Penny CS Andrews on the talking heads on TV and the bullshit of the day from Brendan O’Neill to Alastair Campbell
Do you know a great deal about anything? Anything at all? Then you’re in a better position than most of the talking heads we see on our screens. However, that’s not really the point, is it? Darren Grimes isn’t regularly beamed in to your home from his gamer chair throne for similar rates to what I was paid to write this piece because he’s chock-full of knowledge, skills or practical experience. Hacks often say it’s because people like him are very available, in non-pandemic times can get to London studios quickly and don’t mind that the pay isn’t great. Well, those things help. The pay and general availability are why senior London media folk often turn opportunities down, but they’re not the main reasons Grimes and co get hired.
After all, if you’re reading this then there’s a good chance that you are both fed up of the faces served up to you by the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky and also fairly convinced that you either would do a better job of it or know at least half a dozen underrepresented people who could. Why is there always someone from the Spiked/RCP/Living Marxism axis? Why do Tufton Street fake think tankers pop up constantly? How do the thickest of MPs rise to the top of the billing within a couple of years and become Senior Backbenchers – like the cream they are very much not? Let’s dig a little deeper.
Here are some disclosures of my own. I write several times a year for the Times, which makes people think I’m a Murdoch shill rather than someone who pitches politics often to a range of outlets but gets most bites from Red Box. I quite enjoy enlightening their readers, who hate my appearance and presumed faction. I’m on the BBC contributor database after doing some Media Trust training for disabled experts, but they haven’t called once. I have been on a World Service discussion programme, because one of the production team saw and liked an article I wrote for Tortoise. I was invited to take part in a 5 Live debate after a Prospect piece on MP mental health during the worst of the Brexit wars got a bit of traction, but I turned it down because the only other confirmed contributor was Brendan O’Neill and it would have been easy to guess what his position would be and the row that would have ensued. I have once done a Times Radio debate on free speech for a friend, but it was specifically framed as not aggressive and all contributors had points of agreement without being bland. I have some experience of doing this stuff and a journalistic and academic portfolio that you would have thought would lead to more invitations, but I don’t get asked often and never for telly. Even in a pandemic world where Zoom knocks the not-in-London problem out of contention. What’s going on?
Obviously, this isn’t really about my profile and desire to be a media tart. It’s some context so we can talk about who does get on and why. Ayesha Hazarika, a comedian/columnist and wonk who has done her fair share of talking head and debate work, had a good bit about this in her 2018 Edinburgh show Girl On Girl. Her politics is not mine, let me be clear, but she shares stories about her experiences in the world of “disco” – not the music or the crisps, but the name posh producers give to the discussion segments so popular these days that regularly pit people with polarised views against each other for fun. The broadcasters want sparks to fly, during the programme and afterwards on social and traditional media. They aren’t after interesting analysis and depth of understanding, but a good old ding dong. Brendan O’Neill and Julia Hartley-Brewer, the professional contrarians, will always give them that. So they’re a guaranteed booking, and thrive on it, and other contributors if asked will often steer clear if they know they’re on board, as I did. The Moral Maze, for example, is a programme almost entirely built around the Spiked/Living Marxism/RCP network of people who came from a “communist” background but are now very much right wing genocide-denying controversialists like Claire Fox. Free speech absolutist tends to mean chats shit absolutist, but mostly politely. Want someone to go against every union and professional body? Someone in the network is there for you. Rule one to getting on and getting invited back: be noisy, be contrary, don’t get upset by anything anyone else might say and just make your point or disagree as hard as you can with zero concessions.
The second rule also applies to this category of guest: no nuance. If your answer to a booker’s question involves any caveats or you push back in any way on the argument they expect you to make (“we want you to come on and say ALL statues of MEN should be taken down”), you won’t get on even if you want to. They won’t reshape their view of how a segment should play out to suit the truth. All positions are polarised. The narrative is already determined, and they want contributors to fit slots for specific angles.
Shifting away from the Brendans of this world but not very far, we have the lobbyists. The current government has never had more porous a border with this type of “expert”. Not since the days of Thatcher have we seen such a proliferation of pseudo think tanks and their members not just influencing policy but going to work for governments. Real think tanks still exist, with a spectrum of political views and none, but I’m talking here about Tufton Street fronts such as the Taxpayers Alliance, Institute of Economic Affairs, Adam Smith Institute, Centre for Policy Studies (home of online publication CapX) and various Brexit-related organisations. They’re all right wing, Eurosceptic groups who spread misinformation and lobby the government – when they aren’t getting hired by them, or by the Spectator. Audiences don’t get information about the background of these contributors when they are on screen, so they look like legitimate economists, policy experts etc. They aren’t. It’s part of their job to be on telly, and producers are only too happy to oblige. Like the contrarians, they will always supply that extreme view without complication, perfectly delivered as if it were an entirely rational message. Darren Grimes comes from this milieu, as does Tom Harwood of Guido Fawkes – now masquerading as a “journalist”.
When I was in training with the Media Trust, it became clear that any academic from Oxbridge or the “good” London universities, especially if they are Professors, will find the invitations pour in from lazy researchers. So do journalists with staff jobs or regular columns. The third rule applies to all the people I have spoken about so far: be perfectly happy to speak about any subject, however far it is from your expertise. Do not do more than a cursory Google (don’t click on the links) or skim of Twitter, if that, before going on telly or radio. Do not do the decent thing and suggest someone else, or talking about your actual knowledge. You won’t get asked back.
Finally, and you could have guessed the fourth rule, it is not what you know, but who you know. If you hang out with the right people socially, or know them from school or university, you have a good chance of getting on the telly. If you’re a new MP, get pissed down the Red Lion and slag off the leadership of your party on social media and over a pint (or combine the two, with a late night drunk Twitter rant) and you’ll find you’re moved to the top of the contact list and will probably get a book deal and some nice unethical side gigs to boot. If you are in the media and/or politics yourself outside an elected role, hang out with people at the top of a party or campaign enough and are young and telegenic, they might let you become an outrider – an unofficial mouthpiece for key messages, let in to the right WhatsApp groups and Signal chats and pushed onto telly. Equally, angry ex-politicos are as useful to the media as the ranty backbenchers. Alastair Campbell can always come on and say how Tonty Blair would do it better.
If you were wondering about the other “experts”, the Karol Sikora, Anthony Seldon, Kathleen Stock and Sunetra Gupta types, that’s easy. They get invited on because they are senior in their jobs, look like proper academics but have either happily strayed wildly outside their area of expertise or take a perspective that is orthogonal not only to that of their colleagues but also reality. Or both. Stock has no academic or other expertise in feminism or trans people but adds a veneer of respectability to transphobia. Seldon is helpful when you need a university vice chancellor whose institution has nothing in common with any of the others and nor do his opinions. Sikora is not a virologist, but people like his positive and nonsensical chat about coronavirus. Gupta is an epidemiologist! But one who talks nonsense about COVID for money and is good to get on Question Time to contradict all the available evidence. Rule five: be wrong, but in a way that makes sense to stupid people.
Above all else, have no shame. Otherwise you’ll never get booked. Happy grifting…
Penny CS Andrews is a writer and researcher, specialising in politics, fandom and internet cultures. Penny has written for a range of popular publications, including the Times, Independent, New Statesman and Prospect magazine, alongside academic articles and book chapters.
She can be found tweeting @pennyb.