So I get a call to go on the Politics Show, for this post budget debate thing with Clegg and Cameron.
This producer guy – we’ll call him “Ian”, because that’s his name – wants a “mum”, and I bite because I have some things to say about the budget, and this and that; plus I score high for both vanity and gullibility in personality tests.
I don’t make a fuss about the mum-in-inverted-commas thing.
I buy some wedge sandals, and drop twenty-five quid on a blow-dry. I’m quite nervous, but I’ve done some proper research and pulled in some favours. I’m well primed.
In the studio, the presenter warms us up. We’ll call him “Nick Robinson”. He’s confident, urbane, slick – but there’s a punchy awkwardness to him. To an experienced reader of paralinguistic cues, it’s clear that this is a man who covets the seat of power. Really, there should be three chairs up there, with him in possession of one of them. Fully-miked, if you know what I mean.
As Nick rehearses his intro, we learn that this programme is actually called Face the Audience. Nick delivers the line as an impressive pause/CAPS/italic combo. Like, “Nick and Dave, it’s time to… FACE THE AUDIENCE!”. I’m feeling a bit sick now.
Only two days earlier, I was tweeting my contempt for Channel Four’s How to save £100 billion, in which the studio audience voted on which chunk of society should have to run naked round a velodrome to win a week’s housing benefit. Now it looks like I may be participating in just the kind of Jeremy Kyle–style politics – and the Jeremy Kyle-style television – I most despise.
I consider making a break for it, but the PM’s security is already here, and I’m worried l’ll be shot. These wedges will slow me down.
When Nick-and-Dave arrive, Nick Jnr greets them clubbably, and indicates where they should sit. For a moment, I’m anxious he’ll buckle and there’ll be a musical chairs-style scramble for the last empty seat. But the moment passes … and we’re off!
It’s immediately clear that, yes, this is going to be a zip-zing, Gok Wan, gameshow kind of a programme – the kind producers, when pitching, call ‘kinetic’. In general, I’m learning, these guys are a whole bunch of kinetics.
I’m there, per the producer, to talk about how the hack-back of tax credits pisses on low-paid families. I’ve got £1293 – the amount that poorer mothers will lose each year – written in pen on my palm. I wait patiently, as the argy barges back and forth.
Nick twinkles across the floor like Brucie, if Brucie were PPE-Oxon-first-class. He segues dizzyingly from point to point. The audience is composed of aggrieved citizens whose complaints, by and large, derive from their personal circumstances – and a pattern emerges.
A criticism of the coalition is made by the audience. Nick Jnr turns, on a sixpence, to Nick-and-Dave, and rephrases it as a question; maybe adds some pauses or CAPs. Nick Snr answers first, with the look of a man whose wife is being held hostage in a lock-up. He has one line to deliver, or it’s all over for her. He’s Jack Bauer, if Jack Bauer weren’t a hero.
The line is: “We’re sorry, but it’s either cuts and VAT – or we lose our schools and hospitals.”
Before anyone can challenge this demonstrably false dichotomy, Dave steps in seamlessly to distract. He says something teamsman-like, and firm. Now and again, ringmaster Robinson makes a feint at interrupting, before allowing Dave to slide smoothly from the tricky subject to somewhere warmer and safer. Then, we’re off again.
And so it continues. Outrage is generated, outrage is assuaged.
As part of his warm-up, Nick had reminded us that this was a considerable privilege, a unique opportunity to hold these two men to account. We nodded gravely then, but now I’m feeling foolish, because it’s clear that this format could never deliver anything but a facsimile of accountability.
We have been participants in a pastiche of democratic engagement, emptied of all meaning – beyond the fact of it having taken place. An “event” to catch dissent and contain it in a shiny box – the shinier, the better. Nick-and-Dave have Faced the Audience – let them now get on with the business of government.
I’m still waiting to point out how this budget punches low-paid mothers in the throat, when Nick Robinson snaps the shiny box shut, and the two leaders are gone. We are all pleased for him when the director needs an eye-line for the pick-ups, and he can sit, for a delicious moment, in Dave’s still-warm chair.