By now, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the video of Ed Miliband using almost precisely the same words over and over again in an interview. If you haven’t, it’s well worth seeking out. The reporter asks him five different questions about the public sector strikes, and every time, Miliband says that he thinks the strikes are wrong while negotiations are still under way, that the government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner, and that it’s time for both sides to put aside the rhetoric and get round the negotiating table. He repeats identical phrases ad nauseam. It sounds like an interview with a satnav stuck on a roundabout. Or a novelty talking keyring with its most boring button held down. Or a character in a computer game with only one dialogue option. Or an Ed Miliband-shaped phone with an Ed Miliband-themed ringtone. Or George Osborne.
Yes, George Osborne. Because shortly after posting a link to the Miliband video online, someone drew my attention to a similar clip of Osborne dating from late last year, in which the 14-year-old chancellor answers a series of different questions about the economy by reciting a single soundbite over and over, like a mantra.
This in turn reminded me of a clip I’d stumbled across during research for an episode of Newswipe, in which Alistair Darling spent five minutes repeating an identical phrase about "global recession" over and over. At the time I’d figured it was a one-off. Clearly it’s not. It’s a standard gambit.
All three clips are terrifying. First you think you’re hearing things. Then you wonder whether time itself has developed hiccups. Finally you decide none of these people can possibly be human. Because they look absolutely, unequivocally insane.
And if it looks weird on tape, imagine how it felt actually being there, standing in front of them, asking the questions. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it – you can read an insider’s description of it. ITN’s Damon Green, the reporter who was putting the questions to Miliband, has written an entertaining and very illuminating behind-the-curtain blogpost about the experience.
The first interesting thing is just how twatty the Miliband PR handlers appear to have been, demanding their man be positioned "in front of his bookcase, with his family photos over his left shoulder", and insisting on checking the shot themselves, like a trio of dull Stanley Kubricks. (Interestingly, Green also notes that David Cameron’s handlers apparently "never let him be filmed in front of anything expensive, ornate, or strikingly Etonian". Presumably for similar reasons they also forbid him to be photographed in front of heartless chunks of moneyed shit.)
Anyway, after posing several questions only to receive oblivious identikit responses from Miliband, Green says: "I began getting twinges of what I can only describe as existential doubt." By the end he wanted to ask him: "What is the world’s fastest fish?", just to throw him off-stride. (Kudos to Green for a) being funny and b) describing how weird the Miliband encounter actually felt. Not usually a political correspondent, it was a new experience for him.)
The reason for the Speak-and-Spell tactic is obvious: in all three cases (Miliband, Osborne, Darling) the PR handler responsible must have figured that since the interview would be whittled down to one 10-second soundbite for that evening’s news bulletins, and since they didn’t want to risk their man saying anything ill-advised or vaguely interesting, they might as well merely ignore all the questions and impersonate an iPod with just one track on it. What’s unusual is that it’s taken until now for one of these unedited interviews to go a bit viral. The Darling interview took place at least two years ago. The BBC News site often plays host to what amount to unedited rushes, which are sometimes more instructive than a final packaged report. As far as I can tell, the "Miliband loop", as it shall now be known, first materialised there (despite being conducted by an ITN reporter, it was a "pool" interview for all channels to use). The BBC site is also where the Osborne and Darling clips ended up. In all three cases they were unaccompanied by any comment about the repetitive lunacy contained within. No "WARNING: WATCHING THIS MIGHT MAKE YOU FEEL A BIT MAD." None of that.
What this tells you is that many people working in TV news have grown so accustomed to seeing tapes in which politicians blankly replicate a single phrase as if they’re summoning Candyman, it no longer strikes them as unusual.
But it is unusual: bloody unusual. You might say it symbolises everything that’s wrong with everything. The modern world suffers from a cavernous reality deficit. You know it, I know it. Even "they" know it. Reciting the same line over and over like a Countryfile presenter practising a piece to camera, Miliband must have felt twice as mad as Green. Two men locked in a shared hallucination while the camera rolled.
It’s no surprise that politicians gabble pre-scripted taglines in order to dodge awkward questions and avoid having off-the-cuff comments inflated into a full-blown gaffe. And it’s no surprise the media routinely colludes in this surreal pantomime. But it’s only when you stand back and watch the rushes that you see how crazy the situation has become. Honestly, it gives you vertigo.
Clearly an intervention is necessary. Next time you pass an MP being interviewed on the street, set off a party popper. Jump in and shriek. Get your bum out. Anything. Just to prompt some kind of authentic human reaction from either side.
Because we can’t go on like this. It’s just too damn weird.
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