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.

Hey, Katie Hopkins!

Hey Katie Hopkins,

I don’t know why people are still talking about, or to you. That statement makes this letter kind of ridiculous, I’m aware of that, but there you go – there’s something about you that makes people abandon reason and just want to cry or go for the jugular. I’m not going to do either of those things, though.

You want people to talk about you? You want people to have an opinion about you? Fine – I’ve decided to pity you.

Part of the reason is this – an article in the Guardian – of all the weird places to publish you, Katie – in which the journo makes it pretty clear that the one thing you can’t stand is pity. What’s the quote that got me? The only response she seems unable to deal with is sympathy. If I glowered at her she would be quite impervious – but a sympathetic look is a kind of agony for Hopkins, making her literally squirm, and I think this has distorted her entire perspective on other people’s problems.

Katie, I spend an unreasonable amount of time thinking about you. Most of the reason for that is because I work, peripherally, in television. I have to know about the people who are generating the most buzz online. I have to watch the programmes you feature in. I have to write funny things about you, about all the different ways on Twitter people would like to murder you (push you off a bridge, under a train, cook you and serve you up).

It gets my goat, doing it, because I know that that’s exactly what you want. As a failed business woman and a wannabe-Apprentice, all you have is your brand. Your blonde, slimy mouthy motif – the tiger troll that television channels seek, because you pull in the numbers. You love it, making people talk about you. And it works.  People want to watch you because we like things that inspire emotion, that make us feel. There are already too many shows out there designed to inspire sorrow, laughter, fear, horror, pleasure. You make us hate – a delicious, dark writhing hate, the kind that exists in most people, but which rarely finds an acceptable outlet. We love to hate you. And you love us for doing it.

Back to that quote though Katie – I don’t want you to interpret this letter as a glower. You’re quite capable of fighting glower with power, and I don’t want to read about how you despise me because I’m red headed, because I’m in a low-income bracket, because I eat McDonalds sometimes.  You’re too good at the 140 character attack, the bitter snap. Are you on Reddit, KH? I think you’d do well on Reddit.

So how should you interpret this letter? As pity. Partly because, yeah, I like the idea of you squirming. But partly because I do, genuinely, find your whole schtick pitiful. That Guardian article is brimming with sorrow for the person you’ve become, and I think it’s important that you know that the soapbox you stand on only exists because people are shaking their heads for and at you – and making money from you. Doing things for other people is a good motivator for some folk, Katie, but I suspect it doesn’t float your boat (speaking of which, how about those floods Katie? Reckon it’s a heavenly revenge on beneficiaries? Of course you do).

I’m sorry that your marriages broke down, that your methods for finding intimacy are derived from the destruction of other unions. I’m sorry that your “business” makes no money, and that the only way for you to subsidize the upper-middle-class lifestyle you view as the holy grail is through what is essentially prostitution. I’m sad at the thought that you’ll probably never eat a Big Mac or a doughnut, knowing that the press would jump on any indication or promise of weight gain. I’m sorry at the thought of your children growing old enough to become media fodder, because you’ve made that future inevitable for them. I’m sorry you got discharged from the army, when your natural place on earth is so clearly as a weapon of destruction. I’m sad for whatever violent compulsion residing within your skin that means your only pleasure comes from pain.

And I’m sorry that it can’t last, Katie. This brand of yours, this soap-box – do you know how temporary it is?

I think you do. And I think that’s why you’re surfing this wave with every ounce of energy you can muster – so that when it crashes to nothing on the shore, you have enough money to out-last that period in your life when you realize that anger and malice isn’t a talent that easily converts to a living wage.