June 28, 2019

You can you tell when a medium is in trouble: it becomes incapable of communicating seriously. Literary forms die off when their apparatus is no longer capable of carrying the necessary truths of the age. And so it is with other forms of media – including television.

Last week, I pointed out the pitfalls amid the putative Conservative leaders’ debate on the BBC. But it was probably unfair of me to single out one programme for criticism. Because an inability to deal with serious questions and an unwillingness to allow for serious answers has in many ways become the hallmark of the age of TV political discussion.

I see examples of what is wrong, and of what might have been, all the time. But let me cite a  recent example. Earlier this month, on Politics Live, the BBC’s main daily political discussion show, there was a discussion about socialism and communism. The conversation skimmed across a couple of surfaces, with two of the guests talking in a positive light about the alleged virtues of the same. And then the Conservative columnist Toby Young riposted with the rather good line: “Socialism always begins with a universal vision for the brotherhood of man and ends with people having to eat their own pets.” I raise it not to discuss the line – clever, true and pithy though it is – but the reaction to it.

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The presenter was Jo Coburn, one of the best political journalists and interviewers in action. It is precisely because of this that her reaction was so striking. There are a number of things you might say in reaction to Young’s statement. You might ask him to extrapolate it, or otherwise further explain it. You might ask why that was always the case with socialism, and what lessons might as a result be learned from it. You might contest it, and argue that not every single person who lived under socialism always ended up always having to eat their pets. Or you might look at the human catastrophe of what an unfathomable number of 100 million deaths actually means.

But none of this happened. Coburn immediately moved things on with an “Oh, charming”, as though Young had said something vaguely rude or otherwise malodorous. All done in the most jocular and easy fashion, of course: seamless and professional.

There are two reasons for this neat segue. One is technical. It is one of the oddities of political discussion on television that host and guests are (even when they are mildly at odds) always in a state of collusion. It is in the interests of all of those involved that the thing should run smoothly.

The contributors must play their ping-pong of political points with energy and grace and the presenter is to marshal events in such a way that every allotted time-slot is hit and no awkward silences or dry-ups occur. Indeed, to some extent, the guests help each other out as much as the presenter helps them. Everyone is relieved when it all runs smoothly and pleasantly. If feels like someone’s walked over your grave if a fellow guest does dry up, or doesn’t make sense or does something inappropriate.

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So that is the technical reason. But there is another reason why any reference to the most serious events of the past or present can only be done through badinage. And that is because political discussion shows of the kind that have come to dominate are simply not suited to discussing the most serious issues. That isn’t to say that they do not get broached, rather that they must be treated as a sort of game.

The medium is fixated not on accurate excavation of truths but on contributors moving the agenda along. People must say what they think will happen next. They must have a stab (almost never with any more knowledge than the viewers) at predicting what someone they don’t know might do next. And then it’s time to move on to the next spot of allotted guesswork.

The bonhomie of the resulting political discussion is, I suppose, an antidote to those shouting-matches which have occasionally arisen (and indeed been encouraged) in the past. But it is completely unsuited to the most serious subjects. Watching the BBC’s discussion about communism, I was reminded of the point when I realised something was truly wrong with this television culture.

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A few years ago, when the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro died, I was invited by Sky’s rolling news channel to come on and discuss his legacy. Preparations were being made for the funeral and there was talk of which foreign leaders would and wouldn’t show up for it. Just before we went live, I realised that the other guest who would be on to discuss or debate with me was Richard Gott. Some people might not remember this, but Gott is not merely an occasional contributor to The Guardian and roving commentator on South American affairs. In the 1990s, when he was still on the editorial staff at The Guardian, he was outed as an agent of influence of the KGB, and eventually admitted to taking “red gold”. His editor at the newspaper tried to persuade him to stay on staff at the paper, but eventually accepted his resignation.

Anyhow, as Gott and I were talking and he gave his pro-Castro and deeply anti-American version of history, I thought that any viewers who were not aware of Gott’s KGB past should be enlightened about it. And so I mentioned that my fellow guest was not exactly an impartial commentator on matters to do with socialist dictatorships, but someone who had himself worked as an agent of influence of the KGB. It struck me, as I said on air, that it was like hearing someone who had worked for the SS being asked his opinion about German affairs in the early 1940s.

Once again some invisible tripwire had been walked into. On that occasion the interviewer was the (again excellent) Kay Burley. OK – let’s try not to be too personal about each other and play it a little bit cooler and talk about what’s happening as far as Fidel Castro is concerned, who is going to the funeral and who isn’t.”

 As viewers can see for themselves I wasn’t irate or foaming as I made my points. I didn’t look like I was about to throw over a table and hit someone. I simply thought that for the sake of any viewers not familiar with Soviet history, some context about my fellow discussant was necessary.

There may, of course, have been a number of reasons why Burley moved things along. She may herself have had no idea of Gott’s KGB connection. Her producer in her ear may have had no idea. They may have thought I was making the most serious allegation imaginable (I was) and worried that I had no evidence for it (I did). And so, perhaps the actual or metaphorical voice in Burley’s ear was just saying “Hell, hell, get him off making these allegations and onto the funeral guest-list”. That is one possibility.

I also suspect (regardless of those Right-wingers who will insist that the situation would have been different) that if Gott had worked for fascists rather than communists, then the reaction of the presenter would not have been much different. But it struck me then, as it strikes me now, that it all demonstrated a serious failure of the medium.

Today, TV politics requires levity, ease, lack-of-heaviness: it exists on airy chattiness. The opposite of this is any glimpse of the real horrors that lie beneath. Yet horrors do lie beneath, and a medium which aspires to inform should find a voice able to speak there too. To be wide-reaching, political discussion must obviously speak in many registers. But if it cannot speak to the most serious register, and gets stuck solely in that of entertainment, then it makes not just the medium, but politics as a whole, frivolous and eventually superfluous.