Toby Young, who loves to argue with people pointlessly on television. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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?

Getty
Show Hide image

Building peace in a dangerous world needs resources, not just goodwill

Conflict resolution is only the first step.

Thursday 21 September is the UN-designated International Day of Peace. At noon on this day, which has been celebrated for the last 25 years, the UN general secretary will ring the Peace Bell on the UN headquarters in New York and people of good will around the world will take part in events to mark the occasion. At the same time, spending on every conceivable type of weaponry will continue at record levels.

The first couple of decades after the end of the Cold War saw a steady reduction in conflict, but lately that trend seems to have been reversed. There are currently around 40 active armed conflicts around the world with violence and suffering at record levels. According to the 2017 Global Peace Index worldwide military spending last year amounted to a staggering $1.7 trillion and a further trillion dollars worth of economic growth was lost as a result. This compares with around 10 billion dollars spent on long term peace building.

To mark World Peace Day, International Alert, a London-based non-government agency which specialises in peace building, is this week publishing Redressing the Balance, a report contrasting the trivial amounts spent on reconciliation and the avoidance of war with the enormous and ever growing global military expenditure.  Using data from the Institute for Economics and Peace, the report’s author, Phil Vernon, argues that money spent on avoiding and mitigating the consequences of conflict is not only morally right, but cost-effective – "every dollar invested in peace building reduces the cost of conflict".

According to Vernon, "the international community has a tendency to focus on peacemaking and peacekeeping at the expense of long term peace building."  There are currently 100,000 soldiers, police and other observers serving 16 UN operations on four continents. He says what’s needed instead of just peace keeping is a much greater sustained investment, involving individuals and agencies at all levels, to address the causes of violence and to give all parties a stake in the future. Above all, although funding and expertise can come from outside, constructing a durable peace will only work if there is local ownership of the process.

The picture is not wholly depressing. Even in the direst conflicts there are examples where the international community has help to fund and train local agencies with the result that local disputes can often be settled without escalating into full blown conflicts. In countries as diverse as East Timor, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Nepal long term commitment by the international community working with local people has helped build durable institutions in the wake of vicious civil wars. Nearer to home, there has long been recognition that peace in Ireland can only be sustained by addressing long-standing grievances, building resilient institutions and ensuring that all communities have a stake in the outcome.

At a micro level, too, there is evidence that funding and training local agencies can contribute to longer term stability. In the eastern Congo, for example, various non-government organisations have worked with local leaders, men and women from different ethnic groups to settle disputes over land ownership which have helped fuel 40 years of mayhem. In the Central African Republic training and support to local Muslim and Christian leaders has helped reduce tensions. In north east Nigeria several agencies are helping to reintegrate the hundreds of traumatised girls and young women who have escaped the clutches of Boko Haram only to find themselves rejected by their communities.

Peace building, says Vernon, is the poor cousin of other approaches to conflict resolution. In future, he concludes, it must become a core component of future international interventions. "This means a major re-think by donor governments and multilateral organisations of how they measure success… with a greater focus placed on anticipation, prevention and the long term." Or, to quote the young Pakistani winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousufzai: "If you want to avoid war, then instead of sending guns, send books. Instead of tanks, send pens. Instead of soldiers, send teachers."

Redressing the Balance by Phil Vernon is published on September 21.   Chris Mullin is the chairman of International Alert.