Written by Steven Fielding.
Why do leading politicians appear on light entertainment programmes, like BBC1’s The One Show, as did Theresa May, along with Philip her husband of 37 years, to answer questions such as how they fell in love, and who takes out the rubbish at home?
As I said on BBC Breakfast, it is unlikely May went into politics to discuss her marriage.
But by going on the programme she hoped to achieve two things.
First, she spoke to five million viewers many of whom might not normally want to watch her being grilled over policy minutiae by the likes of Andrew Neil. Politicians have always gone where the crowds are: in the nineteenth century election hustings were often found near fairs or carnivals to help them attract audiences. While in the United States Richard Nixon appeared on chat shows as early as the 1960s, in Britain it has taken politicians longer to go beyond showing up on news and currents affairs programmes. Tony Blair was the first party leader to fully embrace light entertainment, appearing on Des O’Connor Tonight in 1996 and in 2005 being interviewed by Little Ant and Dec.
Second, May wanted to show she is more than the politician known for robotically repeating the catch phrases ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘Strong and Stable Leadership’. This is important because as As Aristotle pointed out audiences can be swayed not just be reasoned argument, or logos, but also by ethos, that is the appeal of the speaker’s character and the extent to which they can establish empathy with those they are seeking to win over. David Cameron notably used his experience caring for his dying son Ivan as the reason why he should be trusted to look after the National Health Service.
May has convinced many voters that she is the best person to deliver a successful Brexit, because she is committed to leaving the EU and reducing immigration. But as part of that case she has also convinced them that she is the best person to achieve these policy ends – at least in comparison with Jeremy Corbyn – that she has the right character. Appearing on The One Show was all about softening her somewhat austere public persona. It showed that while ‘strong’ she also has a fully developed private life, an emotional hinterland and is motivated by the desire to help people improve their lives.
Light entertainment shows allow politicians to escape talk of policy and discuss themselves, but with policy always in mind. They do not appear in front of millions and talk about their private lives because they like to have a good gossip. Some, and May appears to be one, are not at all comfortable doing that. But they do it because they are persuaded, if not by Aristotle then by their media handlers, that this will help them achieve their political ends.
Steven Fielding is a Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Image credit: Screencap/BBC Iplayer