Monday 28 May 2012

Debate debased

Patrick Harvie MSP (Most Sensible Participant)
I notice that on Twitter there are a few people apparently keen to publicise the fact that they didn't watch the "Big Debate" on BBC1 Scotland last night. I did. And I find myself feeling a bit envious of those who didn't. It wasn't all that big and it sure as hell wasn't a debate.

The ringmaster was Isabel Fraser and taking part were Patrick Harvie of the Scottish Greens; Anas Sarwar for Labour; SNP Deputy Leader, Nicola Sturgeon; and Ruth Davidson embarrassing herself on behalf of the Scottish Tories - many of whom would wake up this morning sore from cringing.

And, of course, the real stars of the show, the live audience. Of which more later.

I won't be providing a blow-by-blow account of the ensuing shambles. I refuse to relive the experience. In summary, Ruth Davidson had nothing of consequence to say and seemed to be there mainly to talk over Nicola Sturgeon every time she tried to answer a question. Isabel Fraser should have tugged Davidson's choke-chain early on, but failed to do so. Sturgeon was calm and quietly competent, trying to give straight answers to questions but severely hampered by the incessant drone in her left ear issuing from Ruth the Mooth.

Davidson's double-act partner, Anas Sarwar, was in full scaremonger mode and most of what he had to say seemed to be based on the notion that the rUK would be inclined to adopt an aggressively punitive attitude to an independent Scotland. His "vision" of the future looked a lot less like a social union and more like protracted low-level economic warfare. On the subject of Trident, in particular, Sarwar simply couldn't conjure a veil big enough to cover Labour's sickening hypocrisy.

Undoubted star of the event was Patrick Harvie. To be fair, he did get a bit of an easy ride as the Tory/Labour unionist alliance's soul-sucking negativity was channelled into their obsession with attacking the SNP. But, having said this, Harvie did not come out best only because he was allowed to speak and we were permitted to hear him. What he had to say was both interesting and, dare I say it, more than a little inspirational.

I will admit to having been rather dubious about Harvie's role as an advocate for independence. He always came across as being intent on emphasising the policy differences between the Greens and the SNP rather than their shared commitment on the constitutional issue. He seemed to be more interested in telling people he's "not a nationalist" than telling people he was in favour of independence. All of that was, of course, in the context of party politics. But there was always the concern that Harvie might carry this adversarial attitude into the "big tent" of the YES campaign. I had visions of him spending most of his time complaining long and loud about the tent and the people in it, insisting that he didn't really belong there, all to the detriment of the campaign. Happily, my concerns appear have been unfounded.

The first indication that all might actually be well came with Harvie's excellent contribution to the YES campaign launch event last Friday. And his performance in last night's debate seemed to confirm his intention to impart a message that complements rather than conflicts with that of the SNP. Harvie's radical, iconoclastic idealism actually sits quite well alongside the more measured and pragmatic approach of the SNP within the context of an overarching common purpose. Between them, they offer a positive vision of Scotland that covers a spectrum of political attitudes wide enough to appeal to the bold and the cautious alike across Scottish society. If this blend of the innovative and the (small 'c') conservative can be moulded into a workable synthesis then it will be a powerful driving force for the YES campaign. Not least because it will leave the forces of British nationalism looking increasingly extreme, reactionary and out of touch. Time, as they say, will tell.

So what of the debate itself? Let's be brutally frank, shall we. This kind of audience-participation format does not produce meaningful and illuminating discussion. It's more TV circus than political hustings. I will not be the first to observe that the assembled crowd at last night's event seemed to be curiously weighted in favour of the anti-independence lobby. An impression reinforced by the questions selected by the programme's producers. But even if there had been something akin to balance there the fact remains that the people making up such audiences are not commonly remotely qualified to ask pertinent, probing questions.

Which is not to say that there were no good points made by a few individual. One man very adroitly slapped down the notion that the whole constitutional debate revolves around and hinges upon economic arguments. By contrast, another evidently very angry young man flat-out called Nicola Sturgeon a liar on the basis of something he had undoubtedly heard inside his head, but which had never actually been said.

Then there's the people who don't have a question at all but actually want to make a speech which they wrongly imagine they will be able to ad lib with stunning eloquence on demand. And those who are very evidently planted in the audience with thoroughly rehearsed material having more to do with propaganda than political debate. For the most part, however, the impression is of a big group of people who are so pitifully ill-informed as to be totally unable to effectively quiz the politicians.

For this, I blame the media, and political journalists in particular. But that's an issue I don't want to get into right now.

I know I'll be accused of some kind of elitism or snobbery for saying this, but town-hall meetings belong in the town-hall. TV is a very specialised medium and it should be left to those who can use it properly. That the audience-participation QT-style format may be popular with programme-makers and viewers tells us only that it is "good TV", not that it is good political debate. And it isn't. Nobody came away from watching last night's show significantly more informed or any better equipped to make the most important decision ever to face the Scottish electorate. We need a new and improved format for such debates. And the sooner the better.


  1. Excellent article and I look forward to you masticating those issues you have left on the side of this feast. The January BBC Scotland "Burns Night Big debate" was carefully organised (by the BBC Scotland Online editior) and all questions were pre-filtered to ensure less "chaos" than last night, yet it still remains as one of the Unionist Campaign's greatest disasters with London Law lord Jim wallace claiming on TV that an independent Scotland would be "Treated like KOSOVO by London" ably supported by the confused new Loony Labour leader Johann Lamont.

    Again thanks for the great article & I too sat through the Show and cringed on behalf of a BBC struggling to treat Sottish Nationalism as insurrerection and revolution whilst attempting to maintain it's hollow terms of reference.

    1. If I recall correctly the "Burns Night" show (I won't call it a debate) was the one which the Tories weren't invited to. Which seems a bit strange. I think there's a very amusing video on YouTube of Tinkerbell reduced to babbling incoherence as he tries to land a blow on insouciant Sturgeon.

      But it's the whole format of these shows that I am dubious about. I just think there must be a better way of getting at something genuinely useful.

  2. Congratulations Peter and Cyril on both of you being able to sit through an hour of BBC cringe worthy "debate". I have tried this morning to watch it on I Player. Sadly I was not a forceful as either of you and only survived 30 minutes before deciding enough is enough!

    What I did see was interesting though. I thought Patrick and Nicola put their points across as best they could under what I'd call "difficult" circumstances, especially Nicola. Sarwar and Davidson just behaved like school playground bullies. They talked over Nicola almost every time she spoke. In my view this is the best tactic to use if you want to show yourself up as an ignorant twat.

    This appears to be the tactic to be used by the Anti Independence Brigade. "We have nothing to say so just keep talking over the opposition". Aye right on Jimmy. Just you keep doing that, just keep showing the people of Scotland who the MORE intelligent speaker is, and it aint Labour or Tory that's for sure!

  3. Good review of the program. From my home here in Wales, I too was struck by the lassitude the unionists were allowed to hector an heckle Nicola. She handled it well, and did get some forceful points across. And again you are right to point out that the attention the unionist spoilers were paying to Nicola gave Harvey an opportunity to shine - which he did.

    Davidson we all knew was an empty vessel, but what surprised me was Anwar, who I only know from tweets and articles, was so facile and so deeply unimpressive. Separatists won on points. 10 rounds to 3. The referee should have disqualified Davidson for dirty tactics.

    You are also right that the audience appeared to be heavily weighted in favour of the union. At least most of them sounded Scottish.

    When Question time was in Aberystwyth, in the Welsh speaking heartland of Ceredigion, almost everyone in the audience had a distinctly English accent, an aggressive antipathy to devolution, and apparently, many of them had been bussed in. The BBC is no longer fit for purpose.

    1. The BBC is no longer fit for purpose.

      Don't think I could have put it better myself Sionnyn.

      Ah, the GREAT??? BBC. That oracle of truth throughout the world. The BBC of "here is the News" fame, or as it is these days "Here is the News as we are going to tell you it!"

      BBC a.k.a. British Brainwashing Committee!

    2. "...and apparently, many of them had been bussed in."

      Doubtless in the name of "diversity".

    3. Doubtless in the name of "diversity".

      Would be diversity as in some unionists from Glasgow, Some unionists from Edinburgh, some unionists from Dumfries, some unionists from...........:D

  4. Following on from the "excellent" :( debate on Sunday night I thought I'd lighten the air a wee bit.

    The Anti Independence Brigade looks like they are closing in on their campaign slogan. Any guesses any one........

  5. It just sapped my energy ... mebbe that's their plan.

  6. I read over on Wingsofscotland that one of the posters was in the audience. He states that the total time of the event was 1 hour 20 minutes, and so what we saw was an edited version of it.

    Three things:

    1. If this was the 'best' bits, what the hell was the edited 25% about? I think we should see it too

    2. What question(s) and answers were removed by the BBC?

    3. Why were the personal attacks from the audience towards Nicola in particular aired by the BBC? They did not add anything to the 'debate' and as she was NOT given right to reply, was a disgrace.

    1. Fair points. But I really, really, REALLY don't want to see the outtakes.

  7. Just a few thoughts about the outtakes.

    First, if the BBC made the outtakes because they thought the cut bits were bad then they must have been really,really REALLY bad.

    Second, if the outtakes were made because they included attacks on Sarwar or Davidson then why were the parts including the attacks on Nicola left IN?

    Third, were the outtakes removed as a result of them showing some REAL positivity towards INDEPENDENCE? If so then this just adds more fuel to the "BBC is biased" bonfire that is currently on fire!

    1. Someone who claims to have been at the event tweeted that there was much more applause for Nicola Sturgeon than was evident in the broadcast version. I see no reason why the BBC should not make the unedited version available online. Let us judge for ourselves.

    2. Can't do that Peter.

      What the good old BBC letting everyone see the Truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth! It goes against everything the BBC stands for....... BRAINWASH we must BRAINWASH, BRAINWASH we must BRAINWASH......:D