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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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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