A few thoughts on TV debates

Full disclosure: I didn’t watch the “big debate” last night. I would have watched it if David Cameron had had the balls to turn up and debate head of government against head of government. I would have watched it if it had been Alistair Darling against his opposite number Dennis Canavan. However, given that the premise of the debate was that it was one head of government against a random backbench opposition MP with no power now nor any likelihood of getting any power in the near future, what was the point? Darling is objectively not in a position to meaningfully debate the First Minister on the actual issues. My subjective view is that all Darling has brought to the debate so far is personal attacks, bile, outright lies and furious blinking; so of course he was going to disrupt and prevent any valuable discussion at all.

TV debates between politicians in themselves are meaningless. All they achieve is reinforcing existing prejudices in viewers who have made up their minds, while alienating people in the middle. The mainstream media will of course be plastering “Darling wins” all over the front pages today, but a) they would have done that regardless, and b) does anyone actually believe them anymore? The media agenda is so transparently anti-independence, is it really any surprise that they had their prejudices reinforced just the same as the rest of us would?

When presenting on any topic to an audience, a speaker should be aware of something called the Ladder of Inference (LoI). The LoI quantifies the reinforcement of prejudice that unavoidably happens when people hear new information – their brain links it to things they already ‘know’ and remembers the parts that reinforce it, while disregarding the unfortunate parts that they don’t agree with.  In a lecture or seminar, the speaker can attempt to break the Ladder of Inference but it takes awareness and it also requires time.

The single biggest problem with TV debates between politicians is essentially that they are on TV. TV trivialises and diminishes everything that it touches. We see it all the time, in every programme, but particularly with TV news. Complex issues are brutally boiled down to 5-second soundbites, which have little to no resemblance to the full facts and lose all of the nuances of the original issue.

The real issues of the referendum cannot be expressed in 5-second soundbites. Topics such as sovereignty, democracy, vision, and desire to build a better country are rightly complicated and deserve proper discussion. One side or the other shouting “you can’t use the pound!” or “foodbanks are bad!” (to pick two grossly oversimplified examples at random) without examining the context is completely pointless.

Currency is a complete non issue;, no one can stop anyone from using the pound (ask Ireland from 1922 until 1979, or the Isle of Man). It takes years to transition to a new currency as anyone who visited an early Eurozone country in the late 1990s will know. If my prediction of a Left/Green coalition Government in the first independent Parliament comes true, then the transition to an independent currency could be started within the first 5 years of independence. It is a possibility. Yet in the twisted world of TV, no one is allowed to have that discussion! No, all you can do is shout at each other about it! How does that help anyone? How is that democratic debate?

Similarly, it’s not enough just to complain about the existence of foodbanks. The discussion that should be portrayed in the media is the facts: that the existence of poverty, unemployment, underemployment, and foodbanks is a direct consequence of economic policy i.e. choices made by those in power. Those advocating a Yes vote are arguing for the powers to make different choices than those that have been made. These are the sorts of discussions that it is possible to have while canvassing doorsteps, and in my experience people really appreciate getting some detailed answers. Yet again, in the bubble of 5-second soundbites, this complex issue is portrayed as people shouting at each other! How does that help voters to make an informed decision?

The fact that the TV debates was between two politicians is another example of the lack of imagination of the mainstream media. Why should it be politicians professing to the rest of us from on high? Why not hold a series of debates between ordinary activists? I know plenty of people who could put across a fantastic case based on logic and reason, and provide detailed answers to the questions that people actually want answers to. Thankfully these people are on the streets all over Scotland, chapping doors and speaking to people as equals and individuals. Want to know how to break the Ladder of Inference? Do exactly what thousands of activists are doing every day! In the referendum context, it’s called “conversion by conversation” but it amounts to the same thing.

The format for discussion chosen by the mainstream media is the worst possible format for providing information. A cynic might suggest that this is deliberate. More likely the underlying reason is the eternal search for sensationalism that poisons any factual coverage in the media.

The whole point of independence is that the possibilities will exist should we, the people, wish to choose them. We will be empowered to control our own future. Mistakes made will be our own but we will have choices available to overcome any setbacks. What kind of country do you want to live in? Do you think Westminster control will deliver it, or will taking 100% influence into the people’s hands have a better chance? You can’t have these discussions in 5-second soundbites.

As Wings over Scotland have written (http://wingsoverscotland.com/the-only-stat-that-matters/), among undecided voters the First Minister’s points appealed more during the debate. I’m sceptical of taking much from the debate in itself, in the same way as it’s right to be sceptical of opinion polls.

The one wider good point about the TV debate last night is that it got people talking about it who perhaps previously hadn’t engaged. I was up until after midnight last night answering questions from undecided people on Facebook, and I’m sure many others were as well. It will also have provided plenty of talking points for canvassing over the next few weeks. People’s minds are at long last beginning to focus on the referendum as more than a distraction, and that is an exciting development.

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2 thoughts on “A few thoughts on TV debates

  1. Pingback: The high concept of democracy | The Science of Independence

  2. Pingback: Euan’s Ramblings: collected for reference | The Science of Independence

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