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27 September 2019

BBC Politics Live thrives on controversy – but wants to pretend otherwise

It's fine for the BBC to want to chase controversy. But the programme makers should be honest about the consequences of that approach. 

By Stephen Bush

Brendan O’Neill, the polemicist and editor of the magazine Spiked, has provoked a furore after saying that there “should” be rioting in response to any Article 50 extension on Politics Live, the BBC’s daily political discussion programme. Rob Burley, the programme’s head, has taken to Twitter, saying that people on live television “say unpredictable things”.

Which leaves me worried: have I been using the word “unpredictable” incorrectly all this time? O’Neill is either, depending on who you believe, the latest in a long line of ex-Trotskyists who have swung far to the right, or a revolutionary Trotskyist who is seeking to heighten the contradictions by occupying a series of controversial and divisive positions – or, in his words, is a “Marxist libertarian”. The one thing we can say for certain is that booking O’Neill guarantees shocking quotes and exciting television debates, and a radical defence of Brexit.

No one has ever said of O’Neill “there goes a man who knows what Downing Street is thinking”, or that he brings a deep knowledge of trade policy, presented in an accessible way. The reason to book O’Neill is if you want someone to say something controversial at one end of the Brexit pole.

Now, I happen to think that this style of programming is corrosive to public discourse and is particularly unfair to Brexiteers, who end up being represented, almost exclusively, on programmes such as these by fringe controversialists who talk in soundbites and dividing lines rather than providing any particularly informative function. Very few of the serious thinkers on the Brexit issue, be they longtime left-wing Eurosceptics in the Labour Party or committed Eurosceptic intellectuals from the political right, get a look in. It’s the same with the new Corbynite left: frankly you are highly unlikely to see a serious and prolonged conversation about Corbynomics, but you will be well served for shouty arguments about who on the panel is “real” Labour.

Others will reasonably say that the BBC has to compete in a modern media environment and that means conflict and soundbites, and Brendan O’Neill. Fine, fair enough. That’s Burley’s prerogative. But that O’Neill called for rioting is no more unpredictable than that Jolyon Maugham, who was also a guest on today’s programme, wants to stop Brexit. If you want the benefits of O’Neill, then you accept the cost – which is someone calling for riots. He shouldn’t insult our intelligence by suggesting that today’s events are in any way surprising.

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