Political debates need a fresh approach

Political debates need a fresh approach Claire Byrne chaired one of the pre-election debates on RTÉ TV last week.

In the aftermath of the elections and referendum we can rejoice that we have so many chances to vote, but there are worrying signs for our democracy and the role of media.

I’ve never been a fan of RTÉ’s podium style debates (e.g. on last week’s Prime Time specials and Claire Byrne Live), but it’s getting particularly tiresome at this stage, with no sign of new and imaginative approaches.

At least in an election for President all candidates could participate to ensure an even playing field, but I felt there was something inherently unfair, in the debates for European Parliament candidates, about having some of them live in studio and some consigned to short video inputs. Yes it was a challenge, with so many candidates in the field, but it shouldn’t have been beyond the wit of media professionals to proceed in a much fairer way.

The short video segments were not impressive – many candidates were not relaxed, some looked shifty because they frequently looked sideways, possibly at a poorly placed autocue, some didn’t even give their names at the end, so if you missed the on-screen label at the start you wouldn’t even know who to vote for.

I was really taken aback listening to the Late Debate (RTÉ Radio 1) on Tuesday night of last week. Thomas Byrne TD (FF) was critical of the RTÉ debate format – “geared towards small parties and extreme views”… what? I thought it was established politicians that were getting the advantage.

Further, he thought some of their views shouldn’t be getting an airing – he instanced one candidate who was wary of the dangers of Wi-Fi. Believing that the science was on his side only, Byrne didn’t even want a contrary view aired, even for one minute. Presenter Sarah McInerney was also taken aback, standing up for the right of candidates to at least have their opinions heard – “it’s called freedom of speech”, she said.

Dubious state

I was further reminded of the dubious state of media and democracy when I came upon an item on Sky News (Wednesday night) about the current abortion controversy in Alabama. The interviewer gave tough interviews to a lone objector outside an abortion clinic, and to a politician who had supported the new restrictive law (he said it was designed to effect a challenge to the Roe vs Wade decision that effectively led to the legalisation of abortion nationwide in the US), but then gave a soft, palsy interview to an abortion provider in the clinic – this felt more like activism than journalism.

The ongoing Brexit crisis in the UK had me glued to the British news outlets since  the middle of last week. In the midst of the turmoil I liked the way Newsnight (BBC2) on the Wednesday took time off for a reflective interview with former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (it’s on YouTube). He was concerned about  the current polarisation, and thought people of opposing views should still get along, even without the need to compromise.

In public dispute, he thought people should show care and respect for their opponents (“dining with the opposition”). He lamented the individualistic “culture of prima donnas”. Now, he said, “anger and noise” prevailed, especially on social media, which was characterised by ‘sects of the like-minded’.

He thought many of the current crop of politicians were too immersed in politics – the best were those who cared about bigger things – he instanced Churchill winning the Nobel Prize for literature. (I wondered what he thinks about the comedian elected President in Ukraine).

He was a firm believer in democracy – “a profound political idea” – even when people thought the electorate were getting it wrong. He was worried about the rise of the far right, with its ‘politics of anger’ looking for victims and scapegoats. (The far left can play that game too, but the left leaning mainstream media often give them a free pass.)  Eventually, he thought, Brexit will be solved, by imagination or exhaustion. I hope it will be the former.

Finally, one could get more enthusiastic about Green Party successes in the elections if they were more inclusive in their ideological eco system.  On last Monday’s Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1) their leader Eamon Ryan said they wanted to “protect nature in every respect” – so why did they support removing basic rights from unborn children one year ago?

Pick of the week
RTÉ1, Sunday, June 2, 11am

Mass with the congregation of Music Ministry Together. The Music Director is Ian Callanan and the Celebrant is Fr Richard Purcell OCSO.

RTÉ1, Sunday (night), June 2, 1.35am

Last episode of impressive but problematic series, featuring a beautiful portrayal of First Communion day, and affirming presentation of priesthood.  Starring Seán Bean and Anna Friel.

EWTN, Wednesday, June 5, 11am

‘Why Liberalism Failed’ – University of Notre Dame Political Science Professor, Dr. Patrick Deneen, discusses the widening divide between faithful and secular people in America.