I’ve always been wild for breaking news – not nonsense splashes, but proper, live, surprising news, unfolding in real time. This is probably a fortuitous combination of being a thoroughly bookish, nerdy kid, having politically engaged parents, and my deep love for the adrenaline of the truly unpredictable and significant, tense, live experience. I love sport too…but mostly I love ‘important’ sport – I will sometimes watch the final round or last few holes of major golf tournaments, because I enjoy the pressure and potential for chaos, but would never, ever watch any other golf under any circumstances. I love politics too, enough to study it in some respect or other for many years. But it may be that my more basic, even atavistic devotion to the adrenalised ‘liveness’ of breaking news actually sparked that more specific attachment to politics in general.
I believe that I watched some coverage of the fall of the Berlin Wall as a four year old, but I don’t think I was really aware. I have a memory, perhaps reconstructed after the fact, of watching Mandela’s release from prison (presumably my folks told me to pay attention?). I remember the OJ Simpson verdict from 1995 and have a very clear memory of myself breaking the news of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination to my parents. But my first real hit was on the night of May 1st, 1997, or, rather, in the following weeks and months – I was 12.
British readers of the relevant age and proclivities may recognise the date as that of the first Blair landslide. I grew up under a Tory government, from 1985 to 1997, with liberal, left-leaning parents for whom hating the British Tories was a key political lodestar. At this time, my folks were directly involved in local politics with the Lib Dems, so they actually had tickets to the official count in Perth, and a babysitter was arranged. Doing their no doubt prescribed duty, this babysitter sent me to bed at, I believe, midnight. So my obsessive devotion to breaking news actually stems from an election where I failed to watch the most important bits live.
I awoke the next day (and went to school, presumably?) to footage of Blair moving into Number 10 and all that. But the real satisfying moments of the ministerial bloodbath – I did not witness. My parents loved it. My Dad loved it so much that he not only got a book called, ‘Were you still up for Portillo?´ he also got the video of the BBC’s election coverage! I watched this and read the book repeatedly, over the next few months, if not years. I re-lived the drama, over and over.
Except of course, in the core sense, it wasn’t really dramatic – it was a procession, a coronation, of a party that had been the (now mythical) 20 points ahead, or whatever it was, since very soon after the 1992 election. This had been followed a few months later by Black Wednesday and then by a turgid few years of an utterly beleaguered Tory administration, led by the unremarkable John Major and beset by sleaze and increasingly open battles in the Tories long-suppurating internal war over Europe, (some of whose ultimate consequences we will surely return to when I write about watching the Brexit referendum in Celtic Spain).
So the result of the ’97 election was never in doubt. The satisfaction of the live event came from finally seeing the downfall of a party that had ruled for 18 years, straight through from Thatcher’s first victory in ’79.
I felt and was starting to understand and be interested in why my parents and so many other people hated the Tories so much. At the time, I certainly didn’t understand the limitations of New Labour, the betrayals and compromises. So all I had was jubilation, a sense of liberation and possibility – the fucking Tories are finally gone!
But I didn’t watch it live.
I felt for years the low-key anguish, the difference between re-watching while knowing the result and the pure rush of pleasure of seeing it unfold in tipsy, real time – famous political names toppling, humiliated, deep into the wee small hours. This was the first time the BBC really deployed fancy computer graphics extensively in its election coverage. Gone was the real, physical swingometer – here, instead, was a literal depiction of animated rocky cliff collapsing to engulf the increasingly large majorities of prominent Tories, literally burying them in a landslide. But beyond this kind of joyous stuff, the real goodies were the results themselves.
For those who have never watched one, a British general election involves dozens of municipal micro-dramas. The UK parliament is filled through hundreds of individual contests, one in each seat – most votes wins. This means that the main parties have many ‘safe’ seats - only a few are generally likely to be close and determine the result in each election. You can win a stonking majority, as Blair did, with just a plurality of the vote – in his case 43% of the total.
Each of these mini-contests are counted in some municipal building in the area – often multiple urban counts are squeezed into a single cavernous sports centre, while rural seats might use a quaint town hall. The paper ballots are counted from 10pm, when the polls close, with results announced from about an hour later and then all through the night, with the vast majority completed by about 5am. The results are announced by a local dignitary, often the Mayor, serving as the official Returning Officer. All the candidates line up on stage behind this person. In prominent seats, there can be multiple novelty candidates – fancy dress, silly party names, legally altered joke candidate names…all of it. These non-professionals with their glorious range of regional accents, mostly otherwise missing from national air-waves, get up read out a laborious list of names and numbers.
So you sit there, trying to listen to this strange list, making sure to pay attention to the party names so you can focus on the relevant totals. A major party comes up, maybe it’s a huge number and the crowd immediately cheer – they know that’s enough to win the seat. Or maybe it´s close and the alphabet doesn’t cooperate, maybe you’re drunk and distracted by the dude dressed as medieval knight behind the speaker, maybe its 4am and you’re really just doing your best. So you pay attention. And then you realise – oh shit the bastard lost!
This is the joy that I missed. Trying to judge from the facial expressions of the candidates who is about to be declared the victor. Watching as these smug, evil, incompetent Tory bastards had their political careers snuffed out, one by one…for hours. It must have felt good. Whatever justified misgivings anyone had about Blair and New Labour, or about electoral politics in general, this was a deeply satisfying night. It was as bad as it could be, really – the Tories worst defeat since 1906, the biggest governing majority since WWII. The Tories lost more than 170 seats, mostly to Labour and dozens to the Lib-Dems. The names of the prominent MPs defeated may not mean much now, but they can still raise a shudder from those who remember their time in power – people like Michael Portillo, Edwina Currie, David Mellor, Neil Hamilton and Norman Lamont.
But I didn’t watch it live.
I experienced it one step removed, my frustration intermingled with the special annoyance of the child at their draconian bedtime. It remains one of the most joyous political (almost) experiences of my life – almost matched only by Obama’s first victory, which happened months after I had moved to the US, and by subsequent experiences of street protests and social movements like Occupy and Black Live Matter. That this is so is indicative of both the paucity of left and progressive victories in my lifetime, the limits of my participation in potentially joyous forms of political activity, and my leftwards shift, which means that, for example, I took little joy in Biden’s recent victory, feeling mostly relief at Trump’s ousting.
My love of breaking news is unsurprising. Born in 1985, I was the last generation raised primarily on TV, experiencing key world events almost entirely through that medium, all the way up to 9/11, before traditional TV was largely supplanted by online coverage. TV is a distinctively intimate and passive medium – something you experience just by sitting on the couch and pressing a button, the images and sensations opened up to your gaze but largely independent of your will. The pleasure of television is provided by expert professionals, who insert themselves by technological means into your private world to entrance and excite you. And I’m a child of the end of history, when mainstream politics ceased even pretending to be about serious ideological disagreement and became primarily a presentational struggle between different flavours of the same ideology. This remains the case today, to a remarkable extent.
It is sometimes hard for me, and I suspect for others like me, to break the spell of such hollow, passive, short-term thrills, to repudiate my lust for the never-ending, live-action, real-time spectacle. It is hard to focus instead on the slower and duller reality, where things mostly just stay the shitty same and political joy ought to come from real, material changes to social life, backed up by the gradual accrual of real power, not from D-Ream and fancy graphics.
This may explain, in part, why so many of us where so invested in Bernie and Corbyn in recent years – so excited by the prospect of sudden electoral success by ‘proper’ left-wing politicians, despite the fact that neither really had the movement and power-base needed to first win and then to govern effectively. It may also help explain why some are easily discouraged by the failures of these efforts to yield quick victories.
I didn’t watch the 1997 election live. And I’ve been trying to make up for it ever since, trying not to a miss a moment of so-called history unfolding, forever checking the news one last time before bed, so as not to wake up to an hours old drama. This neurotic desire for the hollow rush of heightened moments may be with me – with us – forever, so formative and prevalent is the media spectacle. But let’s hope that it no longer dominates and subjugates our pursuit of the sweeter, harder-won pleasures of the real, radical change we need.