Over men and horses, hoops and garters, lastly through a hogshead of real fire… Unlocking political debate

What is the best format for political discussion?

Perhaps the question is best answered by asking a different question: what do we want to get out of political discussion?

My Thing is the limits of political discourse and the translation of political/legal intuitions into language.  For the latter, we discuss the way ideas are reflected or distorted through popular language, how they’re represented in popular culture, and how they influence the way people think legal issues should be resolved.  Discussing the limits of political discourse is more difficult: how do I police the limits between the reasonable and the unreasonable, the tolerable and the intolerable, the ‘in’ and the ‘out’, without excluding voices which really ought to be part of the conversation?

This begins to provide me with an answer to the question of what I want from political discussion.  I want to know where the limits of reasonable opinion are — how much can people disagree before they’re no longer in communication with each other? — and I want to know how ideas can be expressed in different ways from different perspectives.

I started thinking about this topic recently while watching a debate.  Four speakers, two on each side of the discussion, stood up and had five minutes to deliver a set piece about the issue.  All four speakers had slightly different takes about what the nature of the conversation was and, as such, none of the speakers was in a dialogue with the others.  If I didn’t quite agree with any of the speakers, I had no guide to help me navigate their argument and see where the ‘weak’ points were.

But do interviews fare much better?  Political interviews (which now seem to exist only on the ABC) are not all that satisfying.  I strongly suspect (very strongly suspect) that it’s to do with the intellectual insecurity of our media class.  The interview isn’t to reveal information or to explore ideas; it’s a pissing contest where you have to trick the guest into creating News.  You could pretty easily scrap the political interview without a huge loss to society.  Politicians are developing new techniques to avoid talking about anything meaningful, and interviewers don’t have the necessary skills to represent the ordinary voter who just wants information about policies, issues, and conflicts.

This takes us fairly quickly to panel shows with the ABC’s Q&A being the prime example.  If there are six people on a panel and an hour running time, that’s ten minutes per speaker.  Q&A goes one further and makes the audience a de facto participant on the panel: audience members make a little speech disguised as a question, and then nod furiously when somebody on the panel affirms their political views.  Panel shows are a form of competition rather than a discussion.  You’re jockeying for time to push your opinion rather than the intellectual space to develop an argument.  There are no incentives to a panel member to engage with a question beyond the superficial soundbite.  This is especially true when, as is the case with Q&A, you’re trying to cover a wide range of topics in a short amount of time.

I’m running rapidly out of formats.  Set pieces (one-to-many) lack engagement, interviews (one-to-one) are combative, and panel shows (many-to-one) are competitive.

I wonder if Geoffrey Robertson’s old Hypotheticals model could be repurposed so that it was less smug and less generally awful.  Admittedly, I am too young to have seen the really old episodes which, by nearly all accounts, were exceptionally good (this would make the episodes the contemporary of Robertson’s actually not-too-terrible writing).  The Hypotheticals of my childhood had Lisa McCune for some inexplicable reason trying to work out how she’d respond to moral quandaries.  I think she’d recently won a Logie or something and that made her an obvious candidate for a talk show.

Anyway, the format was that the host forced disputants into particular conversations through the discussion of scenarios.  It relied on the host having enough familiarity with the subject matter to elicit the expert opinions of the people on the panel.  This means that discussions are, in principle, constructive.  You’re trying to work through a set problem together and negotiate which outcome is best.  If there’s a disagreement about which way to resolve the issue, this becomes the site of discussion.  A sufficiently skilled facilitator could also shape the discussion so it doesn’t stray too far into tangential cul-de-sacs.

I had a search on YouTube and came across this non-Robertson variant.  This was apparently before the BBC discovered diversity:

This last example somewhat crystallises the problem for me.  To what extent does the format shape the discussion, and to what extent will a ‘good’ political discussion arise regardless of the format if you have the right participants?

I think that media organisations have a moral responsibility to exclude particular voices from the discussion.  The Australian Christian Lobby wouldn’t be able to agitate particular policy discussions if journos hadn’t gone to them for cheap (and false) balance on social policy stories.  They are entirely a creation of the media, nothing more.  We see an emerging problem with Peter Wallace.  Wallace claims to be the leader of the Australian Conservative Party, but no such party exists (and, as a conservative Australian, I have a vested interest in knowing if such a party exists).  So why does Wallace keep emerging as a fringe voice on social issues?  Because a disproportionate number of his Twitter followers are journalists.  He is literally the creation of a system that rewards attention-seekers.

My problem is that this ends up being circular.  I want political debates that show us the limits of political discourse, but it only works if you exclude from the beginning the people who are outside the limits of political discourse.  Instead of finding out that somebody is outside the limits, we have to assume it from the start and exclude them in order to create the valuable political discussion that justifies them being excluded.

Maybe political discussion really is just an expensive form of entertainment.  The formats will continue until people are no longer entertained and stop watching.


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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