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April 23, 2010

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Leaders’ Debate: Style and Substance – but is that really enough?

by quaesitor

2 down, 1 to go. I can honestly say I don’t know who won last night’s UK Leaders’ debate. All 3 did ok, it seems to me. And as the pundits never tired of telling us, no one had a knock-out blow.

I’m just not sure of the point of a knock-out blow… nor whether or not I want to see one.

The spinners were out in force – hailing Gordon’s substance and decrying Nick and Dave’s style. Or vice-versa. Or mutatis mutandis. And of course, that’s what TV is all about. And we’re told that TV debates are here to stay. Ok – fine. But what scares me is that they have become the primary tool for attracting floating voters – as the LibDem surge has proven. That only came about because of the 1st debate.

You see, style and substance are in fact both TV concerns – unlike argument or policy detail. A TV debate can only really be about point-scoring and ya-boo politics. When the spinners said their man was the man of substance (in contrast to the superficial quality of style), what they were really saying was that their man came across as the man of substance. Which is neither here nor there, and which is in fact equally superficial. They were all playing that game, which is either only going to consolidate their supporters or convince the waverers by the most convincing impression.

None of it actually tells you anything about how they’d cope in a real crisis, whether or not they’d start flinging telephones at staff, or what their real, underlying agenda is (other than that they want power). And even when they did get onto policy, each had no more than a short paragraph to make their case, followed by little more than a ‘you’re wrong, I’m right’. Frankly, I cringed when each of them flung cheap gibes about the ‘other two’ – especially Brown’s ‘kids in the bath’ gag. It just depended up on who was ganging up on whom at the time. And as my mother always used to tell me: Two’s Company, Three’s A Crowd.

I’m not a luddite – I don’t reject change by default. I’m just feeling rather depressed about the impact of these debates.

Neil Postman was a bit of a prophet of doom when it came to TV – but he was right far more often than he was wrong. And here he is spot on:

Stated in its simplest form, it is that television provides a new (or, possibly, restores an old) definition of truth: the credibility of the teller is the ultimate test of the truth of a proposition. ‘Credibility’ here does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigours of reality-testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness (choose one or more) conveyed by the actor/reporter.

If on television, credibility replaces reality as the decisive test of truth-telling, political leaders need not trouble themselves very much with reality provided that their performances consistently generate a sense of verisimilitude. I suspect, for example, that the dishonour that now shrouds Richard Nixon results not from the fact that he lied but that on television he looked like a liar. Which, if true, should bring no comfort to anyone, not even veteran Nixon-haters. For the alternative possibilities are that one may look like a liar but be telling the truth; or even worse, look like a truth-teller but in fact be lying.

(Amusing Ourselves to Death, Methuen, 1987 reprint, p103)

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