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Our national debate risks reducing us to a national joke

Posted on 25 March 2015 | 8:03am

To the Canadian High Commission yesterday to chair a very enjoyable Portland seminar on digital diplomacy. One of the panellists was former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer, who is now High Commissioner to London.
Amid the social media enthusiasts he brought a few words of warning, not least his view that twitter in particular risked wasting an awful lot of diplomats’ time – especially when they do it badly – but also that the content was too often ‘a triumph for banality.’

He admitted he spent too much time on social media himself, could not understand why anyone would care to see a picture of him ‘hosting an arts reception at Australia House’, and was hilariously, undiplomatically scathing about the tweets of Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General. ‘Met President of Ruritania.’ How about, suggested Downer, ‘met President of Ruritania and told him to pull his socks up and sort the problem.’

Away from the audience of diplomats, think tanks and media, he and I continued the conversation in a different vein – about the media landscape more generally. This is a man who knows Britain and the world well. He was foreign minister of Australia for longer than Tony Blair was PM of the UK. He has been to our country many many times and now lives and works here.

And he was acutely analytical – and even more scathing – about the nature of our political debate. He said – and I suspect many Brits would agree with him – that he cannot understand how issues like bacon sandwiches and kitchens can get so much coverage, yet issues that really need serious debate do not. From hacks to headline writers, columnists to editors, the trivial always seems to win out.

We agreed that most countries have seen a change in the way politics is done, debated and covered. But we also agreed that Britain is out on its own in the way the debate is trivialised. ‘My impression is that you don’t really have big debates here,’ he said. ‘At least not as reflected through the media.’

We agreed on something else – that when people like him have noticed the change, and when a media as loud and voracious as ours fails genuinely to ventilate issues of public concern in a way that holds the public’s attention – it damages us.

And we agreed also that it is always too easy just to blame media and politicians. The public have to accept responsibility too. For not wanting to engage in debate. For finding it easier to say ‘they’re all the same,’ (of course they’re not) ‘nothing ever changes’ (the world is changing faster than ever) or ‘my vote won’t make a difference’ (so how come seats and councils and governments change hands all the time?)

The event as a whole, with experts from the world of social media, comms and diplomacy, was pretty upbeat about social media, if not about how governments use it compared with those who do it well. But it was Downer’s observations that stuck with me through the day and into this morning.

We have had an pre-election campaign so far dominated by TV debates that aren’t happening, Ed’s kitchen and now Dave’s future when the election ought to be about issues facing the country’s future. Oh, and whether Dave’s daughter is or isn’t on hunger strike for Jeremy Clarkson, whose survival appears to be of more interest to petition signers than the survival, say, of the NHS, or Britain’s place in Europe.

It is a bit of a mess frankly. And if it goes on in the same fashion much longer, the message from thinking people like Downer is that we risk becoming something of a national joke.

Politics, media and public all have to accept some of the responsibility for how we got here (as I do – briefly admittedly, in WINNERS, lamenting some of the popular media moves we made) But we all also have to take some responsibility for how we get out of it. The public get something close to the media they want. And that is helping to deliver politics they don’t want.

  • Gillian C.

    I think the msm deserves most of the blame for the banality of what passes for political debate these days. TV news channels in particular.
    In the absence of much in the way of real news, they fill the space with 24hr rolling bollox.

  • Michele

    Grant Shapps is now doing what William Hague did a few weeks ago – talking about ‘paying down the deficit’ (or have I got things wrong?).

    It sounds as if he’s promising they’re tackling National Debt.

    You control and reduce the deficit, that which it is planned to be
    borrowed and spent to meet future budget commitments without adding too much to existing debt.
    Doing that is not ‘paying down’.

    I understand debt to be referring to already-incurred borrowings (that which, far from paying down, so many experts are saying has actually doubled in the past 5yrs)

    They need to be clearer about what they actually plan to do, they are supposed to be making promises and commitments that mean something not obfuscatinginginging with swanky jargon.

  • reaguns

    Not got enough time but can’t not make this comment – it is a bit rich New Labour people talking about the paucity of our national debate, when their (very successful) thought police, of which Alastair was part, succeeded in shutting down democratic debate on many an issue.

    Many a leftie / old labour person was shut out of debate for example. They were deemed “not serious”.

    Anyone who wanted to talk about immigration, or question immigration or the EU was shut out of debate.

    And ps, I am pro-immigration (though anti-EU).

    • Michele

      Got proof of how people were shut out (never mind that anyone was quantified as ‘not serious’)? Were you there?

      • reaguns

        It’s common knowledge. If you think otherwise then you too are “not serious”.*

        * “Not serious” is the moniker Campbell and Blair used to apply to anyone in Labour who came to them demanding some action on a serious issue, rather than went along with “the message” or “the line to take”.

        • Michele

          So what did these victims of being deemed ‘not serious’ do in response?
          Roll over?

  • gilbertratchet

    You might have asked Downer how he lost the position of being leader of the Liberal party 20 years ago. “The Things That Batter” was just as trivial as a bacon sandwich.

    • Michele

      Erm, you sound as batty as I usually do :-s

      However, back to the reason for my being online at all, there I’ve been for the past ten days or so yaddering on and on hereabouts re the sneaky blinder pulled by the coalishon when they killed off the possibility of a NCV during their sertting up of 5yr fixed-terms for their own contracts of employment (not for the whole nation though eh?).
      AND (tsk, wrong word to start a sentence but I’m in shock!) not for the HoC Speaker either.
      What a bunch of spiteful venomous hypocritical ****s they are.

  • Ehtch

    I optimistically said it might reach £1.4trill, but looks by May 7 it will scream past £1.5trill. What posh amateurs! When you have too much money to start off with when born, what do you expect from such people on how to do economising?

  • Michele

    Can we really blame normal people for the topics that form the so-called national debate?

    There are certainly some who know just how the system works and simply throw a bone out to the media in general and sit back lol-ling as it gets gnawed.
    One such who knows the ropes is Sarah Vine aka Mrs Gove, who caused a big noise last week about not fancying ‘sapper’ with the Milibands. I wonder if she got a bonus from t’office?

    I’m sure Mrs Gove would not like sapper with me either and I could really have enjoyed knowing nothing about her spoutings even though I don’t buy rags but do listen to radio and get the rags’ drivel second hand.