Cornel Sandvoss – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Methods of Failure: How Political Journalism lost the US Presidential Election to Nate Silver Thu, 08 Nov 2012 18:24:53 +0000 There are plenty of reasons to feel smug for the vast majority of us who subscribe to and believe in the importance of social and human sciences in the week the Obama family was returned to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue by the American electorate –or, as an meme surfacing across social networks today put it, the fact that Ann Romney is secretly celebrating not having to move to a smaller house today. The re-election of Barack Obama and the defeat of his Republican challenger Mitt Romney is good news for the vast majority of scholars who dedicate their working lives to studying the interplay between structure and agency, between self and society, between economy and culture. Or to put it more drastically, it is good news for anyone who broadly subscribes to an enlightenment vision scientific enquiry, truth and critique.

But there was a second reason to celebrate for social scientists.  If Wednesday morning left both the electoral map and Republican politicians feeling a little blue, there was another occupational group in need of collective introspection: the class of political journalists, commentators and pundits, who in the cause of the campaign had increasingly wilfully disregarded the lessons of the academic disciplines that form journalism’s very foundation.

Obama’s victory was decisive, winning 332 votes in the Electoral College compared to Romney’s 206 (assuming Obama will hold his nearly 50,000 votes advantage in Florida). His margin in the popular vote will be around three million, taking eight out of the nine states news media had identified as swing states throughout the campaign. The clarity of this victory appeared to have been surprising to many. For months many news media had promised a nailbiter, talked of a race that was “too close to call.” Some predicted a Romney victory or even a Romney landslide, leaving Jed Levison to gleefully list 34 blown election predictions on Daily Kos. From Glen Beck to Newt Gingrich reviewing these predictions promises a great deal of liberal Schadenfreude, but they are unsurprising. They were attempts by individuals who had openly pinned their colors to the GOP mast to present the Republican ticket as competitive for obvious strategic reasons. And while I am aware of the dangers of taking Fox News blatant disregard of fundamental journalistic ethics in their entirely partisan perspective, few will disagree if I rank Fox News among these campaigners and lobbyists rather than among actual news media.

The denial of Republican activists and supporters upon learning of Obama’s victory which we could witness across Twitter and broadcast news alike the day after the election is as much an expression of the first stage of grief as it is of the fragmentation of the public sphere which has allowed audiences to construct textual boundaries in their engagement with news that limit the discourses they encounter to those that correspond with their own partisan perspective and horizons of expectation.

This crisis of public discourse is not a new insight. Yet, it is confounded by a failure of political journalism that includes the standards of many, though not all professional journalists. The most shocking aspect of the campaign coverage was that mainstream media’s staunch reluctance to indicate the way the race was leaning and developing. After the first debate between the candidates in Denver, the notion of “Mittmentum” captured the journalistic imagination. Predictions commonly identified all nine swing states as ‘toss up.’  As little as a week ago, the Washington Post moved Ohio back into this category. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, to the bewildered amusement of Obama supporters, continued calling polls showing the President leading by 2 or 3% a “statistical tie.” Right up to the election pundits from NPR to the BBC stressed how in such a close race any outcome was possible.

But was it? While the old hacks of the trait peddled the story of a “too close to call” election, those contributing to the debate from different professional backgrounds, often via the blogosphere, offered alternative ‑ and as it turns out far more accurate assessments ‑ of the state of the race. Nate Silver, economics graduate and baseball analysts, is only the most prominent exponents of the many who approached the polling data with the systematic approach that was not only absent among many political journalists, but that also proved entirely accurate.  On his blog Fivethirtyeight, licensed by the New York Times two years ago, Silver quantified the chances of an Obama re-election at 90.9% while many political journalists continued to resort to the old “toss up” line. In the end, Silver called every single of the fifty states correctly, including closely fought North Carolina, Florida, Virginia and Ohio. Other’s such as the Princeton Electoral Consortium, run by Sam Wang, neuroscientist and regular contributor to the BBC’s outstanding statistics radio program More or Less, were similarly accurate.

Ezra Klein summarized the backlash against Silver by political commentators and politicians Silver’s model suggested were loosing last week in the Washington Post. Now that his predictions have been proven highly accurate again, those who rushed to his defense before have plenty of cause to celebrate the triumph of maths. Anthony Goldbloom in the Sidney Morning Herald echoes many such reactions when he claims “the ability to analyze large amounts of data is starting to replace expert knowledge.”

It is tempting to agree with Goldbloom’s claims. Too often during the campaign was political journalism lacking in basic literacy and numeracy. My personal highlight in this respect came early on election night with CNN’s Gary Tuchman exemplifying political journalism’s crisis in just three words: trying to compare the handwritten returns from three polling stations in Virginia to the respective 2008 results, Tuchman concluded they are “almost exactly similar” – a phrase that in its tripart oxymoronic denial of numerical and linguistic logic is a multifaceted complex of stupidity and ignorance reminiscent of an Escher painting.

But it is a false dichotomy. This is not about data crunching Wunderkinder with degrees in economics, sociology or statistics whose computer-powered precision faces off with the gut and intuition of aging political journalists. While Silver’s model (whose code he understandably doesn’t disclose) appears to be remarkably accurate and he is to be congratulated on his remarkable achievements, it does not spell the redundancy of political journalists. It doesn’t prove the supremacy of statistics over other forms of analysis. Rather it calls for something else: better political journalism and a thorough reflection on what political journalism is for and how it ought to be conducted.

The accuracy of Silver’s predictions is not a triumph of maths and statistics, it is an illustration of the need to reflect on methods and epistemology. What much of political punditry over the past months failed to recognise are the basics of methodology that any student on our undergraduate courses in sociology or Media Studies will learn in their first year: there is no universally accurate method, and different research questions require different methods of study. If we are interested in question of “how many?” and “who?” (which tend to be fundamental to predicting election results), political commentator’s gut feeling or “having talked to the people here in Ohio” are a poor substitute for systematic analysis of different polls and polling average. And while no one asks for the bulk of political journalists to share the depth of statistical literacy that mark Silver’s or Wang’s work, asking about sampling strategies of different pollsters – who was being interviewed and by what means – is no prerogative of experts but are questions that our said undergraduates seem to have rather greater confidence in answering that many professional journalists across major networks and national newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic.

The point is that it is not the job of political correspondents, pundits and commentators to sit around tables and predict elections in the same way that retired athletes get to make a living by speculating about the outcome of sporting competitions. They are, evidently, no good at it. Instead, we need commentators and journalists who understand the nature of evidence (be it statistical or otherwise) and focus on the questions they are better equipped to answer ‑ not the quantitative, but qualitative questions of the campaign: the “whys” and “hows”, not the “who” and “how manys.”

There are two possible explanations for their failure to do so, both of which I believe are contributing factors. Firstly, broadcasters have a double incentive for portraying a close race. Again, much like sporting contests that are billed as epic battles full of suspense and surprise, covering a closely fought presidential election is likely to attract higher ratings than a foregone electoral conclusion. Yet, even more importantly, portraying the contest as close is the premise for sustaining the enormous influx of revenue from campaigns buying airtime with donors on both sides being much less likely to contribute the cash that ultimately ends up in media organizations’ pockets if there appears little to play for. Someone like Nate Silver only spoils the party here.

Beyond this institutional failure, however, also lies a failure of journalistic integrity and competency on an individual level, as many professional journalists fail to approach their work in a systematic and indeed scientific fashion; a failure to question the empirical basis of their assumptions and conclusions and to engage with the plethora of information and knowledge from the academic community and other expert citizens that via the world wide web has become easily accessible to journalists and the general public alike. This failure is reflective of a disengaged, complacent and lazy attitude towards the nature of knowledge. I am not quite, like Judith Lichtenberg, raising the spectre of positivism here. But in face of a cultural and political movement that has appropriated the lessons of deconstructionism to set out to construct its own reality, political journalists have to learn that the old party trick of ‘balancing’ won’t do. Truth is not the mid-point between Karl Rove’s opinion and that of a morally sane person. Instead journalists need to take the real lesson from the accuracy of Silver’s predictions: not that numbers beat words, not that quantitative research is inherently superior to qualitative investigation, but that whatever type of knowledge and information we deal with, not least professionally, we need to critically examine its empirical and epistemological premises.  From election predictions to reporting on social deprivation, global warming, and a range of other topics in which journalists seem unable to penetrate the fog of political spin through an almost hysterical reluctance to engage with the science behind the claims, leaving them to simply recycle talking points and poorly understood statistics, it’s logic, not balance that matters. Now that the election is over, those who make a living from creating and distributing knowledge, information and evaluation, shouldn’t marvel at the “magic powers” of maths – they should appreciate the indispensable need to critically reflect on the processes by which they do so. As the godfather of political punditry James Carville himself would have said: “It’s methodology, stupid!”


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It’s the Euros, stupid! Fri, 22 Jun 2012 14:31:45 +0000 As the European Football Championship have reached their halfway stage and moved from the group phase to the quarterfinals which Portugal opened with their victory over the Czech Republic on Thursday, it’s time for some halftime analysis–albeit not of the soul-searching depth of ever-vain Cristiano Ronaldo’s reflections during halftime in Portugal’s opener against Germany. In a game that saw Portugal defend too deep and develop little of its own offensive capabilities, the self-pronounced world’s best footballer knew what had to be done: when he stepped back onto the field for the second half, he had radically restyled his hair shifting from the gelled comb back to the quiff that is the metrosexual footballer’s best friend in the post-Beckham era. Portugal went on to lose 0-1.

Much of Jean Baudrillard’s (1993: 79-80) analysis of football as a space for increasing spectacle that at some stage is so enlarged in its representation that the actual event may well not need take place at all, has been proven right over the past decade, but not even he will have imagined the spectacular triumph of superficiality and ephemerality that is Cristiano Ronaldo’s hair–and indeed ego. Those searching for further evidence for the preponderance of the postmodern in European Championship don’t have to look far: once again, the mediated tournament appears in radical isolation from the context of the social, cultural, and physical landscapes in which the matches take place, with the exception of the dramatic thunderstorm that led to an hour-long delay in host nation Ukraine’s group match with France. German public broadcaster ZDF–previously rarely know as a beacon of postmodernism–has inadvertently crossed into the realms of the surreal by deciding to build a stage for its pre- and post-match analysis on a pontoon in the Baltic Sea on the island of Usedom, leaving millions of bewildered viewers–and newspaper columnists–to wonder “why?”, as the floating stage seems to have as little to do with football as host Katrin Müller-Hohenstein and former Germany keeper Oliver Kahn’s wooden attempts at conversation and banter have with entertainment.

Yet, just when there are appears plenty of convincing proof of football’s dissolution into postmodern spectacle, fate presents us with a match-up that forcefully reminds us that base and superstructure are rather less divorced than the non-reductive methodologies of postmodern theories would have us believe. When Greece meets Germany in the second quarterfinal match tonight, it’s, literally, about the Euro(s), stupid!

One of the most persistent myths about the nature of modern sport is that it has lots its innocence and authenticity over time through professionalization and commercialisation. In fact sports, and none more than football–or what Europeans tend to call football and Americans, in reference to Association, call “soccer“–have from their very origin in the second half of the 19th century been driven by forces of capitalism and industrialisation, resulting in the regulation of time and space and crucially the distinction of participants and spectators, the latter becoming paying customers as early as 1871 when English side Aston Villa was the first to charge at its gates. All that followed from the game’s symbiosis, first with newspapers, then radio, and eventually television to turn it into a the multi-billion dollar industry it is today, adhered to the very principles that had given rise to modern football in the first instance (Sandvoss 2003). And with the popular appeal and reach that football achieved in its mediated form, it inevitably became part of the public sphere in which, as much important work in media and cultural studies has illustrated over the past three decades, the political may not always be popular, but the popular is always politics.

Rarely will this nexus of sports, politics, and money be more evident than when on Friday night the German team meets Greece in Gdansk. In the rhetoric of many Greek politicians, the current economic plight is a result of austerity enforced on the Greek state by the EU and driven by its largest member state Germany. Many Germans in turn are dazzled by such hostility as Germany’s contributions account for nearly half of the €240 billion bailout Greece has received since 2010.

In the same manner, Germany, who have won all three of their first-round matches in what the ever restrained sporting press named “Group of Death”, are perceived as strong favourites, the Goliath threatening to roll over Greece’s brave eleven that somehow sneaked its way through the quarterfinals with efficiency, ingenuity, and self-belief.

But beyond all the hostile rhetoric and regardless of tonight’s result, over time the game will simply confirm the realities of a globalising world–a world in which through pressures of global capitalism as much as, I believe, related yet partially autonomous social, cultural, and political forces, create transnational structures and trajectories that erode the cultural frame of the nation station. The reality of the two teams that will play tonight is that almost half of the Greek squad either currently live, grew up in, or previously played in Germany, much as the German team includes many players of migratory backgrounds, primarily from the Mediterranean. In the same way, the only resolution to the Euro crisis, over time, will be an ever closer political and fiscal union between today’s still seemingly autonomous member states of the Euro Zone. Because, in the end, the Germans, the Greeks, and all of us share something more fundamental than the Euro and the Euros in a clash that the prophetic Monty Python predicted four decades ago. There, finally, is some hair to make Cristiano Ronaldo blush with envy!


The Media and the Riots in England: Unordered Thesis on Days of Disorder Sat, 13 Aug 2011 08:00:48 +0000 The two words that political leaders, and none more than Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, have resorted to in the wake of the riots that have spread throughout England since unrest in Tottenham last Saturday night, are “simple” and criminality”. If criminality ‑ a word I find semantically similarly appealing as, say, “hateality ‑ describes the state of being criminal, then the latter of these two terms is a hollow tautology that states nothing more than the obvious fact that crimes were committed. However, nothing about these crimes is simple. In fact, to start gaining an understanding of the riots, we need to grasp the multicausality of events of the past week. Here are some preliminary theses on its causes:

  • The UK riots, in their sum rather than the individual instances in various London boroughs, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham, were first and foremost a media event.  An event in which rolling news came into its own. Images of a burning furniture store in Croydon, a police car being attacked in Tottenham, hooded youths in Chalk Farm, another fire in Ealing – all repeated on loops to provide the dramatic background scenery to eye witness reports via mobile phones ‑ provided endless coverage, yet little depth of understanding. Yet, in doing so, the news coverage itself become constitutive of the riots ‑ though not in the way the simplistic but popular phrase “copycat” suggests. Rather, in the interplay between spectacle and performance that Abercrombie and Longhurst (1998) described over a decade ago, mediated representation and audienceship become part of the repertoire of our everyday life performances. The televisual image and its public consumption and re-enactment become part of a cycle in which one premises the other. In its form, though not its content, the UK riots thus arouse out of an interaction between televisual representations and on street actions; and the remediation and coordination of such performances via social media and mobile messaging were thus akin to other media events such as the 2006 World Cup and Public Viewing.
  • The marker of the riots in the interplay of in situ and media event is thus that they are demarcated from the ordinary. The event, by definition, is a diversion from the quotidian rhythm of everyday duties and practices. For all brutality and arson, if one was to code the few voices of those participating in the riots heard in media reports, one cannot escape the theme of the carnivalesque – with two 17 year old girls from Croydon interviewed on Radio 4 at 9 a.m. happily parading a bottle of looted rose wine after a sleepless, drunken night, which they had described as a party with “free stuff”, perfectly capturing the temporary escape form the dominant social and material order that made this Carnival of Violence and Looting so attractive to many of its thousands of participants across the UK.
  • The notion of “free stuff” – similarly reflected in the account of the BBC reporter in Manchester who after having been asked if he was heading to the sites of further riots was followed by streetwise locals who were equipped with bin bags to carry looted goods quickly realised they and the media had a common target ‑ was another frequent and near omnipresent theme of the riots. The scale of such looting, and the quite possibly accurate hypothesis that many riots were driven by the attempt to create opportunities for looting, are individually acts of greed and uninhibited material desire but in their sum a reflection of the triumph of materialism over all other values – linking these consumerist riots seamlessly to the key causes of the other dominant news theme of recent years: the credit crunch and banking crisis.
  • Yet, none of these points can begin to explain the levels of violence sometimes directed against the police, banks or the media as representatives of the stauts quo but more often seemingly indiscriminate in nature. This breakdown of civility is one in which the most adequate assessment of the role of the media is to acknowledge their wider relationships in what Bronfenbrenner (1979) identified as the micro, meso, exo and macro systems of childhood and adolescence in which print and broadcast media play an important, but far from exclusive role in exosystems, just as social media have become part of the mesosystems. But simplistic media violence debates, as much as those focusing on a decline of parenting skills fail to account for the interdependence of school, family and wider social life, and fail to offer an adequate response to the interplay of these systems.
  • However, alongside all the above reasons, anger fuelled the riots and looting and the frequent violent conduct in particular. Those on the political right have been keen to emphasise that much of the rioters’ conduct was apolitical, an analysis that is hard to disagree with. Yet, the rise of this form of the postmodern, apolitical riot, lacking the political trajectory of previous forms of civil unrest such as the 1981 Brixton riots, is neither a cause for gloating nor celebration. What has largely been missed in the broadcast and print media coverage of the riots is that the disenfranchisement of those demonstrating their anger from wider political processes and a sense of public sphere and democratic space, does not mean that such anger lacks causes that are both ideological and political ranging form wider questions of social inequality, injustice and poverty to the narrowly political such as the austerity drive and dramatic reductions in public spending. Witnessing sections of society who lack the fundamental vocabulary of political protest is a stark reminder that merely building media literacy reaches too short. When anger can no longer find a constructive trajectory, it translates into the indiscriminate, random and futile postmodern violence that becomes an aim in and for itself – and to which there hence can be no remedy, no meaningful political answer: because it cannot even formulate the challenge it poses.
  • Since the zenith of violence on Monday night, the focus of news coverage has increasingly shifted towards police tactics. Resources evidently appear to have played a role. Those familiar with policing practices internationally, will also note some of the idiosyncrasies of British policing, such as not using water cannons for crowd control. Those with experience of living in London and other British metropolitan areas will have first-hand accounts of a policing culture that is often experienced as a “can’t do”-service by citizens. While all this may be true, such debates illustrate many traditional mass media outlets’ failure to engage with the causes of the riots and instead mistaking failures of policing in containing the symptoms of the riots for an engagement with their actual causes.


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What Paul the Octopus tells us about the World Cup….or why globalisation spells the slow death of FIFA’s treasured tournament. Thu, 15 Jul 2010 17:41:14 +0000 Global sports tournaments such as the Olympic Games and the football World Cup like to foster narratives of the meteoric rise of someone hitherto little known to global stardom. Yet, while footballers are occasionally known for their limited intellectual range and – when it comes to the moral conduct of their own private lives – occasional spinelessness, it would have taken some prophetic powers to foresee that the star of the World Cup was to be an invertebrate, one with as many, if better organised, legs as England’s back four– or to be precise not legs, but eight tentacles: Paul, the Weymouth-born octopus living in an aquarium in the German City of Oberhausen predicted the outcome of all eight World Cup games he was consulted on correctly.

Those with an inclination to stochastic will know that the chance of him predicting these eight games in a row correctly was 1 in 256 – a likelihood that does not require us to resort to the paranormal in the search for explanations of the accuracy of his predictions, considering we easily started off the World Cup with hundreds of animals (the homo sapiens kind included) being called upon to make such predictions. And if the proud parading of a rubber model of an octopus by the scorer of the only and decisive goal in the final, Andres Iniesta is anything to go by, Paul’s prediction had become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, too, further boosting the confidence of players having been predicted to be on the winning side.

What is more remarkable than the accuracy of Paul’s predictions, was the absence of compelling onfield stories and game play that allowed for Paul to become the major story of the World Cup. Paul is thus a fitting metaphor for the World Cup in the global television era in two senses: firstly, they are both kept in an artificial environment detached from their original context. For all the self-congratulation by FIFA officials of having hosted a World Cup in Africa for the first time, to most viewers, the only invasion of a sense of place and culture on the bland televisual stage of interchangeable football stadia was the Vuvuzela – one much maligned by television audiences outside South Africa – and the ever clichéd representations of local culture by media correspondents whose knowledge of South Africa perfectly resembled the tourist gaze in having arrived in the country only days, if at all weeks, before the tournament. FIFA itself kept the event in much of a vacuum from the local economy too, by making host countries’ acceptance of a tax bubble that exempts FIFA’s commercial activities from VAT and other taxes a precondition of awarding the tournament – leaving FIFA with a profit of more than a billion US Dollars and South Africa and its people with a deficit no smaller.

Secondly, Paul’s existence, like that of the World Cup, is grounded in spectacle, their apparent purpose being to be looked upon. Their attractiveness as an object is thus rooted in their extraordinariness. Yet is it’s the latter that seemed sorely missing from this year’s World Cup. Few will doubt that pre-tournament favourites Spain were deserving winners, yet scoring a meagre eight goals in seven games, Spain’s performance was tactically apt, yet anything but rousing. Indeed, the fact that the World Cup had to rely on a German team that had hardly been accused of providing particular flair to past tournaments for some of its most convincing attacking football reflects that, beyond all the hype, the 2010 World Cup delivered mostly football of a distinctly ordinary quality.

None of this is surprising. As football has entered a global era, the international structure of national teams no longer reflects the global spread of talent. The Bosman ruling by the European Court of Justice in 1995, the global televisual circulation of domestic leagues and continental club competitions and the emergence of a truly global labor market for professional footballers (and indeed other athletes) have transformed global professional football dramatically. Many of the world’s best footballers never make it to the World Cup finales, because they represent nations in which their talents are not matched by their fellow countrymen. Conversely, given the now global competition for places in the starting line ups of teams in Europe’s top leagues, almost every national team included players from lower divisions or players struggling to hold down a regular first team place at their respective clubs. A leading European clubs side, one suspects, would have easily marched through the competition – and indeed Spain’s success has been in many ways an extension of FC Barcelona’s recent successes.

In a global world, transnational club teams play football of a quality unmatched in international sides. The World Cup in turn has to rely on its nature as a media event, on hype and nationalistic hyperbole to attract its audiences. For now, it no doubt still succeeds in doing so – but the speed with which, for instance, the St. George’s crosses disappeared from cars on English roads following England’s second round exit, illustrates the inherently ephemeral nature of such spectacle as an increasingly hyperreal focal point of temporary jingoism– of an event as Jean Baudrillard (1993: 79-80) remarked two decades ago “so minimal” it “might well not need to take place at all – along with [its] maximal enlargement on screens”. As the row between fans in Germany and their national team in which some fans criticised the team for not holding another parade and street party in Berlin following their third place finish – whereas players felt they had little to celebrate – illustrates, audiences’ determination to celebrate (and drink) is now only loosely related to the competition: many German fans seem to feel that they did not want a lost football game to get in the way of a big street party.

In its ephemerality, the World Cup might still prosper long enough to support FIFA’s current leadership regime. Yet it has begun to become increasingly interchangeable with other forms of spectacle. With the end of the World Cup most professional football leagues around the world now embark on a six to eight week hiatus from the game; time to find different sources of entertainment – and to make that trip to the local sea life centre to visit the World Cup’s biggest star and his relatives.


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Nationalism, nul points, or, How Eurovision Makes for a Better World Tue, 01 Jun 2010 05:01:11 +0000 With the start of the World Cup in two weeks, audiences around the world will put on their replica shirts, paint their faces, and mount little plastic flags (usually produced in China) to their cars. With the skeleton of nationalism they will also get its inevitable associates jingoism and chauvinism out of the closet. France, as unorthodoxly as practically, decided to combine both events by sending its official World Cup song to the Eurovision finals. However, in contrast to the World Cup, the Eurovision has the unparalleled capacity to make that skeleton of nationalism a little less scary – by putting it into a camp costume and acoustically accompanying it with a mix of popular music that happily draws on the grotesque as much as the popular, on the amateurish as much as the professional, on kitsch as much as local taste cultures.

For all overt nationalism on show during the contest and on the hundreds of message boards and millions of Twitter feeds that reflect Eurovision’s smooth transition from the broadcast to the convergence era, last Saturday’s Eurovision in Oslo [those who missed the contest can watch the complete broadcast here] once again underlined the Eurovision as a truly transnational media event that sometimes purposefully, but more often unwittingly undermines nationalism by championing its two natural enemies: silliness and inclusiveness.

As the great Charlie Chaplin realised more than 70 years ago, nationalism – like fascism – relies on being taken seriously: sport in its overt display of masculine chauvinism is not coincidently nationalism’s favourite vehicle. The small shoulders of the often young and hardly known performers at the Eurovision carry this heavy ideological burden less well. Can a Moldovan sense of nationhood really rest on a Eurodance-y Roxette rival band (watch out for the cameo by a young Bill Clinton)? Will the linguistically torn Belgium really rally around Tom Dice – who as a fellow viewer rightly (but rather unhelpfully only after I had placed a £2 bet on a top three finish) pointed out to me is more James Blunt than David Gray, as I had mistakenly assumed? Who would really believe that Spain hoped that a performance so surreal that the appearance of pitch invader Jimmy Jump could have easily gone unnoticed would garner acclaim and triumph? And did hapless Josh Dubovie who built on a recent run of last place finishes by the UK really add to a sense of British pride?

This is not to say that the Eurovision, as many other areas of popular culture, is not utilised in the articulation of a plethora or political and historical discourses. In recent years, the arrival and success of former Warsaw Pact states (and successor states) has lead to hostile reactions of Western European audiences suggesting such countries should hold their own “Soviet Song Contest.” This year, the victory of 19 year old Lena Meyer-Landrut (only Germany’s second victory, and first since 1982) over bookmaker’s favourite Safura from Azerbaijan lead to equally angry reactions from Eastern European viewers alleging that Germany’s economic power had swayed juries and voters and noting that voting for Safura was one’s antifascist duty as illustrated in such fan craftwork:

The point is not that the Eurovision doesn’t allow for such discourses – only, as everything else surrounding the contest, they are very hard to take seriously (see, for instance, the detailed discussions on the YouTube pages linked above, with one viewer claiming that “my parents sent a SMS for Azerbaijan to win yesterday, so only my family sent 3 SMS-s for Azerbaijan but we all saw that Safura didn’t gained [sic] a single points from Albania when the results were announced. It’s FAKE”). What matters is not whether Azerbaijan did or didn’t win; whether the Cypriot entry is from Cyprus or Swansea (it’s the latter); nor whether many in the German diasporic community share my profound sense of embarrassment over the heightened exposure of Meyer-Landrut’s at best spasmodic command of English grammar, syntax, and pronunciation following her victory. What matters is that the European Broadcast Union’s inclusive membership policy allows for a contest in which Azerbaijan as much as Germany, Israel as much as Iceland, Turkey as much as the United Kingdom share a common European stage, creating a European landscape that in David Morley’s word’s is “more than a nation-state writ large”: a Europe that is many ways the opposite of the nation state: inclusive and hard to take seriously! To me, that’s as much as I could ever hope for of Saturday night television.


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Meet the Bigots: When Popular Culture and Unpopular Politicians Collide Fri, 30 Apr 2010 03:50:25 +0000 In the excitement about contemporary shows such as The Wire as documents that supplement sociological analysis and observation, it is often forgotten that television drama has long held insights into the nature of contemporary life, professions and institutions. Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s Yes, Minister (and its squeal Yes, Prime Minister) (BBC 1980-88) portrayed the hapless but well meaning Jim Hacker, MP at the mercy of civil servants and his permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby in particular, in a study of organisational culture, bureaucracy and postwar Western European politics that has lost little of its insights over the past three decades.

A quarter of a century later, another political comedy show produced for the BBC – Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It (2005 – present) – portrayed a new political landscape in which the balance of power had shifted decidedly from the quiet, nomenklatura of civil servants, to the loud, bruising communication directors and party spin doctors  now firmly, and swearingly, operating the leavers of powers in which ministers, just as hapless as Hacker but rather less sympathetic, serve as marionettes whose fear of the party’s spin doctors is only superseded by their fear of encounters with common voters (though these voters are often portrayed in a no more sympathetic light than politicians themselves).

Much speculation has surrounded the accuracy of these comedic portrayals of reality of political everyday performances. Jay and Lynn, contemporaries of the last surviving former Conservative minister on the current Tory front bench, Kenneth Clarke, during their studies at Cambridge, have made little secret of the fact that Clarke and his fellow student politicians inspired their portrayal of politicians in Yes, Minister.

Yet, rarely has television fiction been replicated and superseded by actual events as drastically as in Wednesday’s meeting of Prime Minister Gordon Brown with Rochdale-based pensioner Gillian Duffy. Having, seemingly politely, listened to Mrs Duffy’s concerns including what she perceived to be too high numbers of foreigners settling in her neighbourhood, Brown climbed back into the prime ministerial limousine frustratingly quizzing his aides why they had let him meet this, in his words, “bigoted woman” ‑ forgetting that his eager team had previously urged broadcasters to equip him with a radio microphone to record his encounter with ordinary voters – a microphone he was still wearing and that broadcast his words to BBC, ITV and Sky simultaneously. This scene echoing the frequent portrayals of encounters between voters and politicians in The Thick of It almost to the letter. I say almost, as the Facebook site of the show noted that the affair seemed to be a bit of a storm in a teacup, given that the Prime Minister had not even used to the c-word to describe Ms. Duffy.

However, the interplay between political comedy and satire such as The Thick of It and these events are aesthetically and ideologically ambivalent. However painful the exposure to the collapse of front and back regions, that will provide a vivid case study for those of us teaching Erving Goffman’s dramaturgy for many years to come, may have been, however much 24-hour news media leapt upon the incident as breaking news, first opinion polls and some anecdotal evidence indicate that the incident may have had little impact on Brown’s popularity, or to be precise, unpopularity – for satire and comedy have long revealed realities of contemporary politics and thus shaped what Hans-Robert Jauss once called our “horizon of expectation” in a fashion, that yesterday’s events left many viewers and listeners distinctly unsurprised.

In fact, what seemed more surprising than the disingenuous manner in which Mrs. Duffy was first courted for her vote, only to be latter branded a bigot, was the fact that the Prime Minister’s private words revealed a rudiment of political conviction and liberal sentiment assumed to be missing entirely among Britain’s present day political class. At the same time, the subversive play with signifiers at the heart of the consumption of popular culture is equally resorted to by audiences in their reading of (television) news stories that appear to be no less polysemic: as a worker at a waste collection site I visited shortly after yesterday’s news broke proclaimed in equally cheerful as disturbingly sexist manner: “I am a Labour man. What, he was rude to a lady? Well, he has got my vote then!”

Yet, political satire has also, to use Jauss’s Constance School colleague’s Wolfgang Iser’s term, “normalised” our reading of yesterday’s event. The fact that in the interest of spin, many politicians are no longer willing to participate in an actual public discourse with the electorate – in which Brown would have disagreed with the xenophobe tendencies of Mrs Duffy’s line of questioning, rather than commenting dismissively upon on them only retrospectively and in what her wrongly assumed to be in private, barely raises an eyebrow – it is a state of affairs we have long assumed already. Yet, few of us are laughing, as the banality of unsubtle political realities blunts the satirical edge of even the most daring political comedy.


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Is it all Downhill from here for Winter Olympics? Sat, 13 Feb 2010 06:02:51 +0000 Historical categories are notoriously imprecise. As important as notions such as modernity and postmodernity are for our understanding of past and contemporary worlds ‑ and however much they underscore concepts and theories in disciplines such as sociology and media studies ‑ determining the beginning of any such era appears a perilous affair.

There is thus a fair amount of professional insanity in suggesting that I think I know better. In fact, I even know the exact date of beginning of the postmodern era: 28th July 1984, the day of the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. At the tender age of twelve I had persuaded my parents to allow me and my cousin to stay up and watch the opening ceremony. Having drifted in and out of sleep following the broadcast from L.A. on Western European Time, I could no longer be certain which realm of imagination – television or dreaming ‑ the rocket man flying into the Coliseum belonged to when I woke up on the living room sofa the next morning. The Los Angeles games offered a dramatic prefigurement of what was to come: the disappearance of the Communist block (the Soviet Union and most of its allies boycotted the 1984 games in retaliation for the US led boycott of the Moscow games four years earlier), the emerging symbiosis between celebrity culture and professional sports and the dramatic rise of spectacle and consumer culture ‑ the future had arrived and each subsequent Olympic summer games further underscored the global, postmoderm trajectory of the Olympic movement post Los Angeles.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Olympic winter games are a rudiment of a bygone modern era of (television) culture. Whereas summer games have adopted to changing viewing habits by adding sports that feature global sport stars through the (re)inclusion of tennis (1988) or golf (2016) and the opening up of the competitions to professional athletes such as the 1992 US basketball “Dream Team”, Winter Olympics have essentially remained fifteen ways of sliding.

In televisual terms, the types of sports featured in the Winter Olympics are those associated with the modern era of broadcasting: Alpine skiing, speed skating, biathlon, luge, or bobsled are rarely supported by large enough fan cultures to stand on their own televisual feet. Instead they have survived throughout television history as part of the magazine format in the mould of BBC’s Grandstand, the weekend afternoon sports magazine programme that ran form the early days of television in 1958 until its demise in 2007 when in a deregulated media market the “sports-interested viewer” had given way to the fan and enthusiast of individual sports such as football, baseball, basketball, tennis or Formula One motor racing. During the Winter Olympics this magazine type coverage of different competitions under the banner of winter sports is briefly revived – yet only by resorting to the life-support machine of the X-factorisation of winter sports coverage as national broadcasters have shifted away from the universal coverage of different sports events to the human interest stories surrounding particular competitors from that country.

The nation, in fact, is the true marker of Winter Olympics’ inherently modern nature. Summer games have increasingly become a platform for global sporting celebrities from Carl Lewis to Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, transcending the national as (sole) frame of reference. Olympic winter games, in contrast, remain a strangely local phenomenon in a globalising world. In its 86 year history Olympic Winter games have been staged in only ten countries, all in the northern hemisphere.  The fame of Winter Olympians has accordingly remained infinitely more localised and ephemeral. Competitors are often barely known even by their national audiences. Former stars such as surprise 1984 Olympic downhill champion Billy Johnson or four times ski jumping gold medallist Matti Nykänen have not only been quickly forgotten by the wider public, but have struggled financially and personally as their fame dissipated. The precariousness of Winter Olympians’ fame so closely tied to national success and thus so interchangeable from games to games is possibly best illustrated by the fact that even the memories of those whose achievements remain outstanding among Olympians such as US American speed skater Eric Heiden pale in comparison to who remains one of the best-known stars of the Winter Olympics of all times: British ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards – an athlete who became known for his dramatic lack of competitiveness that made every jump he managed without crashing a seemingly greater achievement than the competition’s longest and most daring jumps.

Danger and risk have endured as further markers of Winter Olympics archaic traditions. Even before tonight’s Opening Ceremony, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili fatally crashed during a training run on the ice track in Whistler. The menacing nature of high speed winter sports not only sets them apart from most sports at the Summer Olympics, but bears all the hallmarks of sport – to rather liberally borrow from Carl von Clausewitz’s words – “as the continuation of war with other means” – echoed in the words of Georgian Minister for Culture and Sport, Nikolos Rurua, who evoked the war between Russia and Georgia during the 2008 Beijing Olympics (or, in his words “invasion of Georgia by Russia”)  and called Kumaritashvili “a fallen comrade”.

It is not without logic that the Cold War provided winter games’ most natural habitat. In the bipolar world of the second half of the 20th century winter games served as snow-covered stage for the confrontation between ideological power blocs, one that culminated and crystallised in the finale of the 1980s Olympic ice hockey tournament in Lake Placid between the USA and the USSR – one of the last occasions when Americans could resort to a narrative of the agency of the underdog overcoming, against all odds, the seemingly insurmountable might of the system of their opponents – a story, one imagines, sworn enemies of the United States like to tell themselves these days. Much like the James Bond franchise, Winter Olympics have never been quite the same again since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For the next sixteen days, the Olympic winter games offer a journey into our recent, modern past; to some an enjoyable walk (or, rather, slide) down memory lane, to others a reminder of traditions best kept in the past. Vancouver as a distinctly multicultural and global city, of course, holds as great a promise of transporting Winter Olympics into the world of the 21st century as any host city. But I doubt they have a rocket man.


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