Belfast Telegraph

From X Factor to Sports Personality of the Year, the public always gets it wrong

By Matthew Norman

After last weekend brought the concept of democracy to its knees, I can no longer resist the urge to confess to this unsettling thought. If the will of the people is this wilfully obtuse, wouldn't we be better off under a benign dictatorship?

Curiously, such alarming speculation has nothing to do with the latest revelations about the political party to which we, the people, may gift the balance of power next May (we will come to Ukip elsewhere). It was the pair of plebiscites declared within moments of one another last Sunday night.

Taking them in chronological order brings us first to the popular revolution which concluded another season of The X Factor. If you missed the show, I congratulate you. If not, you will have witnessed a popular rebellion against Simon Cowell.

Instead of giving the prize to Fleur East, as Cowell clearly intended, the people rewarded a pub and club singer, Ben Haenow, for bravely battling one of two undiagnosed disorders: either the misapprehension that growling every line is cool (Ronan Keating Syndrome) or chronic laryngitis.

Tempting as it is to applaud a coup d'etat against Cowell and his crude manipulation of the shrinking number of saddos like myself who still watch the stale karaoke-fest, the man who built One Direction out of five solo artist wannabes can discern the marginal talent of a Fleur from the grinding mediocrity of a Ben.

If the ITV electorate raised grave questions about the process of what qualifies in our culture as the most vibrant expressions of democratic will, BBC1 viewers who elected the Sports Personality of the Year award immediately answered them by absurdly plumping for Lewis Hamilton over Rory McIlroy.

It is true, of course, that massively embarrassing picks were made before the vote was outsourced to the public a few years ago. We needn't belabour the legendary oxymoron whereby Nigel Mansell was twice awarded a title featuring the word "personality". Yet in those two years, as in so many others, the choice was sufficiently limited (if the crown green bowler David Bryant had worked out how to light his pipe, he would have won) as to be no choice at all.

This year, once again, there should have been no real choice. Hamilton won a Formula 1 World Championship in which, with team-mate Nico Rosberg, he was one of two genuine competitors. Such was the superiority of these cars that my late grandmother, Bessie Norman, who celebrated a driving-test pass at a precocious 77-years-old by driving into my grandfather's knee, would have taken a clutch of pole positions and several chequered flags at the wheel of Hamilton's Mercedes.

Where there are generally two potential champions in F1, and at most five in a men's grand-slam tennis event, 40 or 50 golfers begin a major with a realistic chance. This is why winning one is the toughest challenge in individual sport.

McIlroy brilliantly won two in succession - the Open and the US PGA.

Having established himself as the best player in the world and a live contender to join Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in golf's holy trinity, he played his part in giving the Americans the Ryder Cup hiding they richly deserved.

In the generally undistinguished modern history of British sport, only Andy Murray (Olympic gold, the US Open and Wimbledon) has had a 12 months to rival McIlroy's. The young man is a rampant genius whereas Hamilton is a very good and quick driver. But thanks to the obsession with pandering to the public voice (the incessant recitation of tweets on radio shows; the online message boards shrieking with semi-literate thuggery), a crestfallen McIlroy was robbed. Motor sport fanatics are not only weirdo fantasists in the Clarkson mould, but compulsive phone voters. Even if such venerable followers of golf as Peter Alliss do master the technology of texting, the tendency to wear stringback driving gloves at all times would frustrate their best intentions.

These simultaneous miscarriages of justice make it unmistakably plain that the public, while we may safely be permitted the trivial political choices, cannot be trusted with the serious stuff. Whether from Cowell, a group of sports editors or whomever, decisions about the truly sacrosanct aspects of national life need the firm smack of dictatorship.

GK Chesterton wrote: "We are the people of England that have not spoken yet." But that was then. None of us in the UK ever stop speaking now, yet from us an indefinite period of silence would be greatly appreciated.

Belfast Telegraph


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