Tim Loughton is Shadow Minister for Children and is one of the MPs taking part in the current Channel 4 series, Tower Block of Commons. Click here to watch the first three episodes and click here to vote for the MP you feel is most connecting with the locals on the estates where they are living.
Two very worrying things happened to me last week, both to do with television.
Firstly I was billed for a fundraising Conservative dinner as "Tim Loughton MP of Tower Block of Commons fame". Thirteen years as an MP, ten of them on the front bench and seven years as Shadow Minister for Children and Young People and glorious recognition boils down to my part in Channel 4’s version of ‘Wife Swap with PMQs.’ From dodgy dancing to cage fighting and rap song recording (that episode was shown last night) I certainly think the whole enterprise of Tower Block of Commons was worthwhile if very hard work. Repeats on Harry Hill’s TV Burp have certainly succeeded in bringing terminal embarrassment to my teenage children.
Being deposited in an unfamiliar environment miles from the comforts of Worthing with no clue about where you are going was always going to be a challenge. Sofa surfing from one flat to the next and not being told which strangers will be your hosts the following night is never easy. When one of your billets turns out to be a one-bedroom flat on the ninth floor of a tower block sharing with two adults, a six year old and four year old hyperactive child, two ex-fighting pit bull terriers, a very territorial cat and two goldfish, you wonder why you are doing this. And when you have a camera in your face for every waking moment for eight days solid you wonder why anyone would want to do it.
But it’s a good way of immersing yourself in a community living on one of the most deprived estates in inner city Birmingham, where no one can name their MP of 26 years’ standing, let alone have met her. The real challenge is to convince people that politicians have any relevance in their everyday lives and that we aren’t all the bunch of ivory towered wasters the popular press would have you believe, particularly of late. But more of the social analysis of what I found and what I learnt in Birmingham Newtown in a later article. More still about the lazy and knee-jerk cynicism of the reviewing print media journalists who are quick to denigrate a worthwhile piece of television like this when it is clear that some of them have not even bothered to watch it in advance.
My second worrying happening was over lunch, which I am happy to say still happens around the table with all family members present in our household, in stark contrast to the table free zones I inhabited in Birmingham. I found myself in earnest conversation with my gobby thirteen year old daughter speculating as to who had killed Archie Mitchell in Eastenders on Christmas day. I mean for goodness sake, is there not enough going on in the world to talk about over lunch without the latest sensational twist in a soap opera which I have to admit to being addicted to since the very first episode almost twenty five years ago now?
My point is that the influence of television and soaps and so-called ‘reality TV’ in particular, is huge, especially on young people. The truth is that in the Christmas Day TV ratings more people tuned into the Queen Vic to witness the gory murder of Archie Mitchell than to Queen Liz talking about the ultimate sacrifices made by our servicemen in combat zones. Which is more realistic? Eastenders is the soap of choice for millions of our constituents seeking a release from the reality of everyday life by tuning into the BBC’s reality soap. The audience increasingly includes my children and others when they can drag themselves away from the other electronic distractions of Facebook, texting and Super Mario.
Yet is Eastenders a remotely accurate reflection on society and how ‘normal’ people live, be it in the East End or any other part of the UK? How many one time married couples can you name in Eastenders? I can only think of the Masoods. When was the last time someone had a baby who wasn’t a single mum? How many murders have there been in your local pub or on your allotment recently? Can it compete with the termination of Archie, Dirty Den and I forget the rest? How many convicted murderers have been living in your square? How many of your friends have buried their husbands alive? How many hostage taking situations have there been in your neighbourhood in the past few years and why is it that for people who always complaining about being broke, the taxi is the preferred mode of transport when there is a perfectly usable tube station a stone’s throw away from Albert Square?
Now don’t get me wrong, this is all gripping telly. Eastenders is no better, no worse, than the other soaps all seeking to be sensationalist to differing degrees. But it cannot be portrayed as real life. Ironically for a set of characters who so fail to resemble anything like the satellite married family that remains at the heart of British social mores, albeit rapidly shifting ones, Peggy et al are constantly preaching to us that ‘nothing matters as much as family.’
Notwithstanding all this, soaps can give out some very powerful and important messages. Story lines around mental health and children in care in Eastenders have been brilliantly portrayed and followed up on websites and in commentary on other BBC programmes. But by the same token the stereotyping of many characters in Eastenders has the potential to be very damaging. Social workers are always caricatured as sandal-wearing interferers; the police as pretty dim and flat-footed and teachers as snotty busy-bodies who dare to know more about the kids’ education than Bianca Jackson or Ian Beale. Teachers at some schools have even told me that you can judge a story line in Eastenders by the way they are treated by the parents. If Ian Beale can get away with berating teachers because one of his little darlings has been truanting then they can certainly weigh in against the head of their school with the best of them.
Just the other week in the committee stage of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, Eastenders featured heavily when we were discussing new proposals for sex and relationship education. Whatever the changes to be made in this area of the curriculum, the sex scenes in the portakabin and in a bathroom involving two sets of characters in two recent episodes of Eastenders between 7.30 and 8pm were not subject to any watershed and in any case the use of iPlayer and other media through the internet makes the watershed increasingly redundant.
David Cameron is right to highlight the sexualisation of young children and the commercial tantalisations and peer pressures that force too many of our children to grow up too quickly. Government is only part of the solution. The media and especially the responsible screening of soaps is another part. With the inexorable march of technology disproportionately impacting on the younger generation, those of us in politics need to get smarter about the way we use technology to communicate with young people in particular. News last week that American children spend an average 7 hours a day on phones, screens and other electronic equipment underlines the extent of the challenge.
There are serious social lessons for the way we allow these media into our homes. I heard about an intriguing social experiment carried out by one concerned mum recently. The sitting room was laid out cinema-style so everyone faced the TV and regularly enjoy TV suppers. She removed the TV and replaced it with a pot plant but the TV dinners still involved them all gawping at the pot plant. Stage 2 was to remove meal time to the kitchen table under which was symbolically placed the TV. Conversation ensued – who knows, they might even have discussed amongst themselves who killed Archie Mitchell. In the future they might even discuss the performances of MPs on Tower Block of Commons and begin to take an interest in the relevance of politics in their every day lives – though not I fear to the extent that the ten million of them who voted on the last X Factor final will then be inspired to go out and vote in the most important reality show of all, the general election.