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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.