Friday, 20 January 2012

So THAT's what happened to the public intellectuals

A few weeks ago, I posted a long and quite diffuse piece on the declining prominence of public intellectuals: leading thinkers who used the mass media to introduce a degree of thoughtfulness and complexity into public debates. It got republished by the LSE Impact site, and by an American site too, so clearly it's not just me.

I was thinking about it again last night, having decided for some reason to watch the BBC's Question Time programme, in which political and public figures are invited to respond to current affairs questions from the general public. It's the TV version of BBC Radio 4's Any Questions?, which also has an unlistenably reactionary phone-in element, Any Answers?, the nearest this country gets to Alabama.

The shows have a long and arguably proud history, but they're also at the heart of the problem.  The format of several politicians plus a couple of 'colourful' or eccentric celebrities lends itself to propaganda and demagoguery: the pressure to be entertaining leads to the selection of controversialists who have media careers to push, while the politicians have become less and less thoughtful. 24 news, media monitoring and a hysterical press means that any politician on the show is forced to remain robotically 'on-message', parroting the briefing of the party's communications team. Individuality, ambiguity and indifference are in short supply. Last night's episode featured Baroness Warsi, a Tory who couldn't get an MPs seat because a) she's quite stupid and b) the Tory party is still very racist, and Stephen Twigg, a former New Labour MP. Neither of them had a single intelligent thing to say, because they were obsessed with repeating their party's 'talking points': Twigg was dull, while Warsi wheeled out inappropriate and unoriginal attack lines because she was incapable of responding to questions in an individual and flexible fashion. The other two guests were Charles Moore, a conservative but quite interesting journalist, and Germaine Greer, exactly the kind of media star picked for her predictably 'outrageous' opinions. Only Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, was intelligent, responsive and measured - which led to Baroness Warsi denouncing her for not being an imperialist. To see the daughter of Pakistani immigrants proclaiming her love for the British Empire was shocking - a triumph of ambition and ideological inflexibility over intelligence.

Rather than take the Douglas Adams approach occasionally ('I refuse to answer the question on the grounds that I don't know the answer', he once said), panellists feel they have to have a definitive response to everything.

Shows like this act as gatekeepers of public opinion. Germaine Greer should understand that she's there not for her media-friendly intellect, but to give the audience a little frisson - ooh, isn't she outrageous with her slightly wacky ideas? The show exists to maintain the dominance of a narrow version of political and intellectual life: the BBC's apology for not editing the 9/11 edition, in which the public expressed harsher opinions than politicians was incredibly high-handed, while the Nick Griffin episode was used not as an opportunity to expose his views as laughable, but for all sorts of celebrities to hold their noses and grab hold of the high ground. I also think that shows like this are dangerous because they imply some sort of accessibility and accountability. Politicians show up, run the risk of being booed sometimes, and feel they've 'faced' the public. It's fraudulent: they're exhaustively briefed on the party line, and their job is to make this preheated pap sound like their own opinions. If they get away with it, they report back to HQ that 'the line' has been propagated: there's no chance that they get back into the limo and ponder another panellist's ideas, or - heaven forbid - something an audience member said. The show looks like 'citizens' two cents' but it's actually a thinly-disguised propaganda outlet.

Question Time is the victim of political and celebrity culture. It's fallen into the trap of believing that everything is a party-political issue requiring representation - this leads only to the robotic utterances of Twigg, Warsi and their colleagues - while restricting discourse to a narrow field by adding a couple of guests by whom we're meant to be outraged or thrilled at their zaniness - Caroline Lucas manages to escape this trap by being hugely intelligent, whereas Greer and people like Alex James don't. Guests who don't take the same discursive approach, who don't accept the playing field set by the party politicians and received opinion are there to be laughed at or reviled - maintaining cultural and political hegemony by excluding whole swathes of opinion rather than examining them. Cannier guests - and I'd very much place Germaine Greer in this category - work out exactly what's wanted of them. She's tailored her 'product', or become a 'brand'. Having started out as a glorious radical feminist who made a huge difference to public culture, she is now a professional celebrity, reliably wheeling out slightly wacky opinions and good personalised putdowns: she adds the appearance of edgy radicalism while making no serious contribution to moving the goalposts away from the mainstream game. She's 'colour' rather than a threat to consensus. She knows this - it's how she makes her living.

Here's one of the most awful episodes: unelected Lord Adonis and Baroness Williams, Tory know-nothing loan-shark advertiser Carol Vorderman, comedy politician Boris Johnson and (thank Christ) Will Self, a man who eats morons for breakfast, though even he isn't immune from the 'opinions for money' syndrome.

Excerpts from the 9/11 episode:

What would I like? More boring guests. Experts. People who don't see an appearance as the route to occasional gigs on News 24 and a column in GQ or the Guardian if they manage to crack out a couple of zingers. People who don't feel the need to frame every question within the paradigm of party politics or triangulation. People whose careers don't depend on repeating a party line in the hope of preferment. People who introduce subordinate clauses to their answers and don't depend on audience applause for validation. People who aren't afraid to say that a question is complicated, difficult or even not worth discussing.

It's not likely to happen. The combination of rolling news (which creates vast swathes of space and time looking for something to fill it) and the gotcha politics of parties with no real ideological differences means that politicians in particular are terrified of saying anything which might give the opposition the chance to attack them for five minutes on Sky News. The cardinal sins in our public discourse are doubt and delay. A politician - or anyone else in the public eye - who says 'I'll need to think about that' is automatically painted as incompetent or untrustworthy. Egg donation? Libya? CDOs? Bankers' bonuses? Steve Jobs? Scottish independence? You've got to churn out the opinions without ever being given the time to research and ponder. (And yes, I know that's a little cheeky given that I'm a blogger).

Lest you think I'm feeling sorry for the politicians, I'm not. It's their fault. The determination to sound decisive and certain on every single event and issue communicates a contempt for the citizens. They've decided that we're all morons, and that we want and believe in the possibility of absolute conviction. We've been trained to belief that uncertainty = weakness, that any politician who doesn't have a snappy answer is out of his or her depth. I don't think that's true: in our own lives we're capable of holding multiple, contradictory or temporary opinions. In my profession, ambiguity and complexity are the highest virtues of contemporary literary studies. So why should we expect our politicians to hold the key to the Ultimate Questions? It's because we've been trained to assume that speed and simplicity of response equates to intelligence.

New Labour was the classic example. An élite group of highly-educated people from private schools, Oxbridge and political careers (very few of them were working class or had ever held jobs outside politics), they were fed the idea that the voters were angry, dumb and often racist. Rather than work out whether this was true, try to change opinions if so, or even meet some of these people, New Labour decided to pander to these perceived questions. It's hard to imagine now, but political communication relied on incredibly simplistic messages (pledge cards, sentences without verbs promising happy families or reduced immigration), while the serious politics (deregulation, interest rates, complicated diplomacy) was hidden away - too boring and complicated for the voters. Now, we're all experts in credit default swaps, bond markets and the intricacies of Syrian opposition groups (aren't we?), but our politicians haven't caught up: they're still treating us like hyperactive children to be pacified until our attention span means something shinier catches our collective eyes.

OK, I've strayed somewhat from my main point. Question Time isn't the cause of political cynicism, celebrity vacuity and the restriction of political discourse to an elite version of 'mainstream' - but it's symptomatic of a degraded and exhausted public sphere.

No comments: