There was a discussion on BBC radio yesterday about proposals to ban smoking in cars, particularly if there were children involved. Pretty uncontroversial, you may feel, and already the law in Australia and much of the USA. However, being talk radio, the pro-smoking pressure group FOREST- which has few members, and is in fact a paid-and-packaged tobacco industry mouthpiece – was invited to contribute. This is par for the course. Producers seek ‘good radio’, which seems to mean a blazing row. The way this is achieved is to invite someone who disagrees with any proposals or report to the studio to attack proponents. A friend was asked, when an Education Officer, to come on local radio to discuss some proposals for reorganization: knowing he would not be allowed to calmly explain the factors behind the decisions, he cannily asked “and who have you got to argue with me”. If broadcasters cannot find anyone to create an argument, the presenter will start one him/herself. “Well, you say that, minister, but surely …” The appalling John Humphreys is the master of this technique, often using the expression “That’s all very well, but some would argue …”, carefully avoiding saying who ‘some’ might be, because the objection is normally nonsensical.
What’s wrong with this, you may ask. We want policies to be tested so we can see what makes sense. Well, there are several problems. The first one is that it is difficult to understand the nature and complexity of proposals or problems if two banshees are howling at one another. Not every problem has two clear oppositional solutions; indeed, I would argue that few issues can be resolved that way. There is actually little ideological difference on many issues – what we want to know are the facts (how many immigrants, what is the growth of GNP) and what works to achieve goals that everyone, right or left, seeks (who gets the best results for hospital patients, school-kids). These facts are, as a wag once said, rarely pure and never simple; they are more easily concealed if two advocates spend their allotted eight minutes noisily interrupting each other. Worse, oppositional voices are chosen for their stridency not their representativeness. Recently, an extreme Islamist with few followers, even in the Muslim community, was invited onto the BBC to argue that hacking Lee Rigby to death in the street was OK. You wonder whether they would get a pro-malaria organisation to argue against Bill Gates.
Yesterday, the Governor of the Bank of England gave a speech about the monetary aspects of Scottish independence, which included a passage on the advantages and disadvantages of currency independence. This is a key issue, and also bears upon the Euro debate; it has relevance too to the whole economic policy of our government at the moment (briefly, no country with its own currency can ‘go bankrupt’). However, as soon as the topic was broached, the programme switched away from his presentation, saying “He’s getting very technical now”. This is code for “our audience is dim, with the attention span of a goldfish”. At present there is almost a prejudice against explanation. When breakfast TV started up, it was derided for claiming a ‘mission to explain’ (and, to be fair, it found few viewers to receive the explanations). But surely what the media must do is develop a way in which they can explain – one thinks of Robert Peston as an example of how it can be done. In the old days, the Daily Mirror tried to do this – present the issues of the day in a way that the man in the street could understand. This is the real mission of journalism, and may be the way that hacks can rebuild their reputation post-hacking and post-Leveson.