As usual on my long early morning drives, I was listening to the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning. On it was the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, an eloquent man who rather delightfully described the whole phone hacking affair as a ‘rumpty to’, or at least that’s what I think I heard. The nice thing about Christopher Graham is that although he has an axe to grind – he wants stricter penalties for breaches of privacy by the media and others – he makes his case in a measured tone backed by (very current) evidence of why his recommendations make sense. For this reason I find him quite compelling to listen to.
I am not saying this because I want to curry favour with the ICO (although we are working with them on the implications for one of my business interests). Rather it is out of desire to hear more argument like this and less of the usual base level of political debate to which we are exposed. ‘Yah boo’ politics as it has been termed is the absolute antithesis of evidence-based, consensus-driven progress that I believe most intelligent people, of most political flavours, would like to see. For me ‘Yah boo’ politics’ is about more than just objecting to the opposition’s policies whatever they may be (as the term is defined in one online dictionary). It is the way that objection is communicated: shouty criticism based on heavily biased stats; beating each other up with histories of previous decisions, actions, or inactions; the constant calling for a politician’s head whenever a mistake is made.
This last point is a neat segue into the media, because of course it isn’t just the politicians themselves who are responsible for the descent of decent debate. The media plays a role: it fuels fundamentalist fervour, sways even the sensible with threats of ridicule or exposure, undercuts the authoritative with irrational arguments. The Murdoch papers are far from the only culprits in this case, though they are the ones most in the spotlight today for using underhand tactics in order to generate stories to support their positions or diminish those of others. And the prospect of their demise seems to have emboldened MPs to challenge all of the media, not just the NewsInt hegemony.
I hope that they – and we – seize this opportunity to reset the tone of political debate. Sadly I don’t see much evidence of that from our leaders so far, but it isn’t just an idle hope. A friend of mine – he can reveal himself in the comments if he chooses – has good experience of politicians in action, behind closed doors and away from the media spotlight and the Westminster furnace. He tells me that absent the pressure of media appearance and party lines, politicians are eminently capable of agreeing with each other and finding common ground. Of listening to evidence and rational argument and choosing a common path for progress.
Of course they don’t agree on everything and there will remain differences over issues of rightly and fiercely held principles. But even where that remains the case, however passionate the debate, it should remain one of logic and fact.
The desire to see more consensus based politics like this is what drove me – and many other people – to vote Liberal Democrat for the first time at the last general election. That was an experiment that hasn’t turned out too well, as the Conservatives have forced through a programme driven by radical right-wing ideology barely disguised by a veil of pragmatism.
But I haven’t completely given up hope. Though I will most likely revert to voting Labour at the next election, I hope that by the time I do so it might be in a less fevered climate where both politicians and media can take a more considered, more consensual view.
I’m not naive though: it is very much more hope than expectation.