Steve Richards: Brexit TV clashes are getting us nowhere

Written by Steve Richards on 10 June 2016 in Opinion

It is not easy for an old argument to appear decisive even in the novel context of peak time TV schedules

We are in the final phase of the referendum, the TV round of the campaign. Virtually every night there is an event on peak time television watched by millions.

In recent days David Cameron has appeared on Sky News and ITV. George Osborne and Hilary Benn got peak time slots with Andrew Neil on BBC1. There has been a debate, three on each side, on ITV at a time in the evening normally reserved for soap operas or football.

For those of us convinced that politics is as compelling as football and more important this TV festival should be a source of celebration. Instead I am worried that the festival is not getting us very far. 

Here is one of the few objective facts in this campaign: There is not a single fresh argument to be had about the UK’s membership of the EU. The arguments have been advanced and repeated many times since Cameron announced the date of the referendum earlier this year and arguably for years before that.

There has been wall to wall coverage from the moment the date was revealed and no surprises of any significance. We could have scripted every move, exchange, soundbite, article long ago. This is not the fault of the advocates or the TV outlets. The arguments are what they are and they have been what they are for a long time.

This is partly due to the timing of the referendum. The EU is not a static body. At some point there will be another treaty, taking into account the traumas in the Eurozone, the difference pace and direction of travel of member countries. After that there may be fresh arguments to be had. Perhaps they will be had. The last parliament agreed to hold referendums on any treaty changes that transfers power from Westminster.

As this referendum has demonstrated it is easy to argue that Westminster is already virtually powerless, even if the argument is wrong.  This is not the first referendum on the EU and it will not be the last. But the next referendum is for the near future. For now the arguments over the economy, immigration, security and the rest are of pivotal, historic importance and yet are familiar to the point of tedium.

In spite of the familiarity the grammar of the TV events gives the impression viewer are watching the equivalent of the world cup final. There is the frenzied build up, the participants filmed arriving at the studios, the pundits giving their previews of what might happen. Afterwards there is a similar sequence, the advocates filmed leaving the studios, the pundits giving their verdicts, bulletins extended to provide the fullest analysis, the lead on every bulletin for many hours. In between not very much happens.

After the ITV event with Cameron and Nigel Farage the top line seemed to be that the audience was “angry”. In fact they seemed politely probing to me, not as aggressive as some interviewers have affected to be.

Even if they were angry it would not have been significant. The audience would have been carefully selected not least on grounds of balance. But this audience was calm and, to ITV’s credit, producers did not feel compelled to whip up a frenzy of  anger as the more tabloid BBC Question Time tends to do. The audience’s apparent anger was a top line because Cameron and Farage, both performing well, had absolutely nothing new to assert.

There are several consequences of the familiar being part played out in the context of a novel TV festival. Neurotically aware that there is not a fresh argument under the sun both sides have resorted to exaggerated claims. Those claims are then tested in the TV festivals to the point where leading advocates and the viewers get submerged in incomprehensible figures.

‘Out’ has got into most trouble, not least with the high profile defection of the Conservative MP, Sarah Wollaston on the grounds that its claims about the amount the UK pays into the EU are not true. But more widely almost certainly such exchanges about the ‘truth’ of statistics fuel mistrust of the so called elites. As ‘Remain’ is wrongly seen as being part of the loathed ‘elite’ and the ‘Westminster bubble’ the fuelling of mistrust probably harms its cause more than the Out campaign.

Similarly most of the TV events have been declared as ‘draws’ even though it seems, at least to this particular viewer, that the Remain advocates have put forward an overwhelmingly powerful economic case.  The problem is that the overwhelming economic case has been in place for years. It is not easy for an old argument to appear decisive even in the novel context of peak time TV schedules. In addition the broadcasters need to be very careful about declaring winners in the many follow up programmes and extended bulletins. Obliged to be impartial they cannot judge that, say, Cameron ‘won’ on the economy without appearing to support the arguments. Declaring a ‘draw’ is safest.

Perhaps one of the TV events will change this campaign dramatically. I was in Scotland when the second debate between Alastair Darling and Alex Salmond took place. Salmond was the easy ‘winner’ and the mood of the entire campaign changed tangibly. Cleggmania in the 2010 general election was generated solely by Nick Clegg’s performance in the first leaders’ debate. But I suspect if there is an equivalent in the referendum it will be because of the style of a performer, a witty retort, a gaffe.

In terms of the arguments there is no fresh ammunition on either side. These TV political world cup finals continue into the final week. Long ago both sides used up every new goal scoring opportunity.


About the author

Steve Richards is chief political commentator on The Independent.

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