All The More Reason

Debate Humbug
December 22, 2009, 11:34 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The announcement that three ‘Leaders’ Debates’ are scheduled to take place during the forthcoming General Election campaign heralds the tightening of the media’s grip around the throat of the political process in this country.

Anyone who has followed the American Presidential Debates knows that these sideshows soon become the main event; the medium becomes the message. Breathless commentators speculate on the choice of tie and the posture of the participants. Hackneyed, pre-scripted soundbites are endlessly replayed until an entire campaign can be reduced to three and a half verb-starved sentences. A debate is the last thing that one ever gets from these debates. Instead (and with apologies to Plum) we can expect spin doctor calling to spin doctor like Mastadons bellowing across the primeval swamps.  

There is nothing that the media relishes more eagerly than a story about itself. Just witness the supreme pomposity of Sky’s Adam Boulton, who puffs himself up as if rolling news were Bagehot’s efficient secret of the British Constitution. For these attention-seekers, the election campaign will simply become a tedious interlude between ‘their’ debates.

Of course, here one risks sounding like one of the High Tories in the 1980s who treated the advent of televised Parliamentary proceedings as if it were the backwards motion of a wrecking ball fixed on St Stephen’s Tower. ‘How will the great unwashed cope!’ But the opposition to TV in the Chamber was never about the effect that it would have on the viewer; rather, it was about the effect that it would have on the viewed. MPs, it was argued, would play to the gallery in a way that would render the once civilized and considered Parliamentary debate a thing of the past. History hasn’t been too kind to that assessment, not only because that halcyon age never existed, but also because any seasoned digital TV channel flicker will attest to the fact that hours of BBC Parliament’s coverage are beamed into homes as pure electromagnetic waves devoid of any emotional content.

But History’s one concession to the theory rears its head every Wednesday at 12pm. When it comes to the vulgar and cheapening farce of Prime Minister’s Questions – whisper it – might those grandees not have had the ghost of a point? Get used to that. It’s the ghost of elections yet to come.

Michael P


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