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?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.