Everybody loves Borgen?

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If you read a particular kind of newspaper, notably the Guardian, listen to Radio 4 or follow a certain kind of journalist or politician on Twitter you’d think that all of Britain has fallen in love with Borgen, BBC4’s Danish political drama, whose second season is now being broadcast on Saturday nights.

For latecomers, the series tracks the ups and downs of Birgitte Nyborg’s centre-left coalition government as well as that of her troubled private life while also charting the on-off relationship between Nyborg’s spin-doctor Kasper Juul and journalist Katrine Fønsmark.

To certain British eyes the series is remarkable because it presents politics as consisting of difficult choices made by politicians who are no more or less flawed than the rest of us, and somewhat better looking. Nyborg works hard, attempts to stay true to her principles; and her home life suffers as she attempts to meet the demands of public office.

For those used to the one-eyed cynicism of Yes Minister, The House of Cards, and more recently The Thick of It, the drama has provoked the question: why don’t we have a British Borgen? Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith for one thinks it reflects a real and positive aspect of political life in the same way as The Thick of It mirrors another, equally authentic but more negative side. But for some reason the British only get the former. Explanations have so far not been very enlightening. According to one expert, Britons are ‘simply too jaded about politics’ to produce a series that depicts politicians as heroes.

Denmark is of course another country and they do politics differently there. With a population of just 5.5 million, Danes tend to trust each other and their politicians far more than Britons. When asked in 2004 if they agreed with the statement “Most of the time we can trust people in government to do what is right” 55 per cent Danes said they did – compared to 29 per cent of Britons. As a result they take their politics more seriously: in 2011 88 per cent voted in their general election while in 2010 only 65 per cent of Britons did.

The Danes also have a consensual political system, based on PR and with a low qualification threshold so that as many points of view as possible are represented in parliament. As a result they take coalitions for granted and do not panic when even these govern as minorities as they can rely on cooperation with opposition parties.

For social, cultural or specifically political reasons, then, Borgen’s positive take on politics makes complete sense to many Danes. This does not mean however that all Danes are starry eyed about their political leaders. The 2004 movie King’s Game is about as cynical a view of politics as you could possibly imagine.

It is also wrong to say that there have been no ‘British Borgens’.  In their different ways The Deputy (2004), The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard (2006) and Party Animals (2007) suggested government is about reconciling conflicting interests and that not all politicians are corrupt. But audiences did not watch in sufficient numbers to sustain them. Even Borgen, stuffed away as it is on BBC4 on a Saturday evening, attracted in its first season an average of just 687,000 viewers per episode: Strictly Come Politics it is not.

But, as I argue here, it is now unprecedentedly difficult to get anything that does not depict politics as all about spin, sleaze or conspiracy on to the small screen. Commissioning editors – chasing audiences as cheaply as possible – think the public won’t watch dramas that challenge their cynical prejudices about their political leaders. Yet in reflecting these prejudices television helps reinforce them: the media is not neutral.

This is one result of the de-regulation of television that occurred under the Conservatives governments of the 1980s and 1990s and increasing competition from non-terrestial channels. For in the 1970s even ITV (which has effectively given up making dramas about politics) broadcast series like The Challengers, The Nearly Man and Bill Brand that looked at politics, like Borgen, as about serious issues tackled by human if flawed individuals. Bill Brand was watched by nine million viewers every week.

So, the current position in Britain is partly a reflection of audience attitudes but also of how broadcasters now relate to their audiences. And while cynical representations of politics now prevail on the small screen, even they have a problem getting large audiences. In its fourth and final season on BBC2 The Thick of It struggled to attract much more than one million viewers, only once featuring in the channel’s weekly Top 30.

Steven Fielding

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