Thursday, 15 February 2018

The quality of political discourse

One of my favourite quips (though one which nobody else finds witty, unfortunately) is that political journalists are those who failed to make it as sports commentators. In most of the media, broadcast and print, the differences between political parties are described in terms of the personal qualities of their leading members. They are rated in terms of their ability to win elections, rather as one might weigh up the chances of Manchester City against Manchester United. Their policies and philosophies become almost irrelevant.

Commentary is free, but facts are ... expensive*

There was discussion on last week's Sunday Supplement radio programme (about 20 minutes in) of an academic study into the way election campaigns are reported in many advanced Western democracies. The authors ask who is getting the best deal out of election coverage: the media, the politicians or the voting public. Their conclusion is that it is a toss-up between the first two, but there is no doubt that the voters are the worst served. In some cases, politicians themselves dissuaded editors from going too deeply into policies (perhaps because those policies at the time of an election are not thought through?), but, as presenter Vaughan Roderick conceded, to cover policy discussions properly, journalists need to do their homework. Journalists' time, especially that of specialists, is expensive.

The most recent programme reinforced ones impression of decline in the quality of political discourse. Chris Bryant MP had criticised the behaviour of the House of Commons, particularly at Prime Minister's Question Time. Speaker Bercow too has observed that there is heckling of members organised by the opposition party's whips and, though he has frequently drawn attention to it, nothing has changed. Vaughan Roderick brought together David TC Davies and Carolyn Harries, MPs from opposite sides of the floor, to discuss the matter. One would have expected the combative "Top Cat" to defend the rowdy behaviour, but instead he deprecated it and agreed that it had got worse. Both he and Ms Harries observed that attacks had got nastier, in social media, at hustings and even face to face.

The semi-anonymity of social media is clearly a factor in encouraging "keyboard warriors" to vent their spleen irresponsibly. Victorian legislators recognised the increased power of the printing press because of contemporary technological advances, and that it gave trouble-makers the ability to spread hundreds, maybe even thousands, of copies of mischievous pamphlets quickly. Accordingly, they passed the Printers and Publishers Act 1839, later incorporated into the Newspapers, Printers and Reading Rooms Repeal Act 1869 which is still on the statute book. This prescribes in essence that printed matter must bear the identities of both the author and the printer. It is more difficult to legislate for electronic media, but I feel that some mechanism should be introduced so that the ultimate author of Tweets and Facebook posts can be determined by the average user without recourse to specialist software.

However, that does not explain the increased viciousness of personal confrontation. Here one must agree with Vaughan Roderick that journals must bear part of the blame, in their concentration on personalities rather than policies, and in their shrill treatment when they do deal with policies. Accusing MPs of treachery or judges of being enemies of the people is not conducive to calm and rational political debate.

* CP Scott's definitive maxim was "Comment is free, but facts are sacred."

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