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The loser in the debates was the public – and not for the reasons you think

Posted on 27 March 2015 | 4:03pm

So after all the hype, the ads, the contorted build-up, the dozens of days of negotiations, the thousands of headlines, the millions of words of pre-match and post-match analysis, just over three million people bothered to tune in for the first ‘big debate’ agreed between the parties and the broadcasters. That is a shamingly low figure for all of us.

The kneejerk anti-politics line is to blame the politicians, to moan and groan and say none of them inspire, they’re all the same, nothing ever changes, blah blah blah, crap crap crap. People in politics might be tempted, as I am from time to time, and as Nick Clegg does in our interview for GQ next month, to blame the cumulative impact of years of relentlessly negative media coverage about politics and public life.

I’m afraid the time has come to throw a bit of blame at a public which on the one hand complains about disengagement and on the other hand cannot be arsed to get engaged if it means having to engage our own brains in something other than a soap opera, a reality TV show or a trivia quiz.

It is like the business people I speak to, including this morning, who shake their heads and say ‘why are there so few people in politics who have ever run a business?’ to which I now have a ready made, bluntly delivered reply. ‘Because people like you don’t want to do it. Because even though the money isn’t great,  you want to carry on saying MPs get paid too much and you could do a better job.’

As for the cumulative media impact, it is surely time to accept it has created a more dumbed down society many of whose members couldn’t care less what the only two people who might be Prime Minister after May 7 have to say to or about each other; but care passionately if offered a ‘vote’ in one of Simon Cowell’s productions, and care so much about the fate of Jeremy Clarkson that they march on the BBC, sign petitions in their hundreds of thousands to keep him on Top Gear and have the Prime Minister feeling he has to rush to their side. We are becoming a demeaned and diminished country by this sort of nonsense, and it is driven by a combination of public, media and politicians – in that order.

Moving around various parts of the country today, most people seemed to be aware the programme had happened, many I met had seen it, but many I met had not.

Fine. People lead busy lives. There are lots of pressures on time. But I do think all of us have a responsibility to inform ourselves and to be engaged in a debate as important as the one that ends in a general election. If people feel they don’t understand the issues, they need to start doing a bit of thinking of their own. And if people feel not voting makes no difference, let’s see how they feel when they wake up one day and find millions of people thought the same, but a few million others didn’t, and voted to elect a bunch of extremists.

I am developing something close to contempt for otherwise rational, often well-educated, well-heeled people who say things like this – that they would like to see Boris Johnson as Prime Minister because ‘he makes me laugh,’ – elect a comedian then …. or they will vote for Nigel Farage because ‘he likes a pint and a fag’ … let’s elect a drunk, shall we? …. or that there is no difference between the parties when you just had to watch five minutes of last night to see what utter nonsense that is.

David Cameron did democracy a disservice in refusing to have head to head debates with Ed Miliband. The broadcasters did democracy a disservice by handling the negotiations in a way that allowed Cameron to wriggle out of them. And what’s more they should all be on terrestrial television, not part of some commercial broadcaster power struggle, with Kay Burley weaving in Sky App plugs as she goes.

As for the programme, I freely admit my bias. I am Labour. I don’t like David Cameron very much and I think he is not a good leader of our country. I do like Ed Miliband and I think he could be a good leader of our country if he gets the chance. I think he did a better job of showing last night what he stands for and what he would do than David Cameron did of defending what he has done in a first term or explaining what he wants to do in a second.

In normal circumstances, that would cheer me greatly. But I find little cheer in the way so many millions seem to think it didn’t really matter much at all.

Ps. A final thought, and another whack at the media if I may, over coverage of the tragedy of the German plane which crashed in France. Many people with depression are capable of doing difficult jobs despite their illness, including flying aeroplanes, or leading troops in battle, or doing operations in hospitals, or protecting our streets, or even, dare I suggest, editing newspapers. Headlines today have reduced this tragedy to a very simple notion – that anyone with a history of depression has no place doing a job that involves looking after other people. It is as backward a view as it is possible to imagine, and underlines just how far we have to to go in breaking down centuries of taboo and stigma surrounding mental illness. The editors of the Mail – no surprise there then – the Sun and the Express should be ashamed.

  • Jean Hill

    Enjoyed reading this: and it explains why no-one seems distressed by sanctions and food banks, except the people involved, those badly affected, who sometimes fall off the edge. I don’t really understand why news items aren’t explored in any great depth. No-one questions why unemployment figures keep going down, must be the miracle of new jobs obviously. Maybe not. There’s nearly a million who’ve been sanctioned, they don’t appear in figures whilst sanctioned, and some of those don’t get jobs, but stop signing on. Those on Workfare, famous for not finding people jobs, don’t appear either. Nor do those on Universal Credit. I think Ed Miliband presented last night as himself, and convinced that he is committed to a fairer society, and managed to convey some of his core beliefs, against all the odds. Cameron, looked edgy and insubstantial, and isn’t able to defend his record, when he’s up against somewhat ‘hostile’ questioning. This is our future, and more importantly our children’s future, so we should be totally engaged in the process of choosing the best party and leader for the best possible future.

  • georgewoodhouse

    Bearing in mind that Cam is in power and Ed is trying to get there – I didn’t think there was much to choose between them. Ed seemed initially cowed by Paxo, whereas Cam wasn’t. But Ed did bounce back went on the attack. The trouble is all this dancing around stopped any real discussion that the public could use to make decisions on who to vote for.
    Kay added nothing to the debate and was almost embarrassing to watch. Paxo, I thought, was overbearing and behaved like an arrogant headmaster who wanted to be the centre of attention. A pretty dismal affair all in all.

  • ZacMurdoch

    Well, I did watch the programme, AC, and found it riveting. But then I am a bit obsessed by politics, I guess. I’m not a fan of Ed Mili and have always thought David would have done a better job – but Ed performed pretty well last night, and I guess you’re happy with the move towards him by the undecided. I didn’t like the distancing from the Blair years, but recognise the rationale for it electorally.
    I thought I detected a bit of AC training when Paxman trotted out the attack line on the SNP (‘don’t be so presumptuous, Jeremy – it’s up to the people – you’re important but not that important), which was funny – and I especially liked the bit at the end when patronising old Paxman sneered ‘Are you all right?’ and Ed said ‘yes, are you?’ – priceless. For what it’s worth, I think Paxman gave Cameron an unexpectedly hard time, and also that Ed handled all the personal stuff well – definitely human.
    Your points above make a lot of sense, and I wonder how long we can continue in this neverland. It’s not just the ‘all the same, all in it for themselves’ stuff that puts people off becoming politicians, but the unremitting and often unfair media scrutiny of private lives and family. I also think the tribalism – always having to agree with the party line even when you don’t, or it’s ridiculous – puts off a lot of sensible people who have had good careers and a lot to contribute.

  • anna

    I didn’t watch the debate because I dislike Jeremy Paxman’s interviewing technique in which he has become a parody of himself.

    Politicians deserve to be asked tough questions; but Paxman often begins with a gratuitously offensive and loaded question or remark designed to unsettle the interviewee rather than to explore his opinions and policies. Even politicians may be excused for being thrown off balance by aggressive interviewer; and such an approach can be counterproductive. A less confrontational approach can often be more illuminating and informative. I am thinking of Brian Walden who was incisive and penetrating but never rude; and of the late, lamented Nick Clark of the World at One, whose legendary courtesy was more effective in getting to the truth than Paxman’s bluster.

    Re: the tragic air accident. Of course many people learn to manage their depression and can often work while dealing with it. But it is clear that this young man was suffering an acute episode and had been assessed by doctors as unfit for work. Some depressives are driven to suicide; but we need to place greater emphasis on the proven evidence that it is one of the mental illnesses that responds to careful treatment.

  • Gillian C.

    What a great blog post AC. Full of passion and dare I say some anger too. I watched the Sky programme last night. The Q and A session. No substitute for a one to one debate between the two party leaders who really matter.

    I think you’re correct when you lay some blame with the media, which was something I also mentioned in a post on the previous blog page.

    The public also have been dumbed down to an alarming extent. Who or what is to blame for this is debatable.

    As for the reaction from the press to the plane crash, sadly all too predictable. Who would have thought we would still be getting 18th century reactions in the 21st century.

  • Geedon Bruce

    I don’t think I’ve ever read an article before where I’ve agreed with every sub-clause in every sentence, never mind every sentence. My only criticism – and it is a small one – is that you didn’t shed a light on one of the biggest causes of voter disengagement, or as I’d prefer to call it, their sheer bloody ignorance: the complete failure of our schools to provide our young people with a political education (I speak as someone who has had experience of secondary education for over 30 years). Our schools have become excellent at churning out students who can pass exams with high grades – because teachers work themselves to the verge of nervous breakdowns & kids ditto – but they emerge into the beginning of adulthood in a state of profound ignorance of politics and current affairs. Small wonder then that they find Simon Cowell more interesting and relevant than Ed Miliband.

  • Dave Simons

    There is a life outside politics and most people, including me, don’t want to be politicians or spend too much time attending meetings and getting involved in campaigns. But that said, I agree entirely with everything AC says in the above rant. I don’t think the UK is democratic enough, but for a lot of its citizens there is too much democracy. They just want some bunch of celebrities and pop stars – like ‘Adolf and the Stormtroopers’ – to sort them out and absolve them from having to think. We are creating a dumbed-down, yobbish society with a lazy-minded population that ‘thinks’ that the toilets will always flush, the supermarket shelves will always be fully-stocked, the lights will always come on and there is nothing wrong with crossing a busy road or driving a car whilst tapping and scrolling on a small screen. Truly we get the politicians and media that we derserve.
    I did watch the Cameron/Miliband programme and they both made me wince! I thought – surely Jim Callaghan, Harold Wilson and even ‘Grocer’ Heath would have stood up to Paxman better. Baldwin’s expression, ‘Power without responsibilty’, would have been something to throw at the latter.

    • Michele

      I’m afraid I missed the broadcast and don’t have the IT to have recorded it – could make an effort to find it on t’net but I’ve really not missed Paxo since he left Newsnight. He did sometimes make me snigger but I hate sniggerers.
      What you say about people not understanding their society’s infrastructure is so true; perhaps everyone should have to spend a few months in places without one.
      I’ve done it often and oh my ….. the joy of water you can trust, not to mention a flushing loo!!!

  • Michele

    It would be interesting to know what support this pilot received from his employers and whether, when he was off work his medical certification was open and honest.

    As a strong supporter of the very existence of CRB checks in the UK, having been shocked to the core by stuff that happened before they were introduced here, we need to know what support this pilot received from Lufthansa during his sick leave and afterwards.

  • Michele
  • Janet Edwards

    It’s hard to question any of your comments here although I am genuinely uncertain who should come first in the chicken and egg argument. Yes the public are at fault for not engaging with issues and taking politics more seriously, but so too are the media for abandoning their duty to inform the public. We rarely get comprehensive, factual information from journalists, who are far more interested in presenting only selected aspects of any issue, heavily laden with their own opinions and prejudice. Is it any wonder many, or perhaps most the public can’t see the wood for the trees?

    Worst of all, voters are given a narrative to explain and excuse their disinterest and lack of understanding, ‘what’s the point’ they’re all the same’, ‘in it for themselves’ etc. Negative views of politics and politicians are enforced frequently in almost all our print media and increasingly, by broadcasters too. Frequently repeated assertions, as any advertiser knows, are absorbed by most their target audience. Our media shapes the public mood, it doesn’t reflect it. This anti-politics atmosphere favours the political right far more than the left as it serves to disenfranchise the very people whose only power is in the ballot box. It is no surprise there is no momentum in our right-wing media for change.

    If there is to be any improvement it has to come from a left leaning government motivated by a genuine concern for the quality of our democracy. Votes at sixteen is a good move because an appreciation of the political process will become part of a normal education. Hopefully schools will simulate political debate with issues and underpinning political principles being aired as a result. I see no reason why voter registration shouldn’t become an automatic process at age sixteen, akin to the issuing of a NI number. There is scope to beef up the BBC’s responsibility for ensuring voters have access to comprehensive coverage of political issues, with a duty to link appropriate news reports with and their own Democracy Live coverage. Maybe a future government will be strong enough to introduce compulsory voting to emphasize the duty we all have to take our democracy seriously.

    Ed Miliband’s idea of a people’s question time is promising but if it is to work, the ONLY role, if any, for TV presenters should be the impartial chairing of proceedings. Otherwise we will just get more ridiculous bacon butty, North London Geek and three Shredded Wheat nonsense. God help us, we deserve better than that.

  • Ehtch

    I went into emergency shutdown with Paxo and so’s. God, what a pile of rubbish. Hot air over our sound waves. Words are cheap, actions are expensive. Some Euro dance, as one does, feat. my veterinarian great mate from Texas, Mary, Ali, as I do… ; )

    As for the latest tragic aircraft accident – bizarre! I can’t believe with a load of passengers to look after he had some sort of brain fart like that. Hope the truth can be discovered. We are having too many of these peculiar accidents. That Swedish footie team missed it by chance, two great opera singers not. : (

  • teresa

    I hold Thatcher directly responsible for most of your issues with the public, Mr Campbell. I’ve just discovered your blog re a friend’s link to your warm and rather beautiful eulogy for Charles Kennedy. I wonder whether those who have lived and worked so close to the heart of political life, rather like academics, become too cloistered, or at least blinkered in comparison to those living beyond those walls. It is almost inevitable for anyone wherever they live and work, I’m not aiming to criticise, just understand why you, so warm, intelligent, compassionate and humane when you talk of a wonderful friend who I feel reflected your own values and who will have said, I’m sure, the same about you, have not been able to see that the people you speak of, are the product of Thatcher’s aim to destroy society. ‘There is no such thing as society’ she said. And those you speak of are the product of that. Sadly TB continued, although tempered, and Cameron has all but succeeded – all, yes, with the Murdoch press at their side – in creating a generation of people who have little idea of all they have lost, so will have to fight all over again if they ever become so desperate en masse to see they have to demand change. For now, though, those falling down are largely unseen and unheard. Very little in the press about them. Thatcher destroyed the Unions when negotiation was needed. A strong hand was needed, yes, and she had that, but used it to destroy rather than mould and create something better. Neither extreme can ever hope to be sustainable. We lurched from extreme left to extreme right and then centre right with TB and each shift cost billions, government forgetting that it was their duty to put right what was wrong in each sector, not sell it off so the public were put at the mercy of the greed and corruption privatisation brought. I do blame the militants for opening the door to Thatcher. Doesn’t say she isn’t responsible for what she did though. The waste of resources, the hard earned taxes paid to build them sold off, in all the privatisations alone still grieves me, it continues at a terrible pace. I worked in the NHS for 25 years and saw exactly what she did and how she achieved it, The business managers, paid a senior nurse’s years salary for every one they got rid of, all by foul means, never fair. Many, and most of the best, ones left in droves, 17 a week over several years. Skill mix achieved: 2 trained to 5 untrained rather than the other way round, and that was around 1992. I do not know how the NHS has survived at all – well, yes i do, it is through the dedication of those who killed themselves to maintain standards and a proper level of care. I struggled on, in a CMHT, Brighton and Hove, until 2002, when I cracked, attempted suicide in despair because i felt i couldn’t do my job. I was in a clinic for three months and have never been able to return to work. Anyway, I’ve seen the erosion of everything I loved and valued in this country, much of it anyway, and see the society we have now as a reflection of the values Thatcher spawned. Community, cohesion, caring gone, at least beyond the sense of family. The politics which fosters greed and ignores need is not sustainable long term. The destruction she began, which Blair in some respects continued [the best night of my life when he got in, the worst disillusion of my life when he failed to honour that joy] and now Cameron, having conned just enough people to get him back in, can continue with yes, their sociopathic drive to kill off all that is left of society. This is truly an Orwellian nightmare. There are always signs that hope is not dead. But I doubt I will see a just society again in my lifetime. That fills me with deep sadness.