Younger voices are easier to book and sell – and eager to be booked and sold – at far lower prices than seasoned competitors. This is happening also in part because political youth involvement, typically a left-wing phenomenon, makes the elevation of young voices on the right even more important to lend credence to the idea that conservative views can cut through.
Like many in their late teens and early twenties, these youngsters yearn for recognition and distinction from their peers. What better way than to express views that aren’t widespread amongst your contemporaries, to attract the attention of those who can elevate you? They outgrow large Twitter accounts and student politics to engage in the day’s discourse on British news channels. I regularly see those my age and younger publicly express views that I once espoused vociferously, but quietly grew away from earlier in my teens.
But I can’t help but wonder whether they will find themselves unable to detach themselves from their media creation. These youngsters are placed firmly in the media glare and, without it, may make an ideological journey of their own. But the media spotlight makes that much harder.
That constraint ties into another fear I have of seeing young people used to push ideas that they may grow out of: there is something indisputably dark and even seedy about all of this.
A TV producer, for example, wishing to cultivate a sizeable audience, will not have the interests of a young political commentator at heart. Their interest is viewership, and too often that means garnering controversy. The guest, perhaps without the inhibitions that experience brings, is more than willing to oblige – with little thought to how it may impact their future.
What is this, if not a form of manipulation, and if repeated over time for the same goal, grooming?
Those pushing and booking loud, controversial youngsters ought to receive a little more scrutiny themselves. Those who intentionally lead them down this path, knowing the possible consequences, should ask themselves: who is behaving controversially here?
The problem is, the culture of using young people to achieve professional ends is deeply embedded in Westminster, too, from whence the political outrage is generated. Parliament and think-tank land are full to the brim of underpaid, overconfident young staffers, many barely out of school, often with the same lack of protections in place.
Earlier this year, the so-dubbed realm of “Pestminster” was found to be home to 50 or so Tory MPs currently under suspicion of sexual misconduct. Does this sound like a safe environment for young people?
If you think I’m exaggerating the levels to which naive youth fuel the politics-media pipeline, consider that only last year, the online discourse in this country was dominated by a teenage boy.
The news aggregator “Politics for AlI” left a vacuum after its Twitter account was mysteriously shuttered overnight; but at its zenith it had hundreds of thousands of followers – including celebrities, cabinet ministers and even the PM’s wife. “Politics for AlI” filled a market gap, run by a teenager fresh from his A-Levels. Its founder was not a commentator or staffer. He kept his ideas to himself. But that an 18-year-old ended up holding as much sway as he did – and then lost it in as brutal a manner – should be a note of caution. Few, if anyone, considered his well-being on the way up. I have yet to see it discussed on the way down.
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And that’s the thing with the right-wing “firebrands” Twitter and the media love to build up and tear down. While plenty note their age and naivety as a way to dismiss them, there is no real concern for them as people.
We obviously shouldn’t hinder young people becoming politically active, but making a child a lightning rod for culture war issues isn’t encouraging anything but exploitation and abuse, in an increasingly toxic environment. There are very few, if any, safeguards for those who find themselves corralled down this route. When their faces are plastered on screens it is easy for us to dehumanise them and forget this, and throw notions like their futures to the wind.
Young people, especially those interested in politics, make mistakes and change their minds. By pushing so many to become “commentators,” the right-wing media is robbing many of its most able of their chance to do that.