The death of public discourse

The other day, I wrote about this tweet and video clip

Steve Kneale also managed to get himself into a bit of a twitter storm due to his comments on the clip. He has written about it here and here

One thing stands out for me though and it is this. As Steve rightly notes in his second article we tend to end up giving time and attention to people just because they have the microphone.  In other words, we let people with the loudest voices dominate and win the debate.  Thisisn’t healthy for democracy.

As I watch the clip, I am left asking “Who is the person commentating and in what way exactly are they qualified to make the comments? Well, the person in question has managed to get themselves a Wikipedia article and she is described as a journalist and political activist.  What this seems to mean is that she writes for a website called Novara Media. Well on that basis I guess that given that I write here (and occasionally have had articles published on other blogs and in Christian print media) that I could describe myself as a journalist.  I suspect that given I write sometimes on political issues that I am also a political activist. 

There seems to be a tendency for people trying to get attention as political activists to present themselves as journalists. At the other end of the spectrum, Tommy Robinson is also often presented as a journalist.[1]

Now, one of the reasons why I ask “Who is this person?” and “how are they qualified?” is that my aim in watching something on TV to do with current affairs is that I want to be better informed about the subject matter.  If I watch or read something and I end up thinking “Well I probably know as much, if not more about the subject matter then I am likely to tune out.” Of course, we are all arm-chair commentators and of course, we all think that we know better than everyone else but deep down we know when there is someone speaking with genuine expertise on the matter in hand.

There has long been a tendency to seek out the loudest and most extreme views as they make for better TV and radio. Quite a few years back I was contacted by Channel 4 about a programme they wanted to do and they were looking for the opinions of a young Christian. I explained to them what my position on the matter was and they were clearly disappointed. They were honest enough to say that they were looking for something a bit more provocative, a bit more extreme.

However, in the past, generally speaking it was likely that if someone was invited onto a panel to comment on a matter, it was recognised that that had specific qualifications, specific insights or at least spoke for a sizeable, representative constituency.  We seem to be losing that as we look for more and more extreme views. I suspect as well that a lot of people with genuinely informed views to share are increasingly reluctant to take part in the culture of soundbite and gotcha journalism.

There are three dangers with all of this.

First of all, as people increasingly grow weary of this and switch off, the media communicates to a narrower and narrower audience of tribally loyal followers. Those who are tuning in are not really listening to be informed but to support and to act as cheerleaders for their spokesperson.  The result is that public discourse is replaced with an echo chamber.

Secondly, when a person is brought onto a programme to represent one position, then the belief that the media are engaging in balanced reporting and debate means that those who disagree are increasingly portrayed as representing the opposite counter point to the person representing an extreme position. So, if an EDL representative is given air time then moderate Labour MPS and even fairly right wing Tories are seen as representing an opposite extreme. The implication of someone like Ash Sarkar being given the mic is that those on the centre right and even fairly left wing Labour MPs are presented as to the hard right.

Thirdly, the media believes that it has a responsibility to present balance and indeed, the BBC has a duty to do so. The result is that in fact, they do bring in people from the opposite extreme to counter the arguments of their first extremist. So, if you have a communist on your show, then you need to bring in someone from the far or alt-right. This means that increasingly the mainstream is vacated and genuine conversation and debate is replaced with shouting. 

Furthermore, this misses an important point. We tend to think of the Far Right and Far Left as representing the extreme points of the main political spectrum. However, I think we misread the situation when we assume this.  The Far Right and Far Left are actually on a completely different spectrum holding a very different conversation. What makes political debate and democracy possible is that those on both sides of the debate have a level of shared outlook on the world, an understanding of the rules of the debate and a belief that it is possible to have rational disagreement because there are some objectional and recognisable truths out there.  The Far Right and Far Left in effect reject this.  They have their own completely different truth perceptions, or as we might like to call them …. Conspiracy theories.  That’s why something as insidious as anti-Semitism is prevalent on both the Far Right and the Far Left. 

It is time that we recovered healthy public discourse.  This will require the media to drop its obsession with soundbites and gotcha moments. It will also require them to prioritise listening to people who are genuinely qualified, informed and representative.


[1] Robinson is representative of the far right. Sarkar was a vocal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and has described herself as “literally a communist”

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