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Eat the worm

By Steven | October 7, 2008

There’s talk that TV3 might use the worm again for its leaders’ debate. In an attempt to persuade them not to, let me revisit a column I wrote before the last election:

I see the worm is back.

No, I’m not talking about John O’Neill. I mean the squiggly electronic line that measures audience reaction to politicians’ performance in television debates. I hate that worm.

Still, I can see why television executives love it. It draws us to television screens in droves. One Australian commentator wrote that “many viewers find the worm more interesting than the politicians.”

And that’s the problem. We no longer need to listen to the debates and think about what we’re hearing for ourselves. We have an electronic scorecard. An infallibly scientific one. A fascinating, beguiling one. Instead of thinking to ourselves, “Now, is Helen Clark making any sense?” we think, “How is that going down? Is she winning the game?”

It’s politics as pure sport. We are mere spectators. The worm relieves us of the burden of having to work out for ourselves who’s ahead.

But hang on. The worm is simply the electronically summed gut reactions of a bunch of undecided voters twiddling some knobs in a room somewhere. Why take any notice of them? You won’t be told who they are, but you can make some safe assumptions.

First, the great majority of them will not share your political views. 

Second, you would find some of them to be complete tossers.

Third, you have no idea what they are reacting to. You’re watching their reactions to the leaders’ ideas – mostly before the leaders have finished expressing them. Some of them are thinking, “Yeah, I’ve been following National’s Treaty of Waitangi policy and it makes good sense to me.” Some are thinking, “Ooh, I like his tie.” Some are thinking, “Damn, I forgot to remind Trish to pick up the sausages.”

When the worm was first used in 1996, Pam Corkery reckoned it simply went up when the live studio audience applauded. Wellington businessman Michael Gibson observed that the worm dipped whenever Paul Holmes appeared onscreen, no matter who was talking.

This is the process by which the will of the people is translated into science.

The worm then declares the winner of the debate, and identifies the big turning points as the parts of the debate that are worthy of discussion. (In 1996, TVNZ screened the debates first without the worm, followed by a package of worm highlights.) Poor Jim Bolger fielded a question from a grieving audience member whose mother had died three weeks earlier. She had been on a waiting list for a heart operation. “I extend my sympathy to you and your family,” Bolger said awkwardly. “I’d have to say that death is always associated with health…”

Doh. Of course, the worm went subterranean. Bolger was treated to endless replays of this moment, complete with burrowing worm, and it dominated the print media reaction too. I could be wrong, but I don’t remember anyone using this opportunity to explore the question of how many people were dying on waiting lists, whether that number had increased under National’s watch, and how the parties’ health policies played into the issue.

There was lots of coverage about Bolger’s poor performance, though. “Obviously, Mr. Bolger will have to learn to lift his worm,” wrote Brent Edwards memorably.

There was also lots of coverage about how the worm adored Helen Clark. The commentators examined her “empathetic nodding,” her “softer, modulated voice,” her “pained sincerity,” her “ability to project an authoritative presence.” They didn’t examine her policies much.

And that’s why I hate the worm. It’s yet another thing pushing us toward image analysis and horse-race politics, and away from talking about how we’ve been affected by the government’s decisions in the last three years, what the alternatives might have been, and what policies are best for the future. The worm finds this stuff too boring. It doesn’t like long explanations. Nor does it like taxes (though it does like improvements in health and education). It doesn’t like uncomfortable truths being mentioned.

But watch it perk up at huggable words like responsibility, security, community and opportunity. (There’s serious research that people love these words.) Listen for: experience, commitment, pride, New Zealand, future, success, trust, children, keeping promises, leadership, vision. Helen Clark often uses the vision-word, but it seems to sit ill in her mouth. Back in 1996, though, she denied that she was coached to use favoured buzz-phrases. “If you went into a debate trying to remember that sort of thing, you’d fall flat on your face,” she said. “Answering the question is critical.”

Actually, Clark is masterful at answering a slightly different question to the one that’s asked. Still, she compares well with Winston Peters, who will answer a different question entirely. Watch out for those magical transition words: “let me just say this.”

The worm’s one redeeming feature is that it punishes politicians who duck questions using this sort technique, which they get away with the rest of the time. For all that, I still don’t want the worm. It produces bland worm-tested arguments. It hypnotises viewers and media pundits. It assumes that knee-jerk popular appeal equals quality democratic debate.

TVNZ should swallow it.

Topics: Electoral speech, Media ethics | 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “Eat the worm”

  1. Graeme Edgeler Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    I understand a major problem Bolger had with the worm was that it was being controlled by undecided voters. In 1996, that meant people who had decided they weren’t voting National, but weren’t sure whether to support Labour, the Alliance or New Zealand First.

    If the worm was representative of the voting public, rather than the undecided voting public, it might have turned differently.

  2. Steve Withers Says:
    October 7th, 2008 at 11:32 pm

    If it’s a two-leader debate, I won’t be watching no matter what they do.

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