Sunday, 21 January 2018

Physician, heal thyself

The big deal of the week has been the now infamous debate between Cathy Newman and Jordan B Peterson. I urge you to watch the whole thing. The substance I won't go into. All I will say is on that subject I have no cause to disagree with Peterson.

There have been a number of comments made about the conduct of Cathy Newman in bombarding Peterson with straw men. She does do that. What makes it a useful piece of journalism is that Newman evidently does hold a number of views based on modern feminist dogma which makes her ideal to stimulate the kind of replies which properly represent Peterson's position. It makes her a risible individual but as a piece of television where both sides of the argument are aired and explored, it's actually pretty good and Channel 4 is to be commended for creating the space for this very necessary debate.

What is interesting is the number of views it's had which will stand at three million by the end of this week and countless excerpts will have been viewed on Twitter. That tells us that there is indeed a market for considered and well executed television debates where viewers are exposed to complex arguments and (almost) treated like grown ups.

The interview itself, though, was only decent by contrast with most of what we see in television media. It's still not a patch on a Brian Walden interview from the early 90's. Generally we get Andrew Neil, Andrew Marr and repeated exposure to Diane Abbott for reasons no one is able to comprehend. The public are more than capable of engaging in detailed debate but the media does not see fit to provide it. We get the empty-headed speaking to the know-nothings.

We need not, therefore, wonder why there is still no clarity to the Brexit debate. Not once has the media stepped up to its obligation to inform. One might speculate that the subject matter is far less universal in appeal to what we see here, but that is an argument for even more debate, not less. There is a breadth of issues inside Brexit to explore - not least immigration.

For Channel 4 it serves a commercial agenda to choose more controversial topics, but will still limit itself to the superficial. That is to be expected. It is primarily a commercial operation. The question, therefore, is why is Channel 4 doing a better (though not adequate) job of driving debates than the BBC? Why is the BBC attempting to compete with commercial channels when it has a public service remit, and if it feels no obligation to meet those public service obligations and fulfil its duty to inform, what exactly is the point of it?

Remainers and leavers are still bitterly divided and if anything there has been a more radical polarisation since the summer. What we can all agree on, however, is that our media is completely failing to inform. The circus freak show of Question Time and the ever asinine Sunday Politics is little more than space filler.

At the heart of this failure is condescension. The belief that the viewing public are incapable of lending their attention to long debates requiring the application of intellect. That is what informed the thinking behind the respective referendum campaigns leading to the universal criticism that both campaigns were short on facts leaving the public to fend for itself for information.

This might then go some way toward explaining why we are leaving the EU. The public are deeply dissatisfied with the quality of politics and politicians, and are tired of being treated like infants. When we speak of "the establishment" that goes as much for our media as it does Westminster. Our establishment condescends to us, believing their mediocre understanding of issues to be superior to that of the public.

To have a functioning democracy we must have a functioning media capable of creating the public conversations necessary for informed decision-making. This we do not have. Instead we have a politico-media class imbued with a lofty sense of its own abilities with no concept of how deeply they are detested, who, when exposed to that vitriol, believe the fault is not theirs.

Though Brexit may have its class divides it is better explained by the gulf of understanding that exists between the politico-media bubble and the public. Until they are capable of such self-realisation there will be no abatement of that public disgust. They complain at the toxicity of public discourse but ultimately the power to remedy that lies with them. It is not within the gift of the public to correct it. Respect is a two way street.

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