The two publics

From the BBC to New Labour, Britain is obsessed with giving the public what it wants. We should know better
June 19, 1998

It is a shame that we did not go to war with Iraq earlier this year. The government was ready to reveal its new smart weapon: a bomb operated by a focus group in Gloucester. The device is commanded by 15 housewives, small businessmen, deputy headmasters and the man in charge of selecting fruit for Sainsbury's; they determine its target, cruising speed and trajectory. As it nears the point of detonation, the bomb, code-named the Mandelbug, radios back to its masters and asks them which demographic group they would least mind being part of any collateral damage.

What is bringing politics and marketing together is an obsession with the public, a belief that all you need for success is an ability to give the public what it wants-now rather than later. New Labour is not the only believer in this business-style approach to populism. It is merely the current brand leader.

The public is now king and queen. What the public-the consumer-says and wills is considered final in commercial, cultural and political life. But when you try to examine what the public wants, you come up against conflicting signals. Last summer, the public simultaneously demanded more privacy for Prince William and that we should skip a generation and make him king, hardly the most private occupation for a nervous 15 year old. It is the public which says both that it wants more music radio without the ceaseless interruption of over-talkative DJs, and that its favourite presenter is Chris Evans. Faced with such contradictory data, the Mandelbug, if launched, would probably throw its tail-fins up in confusion, double back and hit Gloucester.

Politicians and the media forget that there are two publics. The first is the "immediate public." This is the one we measure in numbers alone, the one advertisers buy in bulk. The immediate public is made up of that part of us which is aimless: it flicks around looking for something that's on; can't be bothered cooking tonight so it will just eat something from the fridge; buys that newspaper because it thinks it's a bit of laugh; was asked a question by a woman with a clipboard and said something simply to get it over with; has had a bad day and just wants to put something loud on. The immediate public just does things; it isn't interested in why.

Then there is the "eventual public." The eventual public has had time to consider what it has experienced and pass judgement on it. The eventual public comes in to work the next day and starts talking about what it saw on television the night before, sits in the pub making jokes about the Millennium Dome, wouldn't mind having back that book lent to mother a year ago, likes what the present lot are doing about corporate tax but thinks those parties they keep having at Downing Street make the place look like a brothel.

The eventual public has come to a decision, but it may have taken months, even years, for that decision to have been made. The judgments made by the eventual public drip out over a period of time and are therefore impossible to gauge at any one moment. It is the eventual public which over hundreds of years chose our classics, selected not only for quality but for enduring popularity. It has eventually made, say, Fawlty Towers, Life on Earth and Cracker our most popular programmes-programmes that a commissioning editor looking for immediate success would never approve.

In an ideal world, we should try to satisfy both these publics. But this is no longer happening. The career of Rupert Murdoch personifies the ruthless promotion of immediate public over eventual public values. Newspapers must improve their circulation; Britain has to be made ready for more televisions channels; more people must be got into our theatres and opera houses; a book must hit the bestseller list now rather than accumulate a readership over a number of years. If BBC television or radio is seen to be slipping against its competitors, this is a crisis for public service broadcasting. Such is the BBC's fear of the demands of the immediate public that it often mistakes mediocrity for accessibility and tosses out condescendingly made products to placate the rabble. Focus groups are fine to gain snapshots of the public mood, but idiosyncratic talent must then be applied to this information.

We, the public, are intelligent, but we also seek reassurance. We will contribute some answers ourselves, but we will also look for answers from those we trust as experts in their fields. And if we don't like their answers, we will say so. We pay people to be our party leaders, our channel controllers, our headmasters. If they turn round to us and say, "We don't know what to do, please tell us," then they should be sacked.

But the new trend in both politics and the media for consultation has eradicated the language of skill, of surprise, risk, cunning and even failure. Leaders in their fields are now too scared to say what's good for us, too scared to be arrogant. Options are beginning to close down as decision-makers feel they cannot stray too far from what they think the public will stomach. Far from being a Britain reinvigorated with flair and enterprise, we are entering a period of cultural homogenisation, with the convergence of Radio Three and Classic FM, Radio One and Virgin, the Mail and the Mirror, Labour and Tory, the Royal Opera House and Radiohead. Bland Britannia.