Monday, 5 November 2012

Vox pop - an insidious disease

Insidiously it has been coming, slithering on its slimy, scaly belly into our living rooms and kitchens, our offices and our cars, wherever we have a radio or television, wherever we read a newspaper or magazine. The loathsome creature to which I refer is the vox populi, or – to give it the name it would be given by the vox populi – the vox pop. Dressed up all flash and fancy in a Latin phrase, the vox populi might sound innocuous enough, indeed, it might even sound positively erudite, learned, a source of profound insight into the human condition. Maybe.

But of course it’s nothing of the sort. In fact, come to think of it – and to switch metaphors – dressed up all flash like that it actually sounds very much like a disease, the sort of thing a doctor regrets to inform you that you must have picked up on your last trip to some poverty-ridden developing country you raced off to with a view to bringing civilisation and higher stands of hygiene. ‘I’m afraid, young man,’ sighs the doctor, ‘your good works have been repaid with, ah, how can I put this delicately, oh heck, I’ll have to be blunt, I’m afraid it’s a case of vox populi, I’m dreadfully sorry.’ And with that he hurries you out the door and bids you much luck. That is what vox populi is like, and when you get a dose of it – whether across the airwaves or in your local rag – the nausea sweeps through you, your head swims, your legs weaken, and you feel a desperate need, there and then, to take the water cure at Bath. Or at the very least to have a lie down.

Am I perhaps over-reacting? Is it instead the ill-prepared bouillabaisse I ate last night, rather than the vox pop, that has me feeling so poorly? No, no, and a thousand times no! It is the vox pop, and this is why it irks me so. We are told by the media that the vox pop is about democratising the news, making us a part of what is happening, giving us the opportunity to be participants, not merely observers. That is the purported and wholly admirable justification for this pestilence, even if, were it true, it would still be misguided. But of course, the truth could not be more distant from such a claim. The simple truth is that in this age of budget-cutting, it’s much cheaper to ask the first punter on the street ready to offer some thoughts on the latest financial crisis or political shenanigans or global warming-induced super-storm, than it is to spend time (and thus money) to do some actual research, which actual research could then actually be reported. In one fell swoop, the media presents itself – fairly bursting with sincerity - as interested in the views of its consumers, while using those very vacuous views to fill the gaping chasms in its own reportage. And all the while, those foolish enough to have tuned in or picked up the paper, instead of being informed in a meaningful way about what’s happening in the world, learn that ‘Barry from Nowheresville’ thinks it’s disgraceful that fuel prices have gone up again. A fascinating insight, Barry, much obliged.

It’s easy enough, I know, I know, to carp on about the ills of the world – amongst which I obviously include vox populi – and much harder to suggest a cure. But I have one, so hold off on the finger-pointing at me just one moment. If funds are so tight that we can’t afford to fill the columns and the airwaves with quality reporting, then let us fill it with…nothing. Silence. Blank spaces. The radio announcer, for instance, could intone, ‘The time is ten minutes before the hour, and we will now enjoy some silence because we have nothing else to offer.’ It would have the virtue of being more honest and, at the same time, less of an assault on the intelligence of those poor misguided souls who still think the media is there to provide us with informed and thoughtful reporting on the stuff that matters (and the stuff that doesn’t matter is something I’ll get to at a later date).

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