Sunday December 10, 2006
The West End success of Frost/Nixon is a hopeful sign that British theatre can at last escape from agitprop. Peter Morgan’s play is a subtle examination of the first fight between television and politics, which leaves the audience feeling ambiguous when David Frost triumphs by forcing a stonewalling Richard Nixon to acknowledge his guilt for Watergate.
In the final scene, Jim Reston, a left-wing American researcher for Frost, goes to a party where admiring politicians and celebrities surround a chat-show host whom serious journalists had once dismissed as a lightweight. Nixon’s humiliation ought to have delighted him, but instead, a glum Reston thinks: ‘Maybe, in the end, there is no difference between politics and showbiz.’
It’s hardly an original thought when everyone else has been saying for years that ‘politics is showbusiness for ugly people’ and no politician can succeed without looking good on the television. I wonder if David Cameron is about to prove them and Morgan wrong by proving that you can have too much of the values of the entertainment industry.
Through no fault of his own, show-business made Cameron leader of the opposition. David Davis had the strongest base among activists and MPs. The opinion polls declared Kenneth Clarke the frontrunner among the wider public. Neither man was a clear election winner, however. Cameron came from nowhere because Newsnight commissioned a focus group run by American pollster Frank Luntz that appeared to prove that the young politician could become extraordinarily popular and the Conservatives believed him. The desperation of the Tories in 2005 produced an election without precedent. The findings of a focus group drove a hitherto obscure politician to the leadership of a major political party. Not a focus group hired by party managers anxious to uphold the best interests of their cause, but by a broadcaster as interested in entertainment as reputable market research.
By the standards of the old-fashioned journalists who looked down their noses at Frost, Luntz was an astonishing pollster for Newsnight to commission. He had spent much of the previous decade helping the Republicans find smarmy ways to spin tax cuts for the rich and dismiss global warming as scaremongering.
Samantha Bee, of American TV’s Daily Show, persuaded him to parade his devious talents on camera when she gave him controversial phrases to translate.
Bee: ‘Drilling for oil.’
Luntz: ‘I would say “responsible exploration for energy”.’
Luntz: ‘I would say “healthy forests”.’
Luntz: ‘Explanation and education.’
Add to that the reprimand Luntz received from the American Association for Public Opinion Research for his unsubstantiated claim that 60 per cent of Americans supported the Republicans’ Contract with America and you seem to be left with a mediocre propagandist the BBC would never allow near its programmes in normal circumstances.
But New York journalist Dante Chinni noted in 2000 that normal judgments of broadcasters never applied in Luntz’s case. He was part of ‘a new class of media personality, the celebrity pollster… [who] gets the heavy-hitter treatment, frequently getting called in by the networks to offer colour commentary on politics even when he has no poll to cite’. Producers feted Luntz because he gave television what it wanted: strong opinions expressed with absolute certainty in a populist style. Here, awestruck hacks have lapped up Luntz’s pronouncements on who should lead Labour and the Lib Dems ever since his Cameron gig.
But British pollsters tell me that Luntz’s work for Newsnight shouldn’t have been allowed to influence a parish council election, never mind the future of a great party. If you can’t follow their case against him, their overall explanation is easy to grasp: a well-run focus group could never fill 15 minutes of airtime. It would be too boring. To begin with, standard focus groups have six to eight members, but a handful of people isn’t an impressive sight on television, so Newsnight had Luntz meet 28 voters.
Focus groups are also meant to be focused. Market researchers want volunteers from a similar background so the guinea pigs will lose their inhibitions about speaking freely in front of strangers. But Newsnight mixed up people who had always voted Tory with people who had once voted Tory and people who had never voted Tory. The danger of a large and diverse group is that the loudest voices will dominate and a herd mentality will take over. Watch the footage that made Cameron leader and you will see that’s what happens as the dynamics of crowd psychology convert everyone in the room to his charms.
The standard way to stop easily impressed interviewees going along with the crowd is to have secret ballots. Luntz and Newsnight didn’t use them because a show of hands looks better on TV. After they hear Cameron saying he wants to appeal to people’s hopes rather than their fears, the reaction of the voters on dinky hand-held dials that measure their instant responses was overwhelmingly positive. But they would have been as pleased if you, I or our next-door neighbours had said the same, which is why serious researchers are wary of instant reactions. I could go on, but the big point is that Newsnight produced infotainment, not research.
I’m not suggesting a conspiracy. Luntz needed a splash to break into the British market. Newsnight needed to make a noise to keep the hands for the fickle audience away from the remote control. Their stunt wouldn’t have mattered if a fluke of circumstances hadn’t turned the Luntz poll from a party piece into the decisive factor in the Conservative leadership race.
Commentators can’t say anything sensible about the next election until they see how Gordon Brown does as Prime Minister. But maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise that Mori reported in The Observer last week that Cameron’s personal ratings had collapsed after his honeymoon period because voters didn’t know what he believed in. The charge that he’s an empty vessel isn’t fair in my view, but if you are created by the entertainment industry, you must expect the public to treat what you say as mere showbiz.