Sunday, February 10, 2008

Crowd Control

Watching Clinton and Obama slugging it out over the weekend it’s pretty clear that it matters not what they say, but how they say it. Their policies are pretty much identical, but Obama’s ability to whip up a crowd is awe-inspiring. Provided it’s the right crowd. Obama has the edge with affluent intellectuals, but is failing to convince the white working-class. Meanwhile they’re both adjusting their rhetoric to avoid alienating entrenched minority groups. These days politics is all about compromise.

I first discovered the power of the pressure group when I was invited to the annual general meeting of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association. They wanted me accept the rather dubious accolade of “Programme of the Year” for Challenge Anneka. I’d decided to go along after receiving a personal note from Mary Whitehouse saying she considered it “good wholesome entertainment”.

The ceremony was held in one of those dusty London gentlemen’s clubs, full of toad in the hole and prejudice. As I had no idea what to expect, I wrote no acceptance speech, but thought I could wing it with a few thanks to my mother and the crew. However, when I arrived, Mrs Whitehouse shook me warmly by the hand and said she’d be grateful if I could keep my remarks to fifteen minutes because the Home Secretary would be speaking after me and he had to get back to a cabinet meeting.

So, grabbing a sheet of club notepaper and a stiff gin and tonic, I set about penning a few notes. The membership arrived with hats, Harris Tweed and sherry. I was glad I wore my suit. I appeared to be about half the age of the youngest there, apart from two scruffy 20-year-olds whom I assumed were media students.

After the preliminaries I was ushered to the stage where a large phallic silver object awaited me. As I surveyed the assembly, I was amazed that this little group of women’s institute and bowls club stereotypes had managed to become such a thorn in the side of the BBC. I began by thanking them, then said how pleased I was that the BBC had placed the show on Saturday nights because it could be enjoyed by the whole family.

At that moment, I heard a low rumble. The bowls club was clearing its collective throat. Then I heard a shrill “Hear, Hear” from the back.

“Using the power of television for public good…” I went on, and the crumbly audience began to sit forward in their seats expectantly. The hastily scribbled notes now discarded, I got into my stride, and rambled on about the rebirth of family entertainment. The rumble had now become a roar. At the end of every sentence there was round of applause. I was playing the crowd like a Pentecostal preacher. Or a politician.

When it was Michael Howard’s turn, the congregation was already warmed up. But no sooner had he reached the end of his first paragraph, as if on cue the two “students” stood up and began to heckle. Instantly things turned nasty. Within a nano-second, the entire audience starting hissing, burly bouncers had seized the “intruders”, and a photographer was recording the event in time for the newspaper deadlines. In fifteen seconds it was over, and to this day I can’t decide if the whole thing wasn’t a sinister set-up.

Of course, this is what most of politics is all about these days: harnessing prejudice. Which explains the total panic amongst right wing republicans when they realized that John McCain might not be using quite the right words in his speeches. At least now, whoever wins the nomination, the democrats are going to be offering America something new, and there’s a real revival in public interest as a result. Which is more than can be said for our politics over here.

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