PMQs

One of the BBC’s chief selling points is that it is, or endeavours to be, ‘impartial’.  In yesterday’s Guardian, however, its chairman (Richard Sharp) was quoted as saying that this wasn’t a selling point at all; that people didn’t really want impartiality in their news broadcasts, but rather ‘provocation and sensation’, leaning them towards ‘more entertaining partisan outlets such as Rupert Murdoch’s expected Talk-TV.’ On the letters page of the same issue of the Guardian there were appeals to Keir Starmer to dumb down Labour’s appeal to the electorate, replacing the ‘counternarrative to whatever the Tory project is’, couched in ‘the deadening language of abstraction’, with ‘the effective use of short phrases’ to win voters over. That’s the Tories’ way, after all; and look how well it’s done for them. The underlying assumption behind all this is that ‘the people’ are too – what? ignorant? uninterested? lazy? misled? stupid? (please don’t say that) – to be able to cope with ‘impartiality’ and rational argument; and hence to make sensible choices when it comes to elections and (yes) referenda.

All of which may seem to be corroborated – especially if you’re partisan – by surveys showing that the more highly educated in society were more likely to vote for Europe and the Left in 2017 and 2019, and the less educated for Brexit and the ‘populist’ Right. ‘Highly educated’ generally means more rational; unless of course your education was at a ‘Public’ school. (Knowing your Latin declensions doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bright.) For the others, spending most of your leisure time watching ‘entertainment’ reality shows and funny quizzes on the television doesn’t necessarily fit you for considering serious things, or in a serious way. Hence – perhaps – Boris’s popularity; originally founded on an amusing guest appearance on Have I Got News for You, and then on a single memorable catch phrase in the last General Election: ‘Get Brexit Done’. Nothing else that he’s achieved in his political, journalistic and personal lives should merit this support; but that doesn’t matter beside the ‘entertainment value’ he carries: for now.

This must be highly depressing for the Opposition. Keir Starmer is never likely to take on a ‘clown’ persona as naturally as Boris. He’s a lawyer, after all. (The only entertaining lawyer I’ve come across is ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, and he was a fictional one.) Labour have tried to find simple-minded slogans to rival the Tories’ advertising agents’. The best was probably ‘For the Many, Not the Few’, which undoubtedly caught on with the young; but not more generally in the face of the image drawn of Corbyn’s greyer seriousness. It’s also depressing, can I say, for ‘élitist’ academics like me, devoted to seriousness, and to its concomitants: truth, context, rationality, joined-up thought, and all those other things that are the very antitheses of ‘entertainment’ (although I do try to find places for a few jokes in my own books); and who may still be hopeful that some of these solider qualities might find their way into the national debate eventually – perhaps when our notoriously ‘unfree press’ has been liberated and cleansed.

Prime Minister’s Question Time in the House of Commons yesterday brought this home. PMQs is an almost unique feature of the British Parliamentary system, enabling ordinary MPs to quiz their chief minister on any public issue, to which he is supposed to respond intelligently and truthfully. With Boris this is never how it works out. Intelligent and indeed searching questions are put to him, by his own supporters as well as by the Opposition parties; only to be met by irrelevant waffling, cheap jibes and lies.

It was like this yesterday. It was as if Johnson thought he was on Have I Got News for You again. But we always knew he was like that. Even his supporters know it and accept it. Indeed, that was the really remarkable thing about yesterday’s performance: the way his backbenchers supported him to the hilt, ignoring the lies, laughing at his humorous put-downs (which are, it must be said, getting more and more predictable and hence less funny as the weeks go by); and raising the roof with their cacophonous shouting and whistling. (As usual; but worse than usual yesterday, it seemed, maybe because Boris had treated them all to a slap-up dinner – wine included – at the Ritz the evening before.)

Parliament is supposed to be a place of rational debate. It usually is, in its quieter moments. But what Tory backbenchers, and the people who tune into it on TV, mainly go for is the ‘provocation and sensation’ – ‘entertainment’ – it offers on occasions like this. The chairman of the BBC may be right. Which doesn’t, of course, mean that his great institution should give in to it. That way Fox News lies.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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3 Responses to PMQs

  1. Tony says:

    Political patronage appointments are being used egregiously by the government to impose its agenda, particularly in what it calls ‘the culture war’ and against ‘wokism’, Why else is a right columnist and GB (ie right wing) TV News broadcaster made a ‘trustee’ of the National Portrait Gallery, of which sixteen of the nineteen trustees are government appointees, and the same is true of all important cultural institutions. The Johnson govt has used its patronage more ruthlessly than almost any other to fight its invented culture wars and against ‘wokism’ as it belives it is a vote winner. I can’t believe it is but who knows these days with a toxic right wing press supporting it, and the BBC neutered.

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  2. mickc, you write, “But surely politics has always been more emotional than rational?” Later on, you write: “Competence is what people want from a Government.” These two statements are in conflict.
    I do not think it is possible any more to offer valid generalisations about ‘the people’s’ reasons for voting for one party over another.
    The electorates in the Anglophone nations are fragmented to a greater degree than at any previous time, along lines of class, ethnicity, religion, gender, culture, education and other factors I cannot think of at this moment. Each fragment has their own competing motives for their electoral choices.
    In the Red states of the US, manifestly incompetent Republican governors continue to be elected; and the witless Trump received a staggering 74 million votes in 2020. Johnson was elected in 2019 with an 80 seat majority brought about in part by working-class voters supporting policies that – when compared with what Corbyn was offering – promised to undermine their own social and economic interests.
    There is a semi-plausible view [derived from Thomas Frank’s The Wrecking Crew] that the Right, when in power in some settings, deliberately rules badly in order to destroy any faith the gullible might have had in the power of government to effect positive change. This misrule can be confidently pursued in the knowledge that it will not adversely affect the Right’s electoral fortunes. Boris Johnson’s rule seems to bear this out, in part, as, for example, the acute problems brought about by Brexit, the chaos in the NHS, and the gross mismanagement of the pandemic appear to be having no impact on his party’s overall popularity.

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  3. mickc says:

    But surely politics has always been more emotional than rational? After all, it is the way we are as creatures, and why those who are more rational than the norm are the exception, and become, for instance, professors of history.

    And you do seem to have a downer on Public Schools; some must be okay. Attlee was a product of, as you say, the most imperialistic public school but turned out rather well (as an aside, I like British Imperial, currently being read when I get the time, and yes it’s short and should have been finished at one sitting but getting undisturbed time can be difficult).

    And I’m not sure Johnson is popular. He is just more popular than Starmer which is not a high bar… ( the knighthood and comments to members of the public such as “I’ll take no lectures from the likes of you” don’t exactly class him as one who might understand the concerns of the average voter…). Competence is what people want from a Government and it simply isn’t there in this one, nor does Labour look any better.

    With regard to the BBC, I think many people get their news and information more from the internet than the tv, let alone the dead tree press. In reality, the BBC is a subscription service, presently a compulsory subscription but probably not compulsory for much longer. It will survive with little change even so.

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