» debate ¦ What You Can Get Away With

There used to be a set procedure for discussing a leaders’ debate in General Elections: the leader of the opposition would propose it a couple of months before the election, the Prime Minister would say nothing but their spokespeople would umm and ahh over it, the leader(s) of the third party would then chime in and demand to be involved, various possible conditions for a debate that no one could agree on would be floated around, and then the whole idea would just wither away as the election campaign itself took over the headlines.

Now, it seems that we’re actually going to get not just one, but three, with Brown, Cameron and Clegg involved in all of them. Given that Sky have pledged to ‘empty chair’ anyone who doesn’t want a debate, and that the three broadcasters have agreed to co-operate on this, it’s hard to see how anyone can get out of it now that it has a momentum.

So now, I find myself wondering what they’ll be like. Someone at ITV is probably trying to work out if there’s a way to get Cheryl Cole and/or Simon Cowell as the moderator for their debate, while I also expect that someone at the BBC is hard at work on a way to involve Twitter, Facebook and whatever internet fad emerges over the next six months in the process as part of their usual down-with-the-kids attempt to look ‘relevant’. As his contract seems to require him to appear on every BBC programme at some point, I wouldn’t rule out John Barrowman as the moderator either.

In fact, it might well be Sky that stage the most traditional and ‘dull’ debate, with Adam Boulton asking carefully neutral questions, while the three leaders stand behind their podiums to answer. They’ve got their triumph by making these debates happen, and Sky One/Sky News is guaranteed one of its largest ever audiences, with no need for gimmicks. They get bracketed as one of the UK’s key broadcasters alongside the BBC and ITV, clips from their debate (with their logo stuck on) will get shown on the news and in the papers regardless of what they do, so why take risks? Leave that to the others, and instead just sit back and enjoy the ratings.

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Last night I was going to write about my two cents in the latest spat between Charlotte Gore and James Graham but managed to get distracted from doing that when I noticed a rather inflammatory-titled post on Liberal Vision.

Of course, what you see there now isn’t quite the same – or quite as inflammatory – as I saw last night. Yes, the doughty defenders of freedom and free speech have no problems with censoring themselves, refusing to admit they’ve done anything wrong and calling anyone who points this out a bully. It’s an interesting debating tactic, but not one that really helps to push the debate forward – but then, when your attempt to weigh in on the great Twitter NHS storm has embarrassingly stalled, I guess you try another tactic.

But, this does help to highlight some of the issues of online discussion, debate and freedom of speech that have been highlighted by Charlotte and James’ exchange – and no, I’m not just talking about Godwin’s Law.

During my time away from regular blogging, one way I filled my time online was posting on the Doctor Who forum now known as Gallifrey Base. (Yes, this will be relevant, bear with me) Now, for those of you who aren’t Liberal Democrats don’t know the intricacies of Doctor Who fandom, it contains a small yet exceedingly vocal minority who despise head writer/executive producer Russell T Davies who like to continually remind people of their disdain for him and his work. The pattern of discussion was predictable after a while – an initial post disparaging Davies, usually containing some combination of the terms ‘gay agenda’, ‘soap opera’ and ‘deus ex machina’, a large number of replies to that original post pointing out ways in which it was wrong, and then either the original poster or one of the other objectors chiming in with ‘obviously, you’re not allowed to dislike Davies here’ before going off in a huff.

In the words of the late Anthony Wilson: ‘You’re entitled to an opinion, but your opinion is shit.’ You can say whatever you want, but you have to accept that freedom extends to everyone else, and they can say whatever they want about what you’ve said. Pointing out that someone’s talking rubbish isn’t bullying them, silencing them or restricting them in any way – criticism is a consequence of free speech. Yes, maybe it would be good if all debates could be polite and respectful, living up to the senatorial archetype, but sometimes saying ‘now that’s just silly’ is all that’s required.

As James points out, many of the debating tactics of the right – especially a certain fringe within the Liberal Democrats – forget this in the same way as the anti-Davies fringe in Doctor Who fandom do. (Though to be fair, it’s not solely limited to the right) Debate involves people disagreeing with each other, and sometimes that disagreement might not be as eloquent, detailed or constructive as you might wish – but when you feel it’s OK to refer to your opponents as ‘evil’, ‘deluded’ or ‘Nazis’, don’t be surprised when they do something similar back to you. If you want something better, lead by example.

However, that doesn’t mean I don’t agree with the main thrust of Charlotte’s post:

We say, hey! Politicians! Stop being puppets and say what you really think! Then, if we find a politician stupid enough to listen we lynch them for it.

(Disclaimer: I say that as a politician who knows that one day a bored journalist with space to fill is going to find this blog and take all sort of out of context quotes from it)

However, I don’t think it’s some purely British situation – look at how Obama, Clinton, McCain et al spent most of last year talking in the blandest platitudes possible to avoid giving fresh meat to those who’d tear a mistaken word apart. What may be particularly British is the way parties are conceived of here – the moment a politician says something that diverts slightly from the party orthodoxy, the media are instantly calling it a split or a feud and demanding that the party leadership clarify their position and wondering what they’ll do about the supposed ‘maverick’. Then they wonder why no one wants to join political parties anymore…

In conclusion, then: I’m right, you’re wrong, and I hate you all.

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