I’m not a fascist but…

By Scott Common

The voteWe vote to select our government, both local and regional. It’s used in our entertainment, from Survivor to talent shows. It’s used in some of our work places, sporting clubs and social organisations. So why is it a problem when one of our major television channels deploys it as a way of engaging with topical social issues?

The Vote is billed as “competitive current affairs” and that’s where part of my discomfort starts to seep in. It’s already setting up itself up with winners and losers. People argue that there are always winners and losers but there isn’t. Often, in the real world, no one wins – everyone loses. There are even the odd instances of the win / win circumstances. Yes there are sometimes winners and losers, but that’s never a certainty.

The next step is arguing that there are always winners and losers in politics. Again, that’s not really true. Even in opposition the “losers” of an election wield significant power in comparison to the average member of the public. Sure they may have lost the election, but voting still imbued the “losers” with a significant amount of power, partially due to party lists and the fact that despite losing, some of their members have still been voted in by a local population.

There’s no doubt that as a show, The Vote is certainly trying to inspire debate among our communities and that is something which should be applauded. However what conditions is that debate coming with? Again we’re back to winners and losers – that old binary construct which has never served us well. Where is the once widely promoted third way? Whatever happened to compromise? Isn’t the point of debate for both parties to argue their cases, evaluate what they have learned from the other side then try and come to some sort of sensible decision that includes the best of both arguments while avoiding the worst of the pitfalls outlined by both sides? You won’t find that on the The Vote, conflict makes for better television – well informed conflict is even better. A resolution that includes (or excludes) both sides wouldn’t be satisfying in terms of the television format. More to the point it wouldn’t meet the show’s billing as being “competitive”.

The Vote also operates as a form of agenda setting – that uncomfortable place where the media flex their rhetorical muscles to influence the sphere of politics. This isn’t a new thing – it gets done all the time as part of the construction of the news. However The Vote strikes me as a particularly insidious form of it because it directly involves the public in reinforcing the power of the media – the irony being that it doesn’t matter which side of the debate prevails, it’s always going to be a win for the media because they can claim to have “the wishes of the people” backing them up.

But it’s not all bad – the viewer is generally presented with well informed team members, an active degree of interaction from the public and something which resembles engaged conversation. It has certainly inspired a degree of public debate and discussion, and maybe, just maybe inspired a greater engagement with the actual mechanism of voting. It presents a showcase of notable broadcasters and experts who all have a degree of public trust – and is chaired by Linda Clark, a veritable institution within New Zealand broadcasting circles. With these points in its favour it should already be a step up from the average fare.

These things on their own don’t outweigh the fact that how the question is framed is hugely problematic. It’s drawing a line in the sand and saying, “you’re either with us or against us” and that isn’t healthy for our society. Take the show that aired recently: Kids – is poverty or parenting the problem. An incredibly serious problem which has occupied significant space in both our media and political spheres, entire political campaigns have been organised around it. A massive amount of public money is spent on both trying to alleviate and draw attention to it. Yet how has the promoted show framed it? It’s either a cultural problem (parenting) or an economic problem (poverty). Economics is part of culture and culture is strongly influenced by the field of economics – they’re inseparable.

You can certainly argue that by broaching both potential sides of the issue the audience is left better informed as a whole. I don’t disagree with that. However when the audience has to make a choice (which doesn’t include that it could be both, or that each influences the other) it becomes divisive at a time when we need a consensus. It also excludes any other potential influences on the issue by excluding them from the debate – and an unacknowledged influence is perhaps the most dangerous kind. The actual mechanism of voting undermines any of the good work which the show may be able to do through providing informed debate – and I think that’s where the heart of my discomfort with The Vote is situated.

Would it be the same show if the voting aspect was dropped? Of course not – it certainly wouldn’t draw the same number of viewers, as the feeling of being involved is a powerful opiate. If we’re honest with ourselves this is TV, and ratings are the primary concern – if something good comes from that then it’s a bonus. The best intentioned show with low ratings will never engender change.

I would love to find out if the supposed engagement with the issues raised actually equates to people making changes outside of the show. It’s an old concern that engaging with the media becomes a replacement for action – but I think it is a question which needs to be asked, even more so when the topics being broached are of such importance to our communities.

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