The media’s preference for advocate-led, adversarial debate is failing the public.

It’s a familiar format; a moderator sits in the centre of a studio flanked by advocates representing both sides of whatever issue is being discussed. The advocates deploy their arguments amid accusations and interruptions while the moderator attempts to keep control. It is a set-up that is so popular as to be almost ubiquitous in Irish broadcasting.

There are good reasons for the media to prefer this approach to addressing the contentious issues of the day – not least because a heated argument between rabid conservatives on one side and hysterical liberals on the other makes for good radio and television. Less cynically, the media are motivated by a desire (and, in the case of a referendum, a legal requirement) to give equal time to both sides of an argument. This serves the interests of fairness and balance and it’s not unreasonable to believe that the public is best served by a debate in which the claims of one side can be vigorously challenged by the other.

However, there are at least three ways in which society is being failed by the dominance of the advocate-led, adversarial-debate format.

Firstly, while this kind of discussion may be entertaining and “balanced”, it has failed to build consensus or understanding on issues that Irish society has struggled to address for decades. The most obvious example is the debate around abortion, which is hugely divisive and characterised by rancour and spite.

We should not be surprised that the abortion debate has become polarised since, in the Irish media, the discussion is almost wholly given over to “activists” from both sides; people with huge emotional-investment in the righteousness of their views; people who are the most likely to assume that their opponents are motivated by malign intent; people who are the least likely to ever change their mind or see the value of compromise.

A polarised debate is not merely unpleasant – it is in large-part responsible for our society’s failure to resolve this issue. The tendency of the media to prefer conflict over calm dialogue has made abortion the “third rail” of Irish politics which politicians, sensibly, dare not touch until some tragedy or outrage forces them into whatever knee-jerk response they think will get abortion out of the headlines most quickly.

The second failure of the adversarial format is that it implicitly assumes that there are two equally valid sides to every issue. Exhibit A is the farcical debate around whether vaccination causes autism in which a group of cranks grasping a handful of debunked papers are given equal status with almost the entire professional medical community.

In an Irish context, we need only look at the same-sex-marriage referendum in which the “No” side was given free-reign to repeat a variety of long-falsified claims again and again. They did this largely without interruption by moderators who were more focused on ensuring that both sides had equal speaking time despite the fact that the “Yes” side were then forced to spend much of their allotted time rebutting the falsehoods and distortions peddled by their opponents.

The third failure lies in the assumption that the public is best informed by a debate in which opposing sides are free to discuss whatever specifics of a particular issue they feel most comfortable addressing.

In Ireland, the abortion debate is, once again, illustrative of the problem. It is, I trust, not controversial to say that a central consideration in this issue is the question of whether (or when) the unborn is a person with the right to life. The pro-life side of the debate has long been dominated by conservative Catholics who believe that human life is sacred and inviolable from conception. The pro-choice side would prefer to focus the discussion on the emotional and physical suffering of women facing crisis pregnancies. Neither side has any interest in discussing whether term limits should be imposed on abortion or what those limits should be. As a result, the Irish debate on abortion has failed to address questions that are ethically-important and vital to any practical implementation of abortion legislation. Facts and arguments, which could be persuasive to anyone inclined to think that the unborn becomes a person at some point between conception and birth, remain largely unexplored.

None of this should be taken to suggest that consensus is always preferable to conflict or that there aren’t situations where a robust, confrontational debate is genuinely valuable. The problem is that the dominance of the advocate-led, adversarial format means that a person who is willing to admit that they don’t have all the answers is effectively disqualified from any meaningful participation in a broadcast discussion of social issues.

The Irish media frequently roll their eyes at the political point-scoring and Punch-and-Judy –style antics in Leinster House while happily facilitating the same mode of debate on Prime Time and Pat Kenny Tonight. Allow me suggest that they might instead consider formats that would better-encourage an informative, productive national conversation. I just fear my suggestion is too moderate to get their attention.

2 thoughts on “The failing format of Irish broadcast debate

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