Monday, 31 October 2016

Politics is becoming little more than a game show.

The major problem there is that game shows are actually hugely popular. They seem to be what 'the people' actually want, to a large extent. Politics is becoming the game show, because the game show sells. The way to attract the 'popular vote' isn't necessarily to have the best policies, or even the most popular policies (in terms of those that are thought through and sensible, and might actually work), but to reach the mass audience with easy answers presented in the most emotively appealing way (preferably by someone who looks like a slick, 'perfect' game show host, or at least 'nice'). That is a relatively new phenomenon - it's probably no accident that it's grown up at the same time as 'TV voting', either. Now everyone is a 'voter', every week from their arm chairs, but what they expect from politics is now much more the same as what they get weekly from the X-Factor or whatever.

Many people aren't interested in policies - in fairness, to a large extent they probably never were. Not in the finer detail, anyway - relatively few people sit down an examine policies line by line to see what they will mean. They want a more general 'direction of travel', and a few snippets of something that sounds good to them, and that in itself is fine. What has changed is what that means - they no longer seem to want something that sounds reasonable and sensible from someone they feel they can respect. Now they want something that tugs at their emotional heart-strings from someone that they actually like (in just the same way as they don't really want the best singer on the X-Factor, but the good looking one who comes across as 'nice' and has a really good emotional back story). They used to want a 'leader' who they thought had good judgement to exercise on their behalf (because that's what representative democracy is about). Now they seem much more to want a 'mate' who will do everything that they want all at the same time, and who will keep them entertained while they do it.

It's easy to blame 'politicians' for that, and especially someone like Tony Blair, who saw what was beginning to happen and capitalised on it (and yes, in turn contributed to it). It's not that simple, though - they are only dealing with the hand that is dealt to them, and doing what they have to do in order to survive and get into a position where they can actually do some good. We can see what's happening to Corbyn - the public and media attacks really aren't just about policy, or even effectiveness (as much as I personally think there are questions on all that, and as much as I'm certainly no fan of his). There's more to it than that in terms of 'image'. Think back to what happened to Ming Campbell, too - he was destroyed politically, almost purely because of his age and 'image'. Experience used to be a good thing for a politician - not any more, and that's not good when we're deciding who is going to run the country. Politicians haven't helped the downwards spiral, of course, but they aren't (well, certainly not all of them, anyway!) responsible for the rise in immediate and emotional-reaction voting that's come partly from the way that TV game shows have developed over recent times (and partly from the press too, though in fairness they as a group have always had one foot (at least) in the gutter).

It's all 'audience participation', of course, which sounds like a good thing on the face of it, but actually direct 'audience participation' isn't necessarily always a good thing at all. Obviously we want a population who feel engaged with the political process, but that doesn't necessarily mean they should expect to be directly interfering with it on a day to day basis, and demanding that it bends to every whim that each of them individually feels ought to be 'popular'. Elected representatives do have to get on with their job - they are elected to represent the best interests of their constituents, and that does sometimes mean having to make decisions that not everyone likes . You can engage with a Shakespeare play, and feel invested in it and emotionally part of it, without having to engage in constant 'audience participation' shouts demanding that Hamlet does a cheery song and dance routine instead of a soliloquy.

What we should have is a serious and thoughtful play, and that is what many of the performers on the political stage have been trying to get on with doing. Unfortunately, a large and vocal (and apparently expanding) chunk of the audience, fresh from their game show armchairs, seem determined to turn it into Panto, because they think Panto is much more 'fun'. A few of the performers are egging them on, too, so that they can get themselves the leading roles even though they aren't remotely suited to performing in the kind of serious and thoughtful production that running a country ought really to entail. We should have 'To be. or not to be....', but what we are getting is 'He's behind you!'. We should have Olivier and Burton, but instead we're getting the Chuckle Brothers and Biggins. As Foreign Secretary.

Perhaps a big part what has changed is the science of manipulation. It's no accident that game show back stories are presented in the way they are, with the emotional music and the neatly placed sniff of 'genuine' emotion as the contestant talks about what's gone wrong in their life and how winning this will solve it all for them. It's all very carefully constructed according to years of very detailed research about how to make people invest emotionally into something (so that they pick up those phones and get voting, keep watching the show, keep buying the records, and keep the lovely money pouring in). Likewise, politics has become far more sophisticated in the way it uses emotional appeal to attract supporters. They use it because it works, of course - they know it works, and you can't take that knowledge away.

Anyone who stops trying to use it now will inevitably disappear, and there will always be someone unscrupulous using it in a way that is designed to promote their extreme emotional view because they know they can (even though it may make no real sense as a way to deal with the real problems faced by the world). Not everyone seeking political power and advantage has nothing but the most noble of intentions, unfortunately (and not everyone is scrutinising what they are saying to see whether that is the case) - it has always been thus, of course, but at the moment they have particularly potent weapons to employ gain the advantage (and they do have an advantage - they know that what they are saying doesn't have to make any sense, but just has to be emotionally appealing). Those who do have genuine intentions and genuinely sensible ideas have to overcome that emotional clamour, knowing that their facts and logic are still likely to be seen as 'boring' anyway.

The Panto stars are now playing us, and they have the carefully researched methodology to allow them to do it very effectively indeed. They are drawing people in. They are working their emotions, because they know exactly how to get the reaction they want from at least enough people to make the gang shouts build up until they can claim that it's almost everyone doing it (which it never is, of course). They're getting the crowd to shout down the thoughtful soliloquy with a frenzy of meaningless but enthusiastically noisy 'Oh no it isn't!', 'Oh yes it is!'.

Bums on seats, old loves, bums on seats.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Solving Diving And Other Football Cheating

OK, so I've not posted for a little while, and so much has happened in the political world. It's hard to know where to start (which is partly why I haven't for a while!), so I'll start outside that world altogether. This is an issue that's been getting on my nerves for a very long time, so I thought I'd start here.

It should be no shock to anyone that there's a great deal of cheating in football. We're not just talking about that odd bit of 'overacting' when a foul has occurred, though that is obviously bad enough. There is also the issue of reacting to things that have not even happened - things like lifting feet up in the air and falling over, arms raised and mouth open in appeal to the officials, when TV replays show that no contact whatsoever has occurred. Perhaps even worse than that is feigning contact to the face off the ball. And then there's the whole issue of screaming in the faces of officials, attempting to bully them into submission. It not only prevents many people from enjoying the game, it sets a bad example to others - whether they like it or not, football players are very important role models in our society, and there's nothing we can do to stop that from being the case.

Let's not beat about the bush here - cheating in football is rife, and cheats are prospering from it on a regular basis. This can't be right, and it can't go on - radical action needs to be taken to address the problem. These are things that are already against both the rules and the spirit of the game, but the entire sport is being ruined by them. It is clearly something that is not only being accepted by clubs, but encouraged and coached by them from an early age. It has to stop.

Whenever the issue is brought up, it seems to be quickly swept under the carpet, and nothing really happens. Mention technology (we have that kind of stuff now, you know!), and a chorus of 'but the flow of the game' quickly ensues. Sorry, but nuts to the flow of the game, to an extent anyway. The game does already stop and start, especially around the times we are talking about here, and a bit more stopping and starting to consult the technology is really not going to ruin anything. It took many years just to get the football authorities to agree that maybe, in top class games where there's plenty of money around to fund it, we could use actually technology to see whether the ball has crossed the goal line - aside from any other alleged issues, if ever proof were needed that the football authorities are not fit for purpose, that was it.

There is an issue before we get to there, though - that of simple discipline and respect. Any follower of Rugby Union, for example, will know that the kind of behaviour exhibited in almost every single top class game of football towards officials would there result in warnings, cards and sendings off. That is how it should be - the officials ('sir', on the field of play), and their decisions, should be respected, even if you believe them to be incorrect. That doesn't mean that no decision can be questioned in any way - as in rugby, the captain should be able to respectfully request a clarification, but surrounding the referee, screaming in his face (or across the pitch, for that matter) should be considered unacceptable. I believe that rules to that effect exist in football, but they are simply not being applied. There is somehow a visible assumption of 'player power' that needs to be dealt with, and it really wouldn't take long to do. It would only take one or two weeks of teams ending up with 4 or 5 players sent off for dissent or disrespect towards officials for that problem to end altogether. There is no reason not to do it, as far as I can see. Get on with it - the petulance is ruining the game.

Now on to technology. In top class games, there are cameras everywhere, recording every move (including more or less everything 'off the ball') in high definition detail, and often with camera capable of giving detailed slow motion playback. Why aren't we using them? To use Rugby Union as an example again, it is possible - you can have an official watching playback in communication with the referee on the field (including while play continues), and you can play back replays at full speed and slow motion to officials on the field via big screens. Why aren't we doing it?

The 'but it stops play' argument really doesn't apply, in my opinion. What I would propose is that the on-field referee (who always has the ultimate decision, of course) can choose to review replays at any time he (or she) chooses to, stopping play if they deem it necessary (there are rules for restarting play in all circumstances, of course). Further than that, though, they should be given direction that they should strongly consider reviewing a reply if they are considering any kind of card (in other words, they don't have to, but they have to be really sure of what they saw if they don't) - that would soon stamp out the habit of trying to get opponents carded by diving and overacting. On top of that, the official watching the footage should be able to alert the referee at any time to any foul play that they have seen anywhere on the field. That will, of course, cause play to be stopped - so it should, and it would be an end to getting away with things behind the back of the officials.

This kind of technology is being used regularly in Rugby Union at the top level, and it has made a massive improvement to the game, in my opinion. I think it is fair to say that, regardless of complaints, dives and other histrionics and innocence-pleading by players, decisions made are almost always absolutely correct. Of course, there is still the capacity for human error, but you can't possibly remove that altogether. You certainly can improve the facilities available for those who have to make the decisions, to give them the maximum chance of making the right call. Has it slowed the flow of the game down? Well, a little, perhaps, but that sacrifice has been well worth it overall.

One final issue where football could learn from Rugby Union. The 'sin bin'. The idea that a yellow card means something - 10 minutes off the field, and your team down by a player for the duration. Not only would it help to stamp out foul play, it would also, I think, be of huge benefit to the players and teams themselves. It would see an end to things like the sometimes frivolous card issuing by referees wanting to stamp their authority of the game early on (and the huge effect that that can have on tournaments with card accumulation rules, for example). In combination with the checking of video footage, it would make sure that even yellow cards are actually fair and justified, and only given because they are fully deserved. Surely that is in the interests of everybody?

Football is, as is often said, a beautiful game. Currently, though, it is being constantly damaged by the inability of its authorities to get a grasp on the issue of cheating and ill-discipline. You can't blame the players for trying to make the most of what they are being allowed to get away with - it is their living, after all, and they are professionals. They are always going to do as much as they can get away with to win. It is a failure of regulation. Solving it really isn't terribly difficult - most of the facilities required are more or less in place, and the rest of it is just a willingness to actually do something to sort this kind of stuff out. Let's stop messing about and get on with it.