Welfare, immigration and the new species of not-so-great debate

The ‘debates’ we’ve witnessed on Channels Four and Five over the last week, on the subjects of welfare and immigration, remind me of nothing so much as fighting with my sister. Both of us red-faced and convinced of our own utter rightness and resorting, in the absence of any reasoned argument, to screaming and screaming and screaming. We were nine and eleven years old. These are politicians, public servants and business owners.

Watching the shows, with particular reference to Channel 5’s efforts in recent weeks, is an almost physically painful experience. The panelists are poised on stools, the audience leant forward on their chairs, waiting for the signal that they might go for the jugular. The presenter resembles a matador, baiting, waiting. If anyone speaks for more than 30 seconds, the microphone is snatched from there. Genuinely intelligent individuals revert to personal digs on appearance and past affairs, and the subjects – interesting, controversial topics – fall by the wayside in a show that is far more a hunt for a juicily condemnable quote than for a resolution to issues that divide the country.

What we’re witnessing on television, in greater and lengthier quantities (this last C5 iteration lasted for two grating hours) is not debate. There is no right of reply. There is only “Listen to me, listen to me” shouted ever more lustily above the keening audience. Channel 5, to its credit, has given recognition to this with its decision to name the program “a row”. But why on earth are we giving primetime television slots to open rows? And where did this format come from?

It’s like someone took Question Time, turned David Dimbleby into an openly biased wrestling adjudicator. Then told the audience to say only the most divisive, cruel and ill-reasoned thoughts that arose in their heads. And selected the panelists on the basis of how many death-threats they receive via social media channels daily. The louder the invective, the more powerful the argument, in this brave new world. And the more likely it looks that discussion will devolve into open violence, the more successful the show.

It’s easy to blame the figureheads. Katie Hopkins. Luisa Zissman – the figures who exist on our screens purely to prod at our existing open wounds. Or people like Paula Hamilton, who state their views to millions as if by dint of being on television, their opinion on the subject is relevant. It’s easy to blame the television channels. But the fault lies with the viewer.

Because, as it makes us cringe and protest, equally it makes us take to our keyboards and our televisions, in numbers and with vehemence that is never devoted to the likes of Question Time. These shows are appalling and vicious, and they reflect exactly the kinds of arguments that are raging in our own heads. Why do they have more money than me? Why can they get a job when I can’t? Why is no one listening to me? Why is no one speaking for me? And then there it is, all that feverish emotion and reaction and confusion, poured out on our screens. It’s relatable, even if it is like discovering that you’re related to Katie Hopkins.

Question Time has its flaws. It’s antiquated, it has trouble inviting women behind that purple bench and the theme song needs a good over-haul.  The audience members are so tightly screened that sometimes it feels like the same three sentences come out of everyone. But if these new shows, these rows and fights, are examples of the kinds of politics we’ve been reduced to, and the opinions we’re capable of relating to, then we’re not making progress.

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