Sunday, 14 December 2008

A vote with no confidence: the pitfalls of giving the public a say

Sometimes voting is democracy's own worst enemy. When it's not exposing the ill-conceived instincts of the masses it's revealing the shortcomings of those counting the ballots. In the same week that Manchester's driving community voted against being charged more to drive, the BBC yet again 'safeguarded trust' by soliciting viewer votes and swiftly ignoring them. At last, close readers of early Manics lyrics and fans of Tom "Strictly Holby City" Chambers can agree on something: democracy is an empty lie.

This winter, reality TV has filled a hanging chad-shaped gap in voting scandal entertainment, and Strictly Come Farcing has proved a rotten Florida borough. Saturday's maths GCSE brain-teaser of a balls-up sent all three semi-finalists into the final and turned next week's denouement into groundhog day. Coming only weeks after they had to refund John Seargent's voting charges, this is the second time the corporation managed to over-complicate a popularity contest. Repeatedly making a play of interactivity and then telling the audience they're wrong exposes the flaws of the mechanic. Where voting is concerned it takes two to tango - but devoid of co-ordination, both viewer and producer usually end up like this:

A lot rides in the way you pose the question; Manchester was asked if it wanted the congestion charge, so naturally the motorist lobby gave a resounding 'no'. Big Brother asks viewers who they want to evict, so they reject the most potent housemate - who often happens to be the most entertaining. In each case the result reflects the knee-jerk reactions of the most pro-active - more thoughtful questions would prompt a more balanced answer.

Also, you've got to be clear on how much power you give the people. Strictly has suffered from a conflict of interest, with viewers consistently undermined by the peacocks on the judging panel. If the audience's opinion is so expendable then why is it purportedly at the heart of the format? That said, the popular vote gave us a 50/50 chance of JLS singing a cold and broken Hallelujah all over Christmas, so there's an argument for supervision by a responsible adult.

With the participation in the democratic process so fallible, maybe it's time that the public found other ways to exercise their power. Disgruntled Strictly fans could learn a lot from the Barclay brothers, who got all Scrooge on Sark's economy because their preferred candidates didn't get win last week's election. After all, if a dance contest airs next Saturday and no one bothers to vote, does Brucie get a bonus?