My last post was about why Joe Public would ever want to step in front of a camera. This one, coincidentally, is about why a news camera would ever want to go in search of Joe Public when it could call on any number of experts instead. I’ve just read Edward Docx having a rant (‘If I ruled the world…’) in this month’s Prospect. The online text is subscription only, so let me quote a couple of paragraphs.
He is sick of the way that even serious TV and radio now spends so much time seeking out the opinions of ordinary people. Factual news and informed commentary are now being replaced by ‘feedback’ and comments left by ordinary people who choose to ‘join the debate’.
I don’t care what Andy from Cheadle thinks about the Gaza strip, the ice caps, Manchester City or even Cheadle. Nobody cares. Nobody except Andy, and presumably he already knows. When I turn on the radio or the television, or when I open a book or a newspaper, what I want is an expert. I want insightful commentary. I want stylistic elegance. I want eloquence. I want uninterrupted expertise.
I’m simply not interested in what the public thinks. Nobody is except pollsters and marketing research agencies (and they only do it for the money). Not even the public is interested in what the public thinks. That’s why they are listening to the radio and not stopping to inquire of one another in the street [p7].
He’s got a point, and we have all been bored at one time or another by the inane opinions of those who happen to be passing by a news team in the street. But he is missing a few points too. Let me list, in increasing order of seriousness, the reasons why we like to listen to the voice of ordinary people speaking about big issues:
(1) We like feeling part of a big conversation; and we would like to stop someone in the street and ask them what they think, but we are too shy to do it. (2) Opinions and ideas need to be embodied and not just discussed. A single ordinary person saying what they believe is more powerful than an expert telling us that a million ordinary people do actually believe this. This is why ‘Joe the Plumber’ (real name: Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher) became the focus of one of the Presidential debates between Obama and McCain last year. (3) Passionate personal conviction carries much more weight in today’s culture than objective truth. This goes back to Rousseau, and the whole Romantic movement, but it is part of ordinary life now and not just an elite philosophy. (4) We don’t always trust experts. Partly experience; partly cynicism; partly living in an age of conspiracy theories. (5) The nature of authority has changed. We won’t give someone a hearing just because of their status or title or qualifications. Everyone is equal now.
How does this change politics, or society, or religion? I’m not sure – but I’m sure it does somehow.