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Television Debates: Running to Stand Still

Our news and current affairs broadcasters are stuck in a cultural lag. Our society and economy have changed. The endless growth paradigm has ended. The old ways of producing (or not, as the case may be), working and living are over. There is no realistic prospect of a 20th century western lifestyle for today’s global population. We do not know how society and the economy will operate in the years to come but it will not resemble the last century’s consumption-driven dreams of limitless growth. For once we can say, with certainty, ‘this time it is different’.

Mainstream broadcasters have yet to catch up with this transformation. This is a concern because, despite the rise of social media, mainstream broadcasters, along with newspapers, powerfully set the agenda for online discussion. Broadcasters appear to be rooted in the mantras and assumptions of a dead-on-its-feet model of ‘free market’ economics. The cultural lag, however, lays not so much in the persistence of old ideas but rather in the fact that broadcasting today offers no forum for the development of new ones. This is neither conscious nor deliberate. It is, instead, an unfortunate by-product of broadcasting conventions and formats.

Traditionally, news and current affairs broadcasting have presented the world as a series of dichotomies. All issues, regardless of their complexity, can be broken into binary oppositions, private vs public, right vs left, market vs state, employer vs union and so on. In the world presented by broadcasting, there are two sides to every issue. And, there are only two sides. This simple structure dominates for practical reasons. The formula is tried and trusted and presents little risk for producers who are short on time and strapped for cash. The clash of polar opposites provides emotive drama to engage audiences who might be tempted to change channel. Pitting A against B offers viewers a template that they can quickly recognise. The format also allows people to identify and stake their allegiances without necessarily having to attend to the details of the debate. Of course, it can also cause people’s eyes to glaze over as they find that neither of the two political positions on offer have any relevance.

Debate is generally reduced to prevailing over one’s opponent through bluster, mastery of facts, presentation, composure and so on. There is generally no need to listen to, or understand, an opponent’s position. There is rarely, if ever, an occasion where one speaker adjusts or modifies their argument in agreement with an opponent. This would be a display of weakness. Debate as a closed form of verbal and presentational combat is presented as a substitute for open discussion.

Jürgen Habermas described a transformation in the west from a culture debating society to a culture consuming society. He argued that media debate was administered rather than being offered for public participation. Of course, this is not quite true. We can sit over a drink and discuss the merits of one party or policy over another. The problem is that we think in paired opposites and broadcasting refuses to entertain possibilities outside of this binary universe. The notion of seeking to develop consensus among panellists or the audience seems unthinkable in broadcasting. To develop new ideas for new circumstances we need to abandon what Pierre Bourdieu called the ‘principles of vision and division’ handed to us by mainstream media. The oppositions that shape our thinking, and our conversations, are products of expediency – running a media factory – rather than reflections of the world as it is. We have delegated much of our thinking to a self-perpetuating system that lacks the resources to risk doing something new.

Broadcasters, public and private, often claim to provide a ‘public sphere’ for debate and discussion. The concept of the public sphere, as created and popularised by Habermas, was based in an open search for consensus, rather than rhetorical conflict for its own sake. Regardless of how controversial or heated they may seem, programmes offering duels between two sides are all essentially conservative. Such clashes provide a dynamic tension, like the opposing forces on either side of a stone arch, that ultimately keeps our thinking rooted in place. A more radical, and more demanding, programme might seek to achieve consensus around a problem, and with that, perhaps, reveal some viable solutions.