I don’t very often rage at the telly: living-room rage is even worse for the heart than its road equivalent. This is mostly because there are far more opportunities for outrage coming from the goggle-box than anything my fellow motorists ever do.
Last night, however, I had a little tantrum at an incident broadcast on ITV as part of their flagship political debate programme “The Agenda” (Monday 5th March 10:35pm), hosted by the affable Tom Bradby. The guests were Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, journalist Rachel Sylvester, and businessman Lord Digby Jones and the point at issue was a discussion about female representation in the Cabinet.
Frostrup made the perfectly reasonable point that there are more millionaires in the cabinet than women, but Digby Jones turned on her and demanded to know what was wrong with there being millionaires in the cabinet. It was one of those car crash moments where a hardened debater meets a member of the chattering classes and completely cold cocks them. Frostrup was dumbstruck and Digby Jones smiled a smug, corpulent smile then pressed his attack. Again and again.
Why the normally intelligent and perceptive broadcaster didn’t just point out that his question was completely irrelevant because her point was not about millionaires being in the cabinet (although the desirability of that DOES have to be questioned), but rather it was about there being too few women, I really don’t know. The comparison isn’t necessarily an unreasonable one: millionaires are few in number as social groupings go, and there are lots and lots of women, but their representation in Parliament is ridiculously small. Women are the biggest single group in society, millionaires are one of the smallest, yet they make up the majority of the cabinet. This, to me, is a fair comparison and does not denigrate millionaires.
So, why didn’t Frostrup rip Digby Jones a new one? The answer is, of course, because she isn’t a seasoned debater and he is, because she isn’t a politician and he is. This calls into question the value of having “celebrities” mixing it with politicians and demonstrates the pointlessness of it all. Digby Jones’s intervention was fatuous, made absolutely no sense whatsoever and really only served to reinforce the position that rich, white males have a God-given right to make the rules and govern us with impunity.
The truth is, the cabinet is too male and too pale, but because Digby Jones was allowed to get away with his diversion of “what’s wrong with having millionaires in the cabinet?”, instead of addressing the central point “what’s right about having so few women in the cabinet?”, the casual viewer may well be left with the impression that the Digby Jones had made a telling point, which any deeper analysis would reveal he had not. What he had done is create a diversion, so he could present a practiced argument, by pretending Frostrup had said something she clearly hadn’t – this is known as a “Straw Man” argument, but the host and presenter didn’t pick it up.
This drives me nuts and is symptomatic of the shallow nature of TV political debate. In any sensible programme structure, the host would have stopped Digby Jones in his tracks once Frostrup had failed to do so and given him the rogering he so richly deserved for being irrelevant, but the ever so nice Bradby just smiled vacantly and let him get away with it. If they, meaning the programme makers, are going to set the bar this low, then they may as well go all the way and allow wholesale insults, because they are just as relevant as the point made by Digby Jones and thousands of pundits just like him across the spectrum of TV political debate.
Besides, wouldn’t it have been great if Frostrup had turned to him just said, “Shut it, fatty – you’re talking through your arse”? Well, no it wouldn’t, but I’m sure you get my point and while it might seem a small and petty point, it is one that is repeated endlessly throughout the political debates taking place across the world. The net effect is reasonable points are shouted down with irrelevancies, mostly because that’s the game TV plays. AND that is detrimental to democracy.