Can we reform our rancid political debate?
The relaunched 'Politics Live' on the BBC. Credit: BBC/ Jeff Overs   

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There are moments when a consensus seems to emerge that politics in general – and political discussion in particular – aren’t going well.

Sometimes this realisation comes suddenly, with some shocking event.

In the UK, the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox in June 2016 was just such a moment. Britain had been in the middle of a heated national debate about its membership of the European Union. Cox’s brutal murder reminded people that the use of terms such as ‘traitor’ among others might have effects beyond the realm of the rhetorical. And so, for a moment, the dial was turned down. Not on anyone’s orders, but through the agreed restitution of a common custom – not least manners.

Less tragic and dramatic attempts to do the same have included the occasional calls from leaders of the opposition (including Ed Miliband) to put a stop to ‘Punch and Judy politics’ such as that practised at Prime Minister’s Questions.

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Recently, the feeling that the debate has gone rancid has begun to grow, without there being any specific trigger event. And a striking development is that broadcast media (not before time) would seem to be recognising that it bears some responsibility for this.

For years, the business model for political television and radio – in the UK as well as in the US – has been a search for the ‘gotcha’ moment. Not just the exposure of a guest for not knowing what they are talking about, but the search for almost any memorably awful or triumphant moment. This has turned political discussion and debate into a kind of performance art in which the interviewer as much as the guests are auditioning to become the star.

It is programming in search of the YouTube excerpt; it is discussion in the hope that a couple of minutes of the show will go ‘viral’ on social media. If whole careers could be lost, or at least deeply damaged, from such moments, then the incentive is that whole careers can also be made.

Only recently, Ash Sarkar, a contributor to a fringe blog leapt to some form of media celebrity for shouting “I’m literally a communist, you idiot” at Piers Morgan on morning television. Programme makers are always on the hunt for these moments: searching not to find compromise, but rather to provoke fiery antagonism.

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Programme makers, over the past decade, became desperate for people to discuss their programmes on social media, to ‘get in touch’ and become engaged. By doing so they encouraged the idea that interaction – any interaction – was a good idea. They invited guests on who they knew would not throw any light on the situation, but would be able to throw a great amount of heat around.

Before Ash Sarkar, the same programme makers gave us Katie Hopkins. Hopkins would be invited on in the hope that she would create a ‘scene’ that would then trend on social media. Whether viewers liked it or not wasn’t so much the point. The point was to provoke a reaction.

Now the bubbling concern at this form of performance art appears to have surfaced at the head of various news organisations. And one result of this was revealed this week when the BBC unveiled its new lunchtime political discussion programme. The presenter of ‘Politics Live’ is Jo Coburn. She is one of the best in the business and provided expertise as well as continuity – she also presented the predecessor show. But the programme did have a stated intention of doing something different. And the way in which this was most visibly demonstrated from the outset was that the entire panel consisted of women.

Aside from Coburn, there was the former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, the current Shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, as well as journalists from the Telegraph, Guardian and BBC. The line-up was a statement in itself, hidden away in which was the never quite articulated suggestion that women are a civilising influence and can – simply by their presence – help ‘detoxify’ matters.

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Though this idea was unspoken, the show did state at the outset that it wanted to make a point against the toxicity of the present debate. All of the panellists agreed that things had got worse, and the main evidence for this was that a lot of people get a lot of horrible messages sent to them on social media.  There also appeared to be consensus that their treatment was particularly bad because they were women.

Bemoaning the low state of political discussion – let alone bemoaning the state of political discussion on social media – is exceptionally easy. What is far harder is finding a way to work out meaningful political disagreements in a way which is not antagonistic. And that was something which the new show understandably failed to do. It was inevitable the cosy consensus would have to be broken at some stage.

Both Rudd and Thornberry are experienced politicians. Both are also ultra-partisan hacks. That isn’t to insult them, but simply to state the obvious. They are programmed, or have programmed themselves over the years, that when in discussion with their political opponents, they first refute any meaningful allegation of their opposite number and then try to score a political point of their own. Both have spent recent years bound by ministerial responsibility (in the case of Rudd) and its shadow cabinet equivalent, which means that ministers (and shadow ministers) cannot throw colleagues to the wolves: rather they must always defend everything and anything done by one of their colleagues, and attack their political opponents.

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Rudd broke the consensus of the BBC’s new programme – as someone was going to have to do – when she finally fingered a specific culprit.  She pointed out that the atmosphere of intimidation and more around MPs has got far worse since the creation of the Corbynista grass roots group Momentum. Naturally Thornberry could not agree to this. And so she said so, in the process opening herself up to accusations of partisan point-scoring

On one level, what Rudd said was unarguable. The party conference season is coming up again and this year, as last, one thing can be said with confidence (as the Conservative MP Kemi Badenoch pointed out in her warm-up speech for the Prime Minister at last year’s Conservative conference): it is inconceivable that young Conservative activists will be standing outside this year’s Labour party conference waving placards at attendees, spitting at them in the street and shouting ‘scum’. Yet it is very likely that this year, as last, Labour party supporters will be outside the Conservative party conference doing just this.

So how do you make the point without being partisan? You could perhaps pretend that incivility has no especial drivers but that it is just something in the atmosphere. You might identify some actual causes of the breakdown but cite others which are slightly specious in order to demonstrate some degree of even-handedness. Or a third option would be to make your points – and more importantly concede similar points – whether they are politically advantageous to your own political side or not.

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The trouble with breaking the current discussion paradigm is this. The first of these options cannot be sustained for long. At some stage people have to get specific. The second option allows for a type of noble lie to be practised (on the one hand we have Momentum, on the other hand aren’t those young Conservative activists just as big a problem?). And the third, which is the only one that would allow anyone to get anywhere, seems to be impossible in a two-party system.

There is one extra layer to this complexity, and that is this. The viewing public now see things that the politicians cannot admit. So the viewing public would have known that Thornberry probably has serious reservations about Momentum among other things going on in her party. But they know she has chosen her side and cannot let go.

Likewise, they know that Amber Rudd most likely feels very sore about having to resign earlier this year and is currently appearing on the media to maintain her profile in order to be able to return to cabinet as soon as possible. So the likelihood is that she will concede nothing major and want to make some partisan gains.

All of which returns us to the problem that broadcasters like the BBC, despite this relaunch, still cannot address. Which is how do you inform the public when the public are free to say more than their elected representatives? Unless that issue is addressed no broadcaster can get near the problem they are trying to grapple with.