When I was a mere whippersnapper, full to the brim with wide eyed optimism and imbued with a credulous acceptance of pretty much anything exhibiting even the slightest veneer of authority, the television seemed like an infallible source of information. Scepticism be damned, if you shoved a besuited quack onto my screen, peddling the notion that eating Ryveta can instantly cure pneumonia my naive, young mind would have probably bought into it. I mean who cares if his doctorate is written in crayon? He’s on TV, he must know what he’s talking about, right?
Fortunately, during my haphazard stumble towards adulthood, a modicum of wisdom was gained along the way. No longer was I immediately duped by each and every absurd proposition that came into my field of view. Not to say that I’d become impervious to the occasionally tantalising whiff of fanciful bullshit, but I’d at least developed the sufficient mental faculties required to sniff out most purveyors of fantasy, whenever they emerged to flog their fictitious wares.
And it’s fair to say that the current climate has set my bullshit detector into overdrive.
The word “balance” often comes to the forefront when dealing with the discussion show format; the idea that all sides of the argument must have a voice in order to provide rounded analysis of the topic at hand. This is a concept I don’t necessarily disagree with in principle, being in theory a somewhat virtuous attempt to ensure that the observer doesn’t unwittingly find themselves locked in an echo chamber which is heavily slanted towards one intellectual conclusion.
However there comes a point when you have to take a step back and ask: are attempts at balance, especially when combined with the fast paced, cacophony of incoherent bellowing that discussion shows almost inevitably descend towards, only serving to leave the watching public further confused and ultimately misinformed?
I’d argue yes – specifically the point where you’re in a situation where the likes of the eternally ignorant Nadine Dorries filibuster their way to the final word on a matter they demonstrably have no real understanding of as the programme shifts gear entirely – sometimes even cutting to the end credits.
When viewed from the top down in the most basic terms, you can make an albeit simplistic case for Dorries and her ilk to be featured on such panels. Her views, however detached from any form of recognisable reality they may be, are in keeping with the opinions of a certain demographic and, irrespective of how terrifying a prospect it may be, she is, in fact, an elected MP. When examined from that standpoint, it matters little that she knows about as much regarding matters on which she opines as your average chipmunk does about chaos theory. Sure, her contribution will almost never yield anything even vaguely resembling a valid point and instead remain limited to a derisive sneer whenever her argument is torn to pieces but alas – flimsy or otherwise, there is at least some small form of justification for her being there.
Contrary to what appears to be the prevailing mood of the day, I’m not especially keen on the practice of arbitrary deplatforming and the field of discussion being limited. Of course there are caveats to this, as there has to be should we ever wish to achieve a functional and progressive society, but essentially I’m of the mind that concepts and proposals should be put forward and it’s then down to the open market place of ideas to determine their veracity. A viewpoint not entirely without its pitfalls, but it strikes me as the most intellectually honest on offer.
So if balance, flawed as it can often be, isn’t the main crux of the issue then what is?
To answer that, just take a look at an episode of Question Time. Literally any episode within the last three years would do.
The format of the show is simple – gather together an assortment of politicians, journalists and pundits from as many sides of the political spectrum as the seating plan allows, and put them of the mercy of an audience sourced from the local area. Naturally the balance element is often called into question, with featured British MEPs being exclusively of the eurosceptic variety along with Nigel Farage appearing almost as often as recently departed host David Dimbleby, but these are quibbles for another time; for it’s the format of the show where the real issues lie.
Ostensibly a show in which the issues of the day are dissected and rigorously debated by panel and audience alike, in practice the intended premise rapidly dies on its arse – giving way to a circus of unintelligible squabbling punctuated by vacuous posturing, almost goading the audience into delivering the desired applause.
Applause levels of course, apparently supersede the validity of the point being made as if the whole debacle was merely a piece of theatre. Almost as if this was exactly what the producers were going for – and the panel are only too happy to oblige; cramming their rhetoric with cheer bait slogans and quasi dictatorial finger pointing so it can be spliced up and uploaded to their Twitter timeline with any rebuttal curiously omitted.
While reasonable, considered discussion is at times attempted, it again finds itself hopelessly constrained by the format with a combination of both the baying crowd and four other panellists vying for attention rendering the entire endeavour almost pointless. The loudest voice often prevails, the filibuster being just one of the many tactics the regular panellists have learned to employ alongside equally spineless bids to get their most contentious points in right as the debate is drawing to a close offering no chance of rebuttal. Captivating viewing perhaps, but next to worthless should the viewer wish to gain any real insight as to the matters being discussed.
So what’s the solution? Debate shows being watered down to the point where it’s a moderated discussion between a select few people with a team of fact checkers present to weed out the untruths?
Well, yes quite frankly – but don’t expect it to happen. It’s not theatre. It’s not “box office”. It won’t get the punters talking, shouting cries of agreement or consternation into the void. They might even turn off – and no TV producer would want that.
So the next time Nigel Farage or some other disreputable fruit loop appears on your screen, having slithered into the BBC studio under the guise of a debate participant, just remember why they’re there. A chance to preach to the confirmation bias of the choir while proselytising upon a platform that will allow them to do so relatively unhindered.
Yet we watch on; transfixed upon the spectacle and gaining nothing in the way of knowledge as to the matter being discussed.
Though we’ll be sure to tune in next time of course, somehow perplexed as to why the debate has remained in a state of paralysis since the day it began.Follow @grahamlithgow