Toby Young, who loves to argue with people pointlessly on television. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on TV debates: Our news is dominated by people in expensive suits, shouting at each other

When "debating" on TV or radio, caring about the issue at hand is a handicap – because if you care, your opponent can make you angry, and if you get angry, you’ve lost.

The producer knocked her fists together in the dark backstage. “We want you to, you know . . .” She made the motion again, smiling sweetly, as my hired nemesis and I were strapped into radio microphones for a five-minute debate on the evening news. It was clear what she meant. She wanted us to scrap. She didn’t want us to talk sensibly and work out our differences. She wanted blood on the floor.
 
Do we really debate issues any more, or do we just shout at each other from opposing trenches? That day, the topic I and a young lawyer from Spiked magazine were debating was internet trolling. It struck me as ironic: the definition of trolling, after all, is saying something shocking simply to wound or to provoke somebody else to outrage. On that basis, the British commentariat has operated an economy of trolling for many years.
 
This is what producers believe makes good radio and television today: for five to seven minutes, you are placed opposite a person who has been determined to have a point of view opposed to yours and you are expected to slug it out. Anything goes, apart from swearing, libel or subtlety. This is, in essence, boxing for people who were bad at PE. Ding-ding, and they’re off.
 
There are many wonderful things about British journalism and this is in no way one of them. Our adversarial tradition, which the writer Graham Linehan has described as “an arena where there are no positions possible except for diametrically opposed ones, where nuance is not permitted”, is not for the faint of spirit. It turns the national conver - sation into a bearpit where talking heads tear chunks out of each other for fame and money; and not even for a lot of fame and money. In the gladiatorial arena of public discourse, what matters isn’t whether you’re right or wrong so much as how hard you can hammer the other guy. And it usually is a guy.
 
I’ve been appearing on television and radio for four years and I’m often lucky enough to be asked to speak on issues I care about deeply, from women’s rights to welfare reform, to whether it’s acceptable for a police officer to beat a man to death for picking the wrong route home across a protest line. It was a long time before I realised that caring about the issue at hand is a handicap – because if you care, your opponent can make you angry, and if you get angry, you’ve lost. It’s because I care about the issues that I still go on when I’m asked – but I’m increasingly suspicious of the format.
 
One of the main problems is that the über-adversarial system makes a small crosssection of professional right-wing trolls, however venomous, look as if they represent a significant part of public consensus. I was recently invited on to Sunday Politics to argue about welfare reform with a Tory MP who appeared to have little or no idea what his party’s policies practically entailed. The challenge wasn’t so much defeating his straw arguments about who did or did not deserve to be homeless as to sit there pretending those arguments deserved airtime. The trouble is everybody looks a little bit more reasonable, moderate and official when they’re wearing a suit on the news.
 
To call the puerile point-scoring that constitutes most political content on British airwaves “debate” is disingenuous. This is not debate, except in the way that two toddlers debate over one lollipop. The word “debate” implies the ultimate goal is to learn something or at least to determine a way forward, rather than to produce the sort of dramatic shouting match that makes headlines and drives traffic to websites desperate for hits.
 
Since the British commentariat migrated to social media, this stage-managed spleencockery can now go on indefinitely, in forums that permit no nuance and no more than 140 characters. Twitter has allowed the British penchant for invective and empty posturing to come into its own, and the torrent of mockery and abuse that has followed is not solely the province of internet trolls. It’s a tradition that goes all the way up to the Commons: many of the most gifted anonymous bile-delivery boys on Twitter would be right at home on the front benches at Prime Minister’s Questions, given the chance.
 
My least favourite part of any TV debate is the moment you step off the shiny set and back into the real world, when you have to make friendly small talk with the person you were “debating”, as sound engineers go through the delicate process of removing the radio microphones without ransacking your underwear. It goes beyond professional politeness to an exchange of secret smiles, an understanding that we may pretend to hate each other on screen, but we’re all friends really, when the cameras are off. We’re part of the same media elite, we run in the same circles and we’re playing the same game.
 
Having played that game for four years, I believe the losers are all the viewers, all the listeners and all the readers who have to put up with talking heads howling emptily at each other over a void of banal chatter and with being told that this constitutes constructive public discourse and fair representation of a range of opinions.
 
There is, of course, a place for rhetoric, for flair and for the adversarial approach. I’m a big fan of engaging constructively, but sometimes you find yourself sitting across from an unmitigated bastard with an expensive tie and the compunction of a ham sandwich, and in those situations you can only do your best to serve him his backside for breakfast, or get served yourself. In most other circumstances, however, far more good would be done if experts, opinionators and maybe even a few ordinary people were allowed to talk about the issues rather than having people scream at each other until someone surrenders. Because the truth about the blood on the floor of the arena is that it’s meant to distract us from real politics.
 
Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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