Tom Mangold

Now that the talented and BBC luggage-free Deborah Turness is taking over BBC TV news, will she at last be able to end, once and for all, the curse of the TV vox pop?

Invented as a space filler for news items half a century ago, the vox pop (vox populis – voice of the people) has grown into the tedious, time consuming, pointless and utterly deceptive mechanism for television to con you into pretending it has captured the mood of a town or the whole country by interviewing people in the street who are about as representative of the public mood as the minicab driver who talks you to death about anti-vaxxers.

As long as one vox pop opinion cancels the other one out, the BBC pretends this is a fair representation of public views on any old issue they have just filmed. Here’s an untypical but highly relevant example:

“What do you think about Adolf Hitler?”

Answer Vox Pop 1: “Oh, he was a terrible man.”

“And what do YOU think of Hitler?”

Answer Vox Pop 2: “Well, he did have bad days, but he had his good days too.”

All perfectly balanced stuff (even more so if one vox-popper is a person of colour and preferably female).

The sheer arrogance of TV news producers who honestly believe that they can capture the national mood by interviewing a bunch of people weighed down by their Tesco bags in some anonymous high street is breathtaking. The device began during my earliest days in TV as a form of time and space-filling. It has since morphed into a grotesque pictorial curse, telling you nothing about the issues “discussed”, especially as in nine cases out of 10 the reporter involved will finish the item with an even more pointless and vacuous end thought, a conclusive “piece to camera” (known in the trade as “thumb suckers”) in which the hack will summarise everything by saying: “Will it go this way or that? Who knows. Only time will tell.”

I pray that Ms Turness will instantly restrict vox pops to interviews with primary-source witnesses: “Yes, I saw the train crash, it was horrible . . .”

Why does television bother? The main reason is that the pictorial dimension forces the TV producer to have shot changes, and a string of one-sentence pointless interviews with people in the street fills that function. Hands up any TV news viewer who has heard anything worth listening to from a street interview with a passerby as cognisant of the issues as the saloon bar bore? I’m not saying these people shouldn’t have their views, but can we please try to keep their ignorance off the screen? I want pure, unrefined knowledge from my set-top. TV news should select only the best informed, the relevant, and the primary-sourced.

There are times now, with television news across all the channels, when Britain seems to have turned into the world’s biggest medical ward, full of the sick, the widowed, the orphans, the poor – that army of suffering souls only too anxious to grieve in public. It is pretty easy to get losers to cry on camera (I have form myself ) and it invariably makes strongly emotional television, but what do you expect people to say about human loss, or dire poverty, or circumstances that have brought them low? Sometimes, these interviews veer dangerously towards sadness-porn. They should take place when the interviewee is a primary source and, ideally, has a legitimate brickbat or bouquet to throw around.

The end of “going nowhere” vox pops might just give us more time for better-trained reporters to add real footwork analysis to their stories. For example, do you yet know how many people have died specifically from the Omicron virus, broken down by race, age and co-morbidity ? I don’t. And I watch every night.

Do we know exactly why Crossrail is God knows how many years late? Will HS2 really change the infrastructure of Britain? And who exactly at the Ministry of Defence has wasted billions and billions of pounds on failed projects? Vox pop 1: “It’s disgusting, all that money.”

I watch the excellent CNN in my spare time, and they don’t waste time on pointless interviews in the street with people who don’t really know what they’re being asked to talk about. Please, Deborah T. One quick slash of the knife, kill the curse, and we’ll all start enjoying the news.

The writer was on the Sunday Pictorial and Daily Express before working as a BBC reporter for 40 years.

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