economic unity is a pipe-dream so long as we are stuck with the anarchic and class-riven capitalist economy, perhaps On the Record can go one step further next time and demonstrate the absurdities propounded by the Euro-sceptic supporters of capitalism too. The nonsense emanating from both sides will then have cancelled itself out. preparing the way for socialists to put the genuine alternative. Now that really would be worth watching, and might even stir the fish on BBC2.
Editors' note: The fish, as well as the viewers, remained unstirred by The Midnight Hour and it has since been axed.