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Without the 'Heat' angle, young people cool on politics

Updated Tuesday 14th June 2011

If younger people trust celebrities because they know their private lives, should potential MPs be more like Jade Goody and less like Gordon Brown?

Archive of David Cameron:
If we link effort to reward, if we encourage people to step forward and play their part, we won't just make our society fairer and more cohesive, we'll create the conditions for a more aspirational, entrepreneurial culture in our country. A country of doers and go getters, where people feel they're in control of their...

Laurie Taylor:
And then how about adding in an exciting and provocative question? Would you place more political trust in the man behind that voice or the man behind this:

A man dressed up as Spongebob Squarepants Creative commons image Icon latca under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

Extract of Eminem performing Not Afraid

Laurie Taylor:
And my question there was prompted by a new piece of research published in the journal Media, Culture and Society.

The title - how refreshingly straightforward this is - is Simon Cowell for Prime Minister? Young Citizens' Attitudes Towards Celebrity Politics. And its authors are John Street and Sanna Inthorn. Sanna, who's a senior lecturer in political, social and international studies at the University of East Anglia, joins me in the studio.

Sanna, let's just have a little look at the background to this project. I think it arises from all the anxiety which is being expressed by various sorts of pundits about young people's lack of engagement in politics?

Sanna Inthorn:
Yes, so specifically about young people not bothering to vote; young people not knowing who their MP is; young people generally not feeling a sense of understanding of politics.

But at the same time, in this wider context, there's also a concern about what young people do spend their time doing, and a lot of it is engagement with popular culture.

And there's an on-going debate about whether popular culture is somehow to blame for this cynicism.

Laurie Taylor:
So the argument being that people are so interested in listening to people like Eminem that they've really got no time for politics.

Is it a time thing or just simply that it's so much attractive - this world of entertainment?

Sanna Inthorn:
Well, some people have argued that it is stealing time - that popular culture is stealing time - so when you listen to Eminem, at that time you should be out helping old people across the road. But other people are also concerned about the quality of popular culture, they argue that if you watch SpongeBob or Hollyoaks there really is nothing in there that is of value, what you need to be a citizen.

Laurie Taylor:
Now we're going to find some rather reassuring news, I think, in your research but just tell me a little tiny bit about what you did. You wanted to go out, didn't you, and to talk to young people and just simply find out whether or not there was a relationship between celebrity culture and their lack of interest in politics. How did you set about that?

Sanna Inthorn:
We did a combination of focus groups and interviews with 16 to 17 year-olds in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex and what we did there were very loosely structures of conversations where we invited young people to talk to us about television, popular music and video games; their likes and dislikes, but also more specifically sort of the meanings that they found in these programmes. So we would, for example, have discussions about Hollyoaks - there was a storyline about the Valentine family where one family member, he's a policeman and he supplies his young sister with drugs, storylines like this for example.

Laurie Taylor:
So they had an interest in storylines which really had political resonance?

Sanna Inthorn:
Yes.

Laurie Taylor:
But when you talked about this critical issue of trust [and] who they trusted, whether they trusted politicians or whether they trusted performers.

You did discover, didn't you, that people - let's stay with Eminem for a moment - that people were able to say 'well, we can trust him more than politicians'. What were the grounds for saying that?

Sanna Inthorn:
Well the young people we spoke to they felt they could trust someone like Eminem more because they knew much more about him;, they had seen him on the telly; they had read about him in Heat magazine; they listen to his lyrics.

So they felt they had access to his persona; so they felt they knew who he is as a person and therefore can determine whether what he raps about comes from the heart. It was very important to them.

They felt [with] a politician – well, they've never seen them on the telly, they're not on Big Brother, so they felt they couldn't trust them.

Jade Goody Creative commons image Icon Keira76 under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
Gordon Brown Creative commons image Icon World Economic Forum under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

Laurie Taylor:
So the knowledge about how they spent their private time [is important. You found] extraordinary results here. We find out, for example, the late reality star Jade Goody was turned out to be more trusted than the Prime Minister at the time, Gordon Brown, on the same grounds that 'well we don't know what Gordon Brown's like at home, we don't know his private life'?

Sanna Inthorn:
Yeah, so they would argue politicians have a serious image problem because they haven't really got much of a rich image, there isn't much that young people feel they can connect with or trust.

Laurie Taylor:
Okay, now what about this: when you talk about politicians, you spoke to young men and to young women. One of the surprising things here was that there was a sort of feeling that women - am I getting this right - that they shouldn't be in politics, there was a certain anti-feminine attitude taken by some of the young people?

Sanna Inthorn:
Well, we think they didn't necessarily feel that women should not be in politics but they felt that certain kinds of women stand no chance.

So we felt that young people do want an alternative to the politics that they see in television, radio and the press; they want more fun, they want, maybe, young people.

They feel actually the people in charge tend to be rich shouty men and so that's why they would argue that someone like Cheryl Cole could never be prime minister because they called her a girly girl who cries a bit too much - so she can't be in charge.

Laurie Taylor:
And they also had strong exception to Sarah Palin as well, didn't they?

Sanna Inthorn:
Yes, because she was in a beauty contest they felt that's ridiculous, how trying to glam up and be...

Laurie Taylor:
But there seems to be a sort of paradox here, because they want some guarantees of authenticity from their politicians that they believe they're getting from celebrities (although perhaps we'd want to say celebrities manufacture their home life to give that feeling of authenticity), but at the same time they seem to want politicians to wear suits, be men and dress up and look serious.

Sanna Inthorn:
Well, I think it's more that they are very realistic about what politics in the UK looks like. Like we thought the example of Caroline Flint, I don't know if you remember her in the Observer Magazine, there were these old pictures which some said would accentuate her femininity and her sexuality and arguably this undermined her credibility as a serious politician.

So I think young people pick up on what goes on in politics, they see that someone like Alan Sugar gets appointed to be government advisor, but not Chris Moyles.Understand politics. Study politics with The Open University

Laurie Taylor:
And when you talk about the issues - we mentioned Hollyoaks and so on - but it's often single issues they're picking up from and some of these are being derived - well many of them - are being derived from popular culture. I mean what other issues?

Sanna Inthorn:
Yes so a lot of issues to do with their experiences of teenage pregnancies, crime - a lot talked about the gun crime, knife crime - but also issues of the environment, animals and gender issues, so they talked a lot about games for girls. Girls don't like to play these games because they're too violent, girls like the Sims.

And a concern about their age group and younger people - a lot of the young people when they talked about gaming in particular show a lot of concern for younger gamers and say, like, 'my little brother should not play this game', was to us an expression of morality and a concern for other members of society which was deeply political.

Laurie Taylor:
I'm perhaps pressing you for a conclusion when as we always say more research is needed, but when you'd finished this, did you feel more or less despondent about young people's involvement in politics because they're asking for something which is unlikely to happen - politicians revealing more details of their personal life than they do at the moment - but at the same time if that's the only route in, perhaps that's what politicians should do. How do you feel?

Sanna Inthorn:
Well I felt very good about young people because they had a lot to say about social and political issues, they had opinions that were very thoughtful and articulate. It was just that they felt they didn't know where to start, or how to have their voices heard.

So I think you know they have everything they need except a way into politics and they just feel disempowered. They see politicians aren't like them and don't speak their language, they feel patronised by politicians.

So if they feel 'well if I don't want to play that game I can't have my voices heard'. And I'm wondering [when] we see the demonstrations in London of young people smashing windows, maybe they think well 'if I don't want to wear a suit I have to maybe smash a window'.

This discussion was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4, 25th May 2011.

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