I can’t hide my nervousness: broadcast for the first time tonight is a radio programme I have been trying to develop for several years (indeed I posted about it nearly four years ago!). Of course, I hope it sounds good and is reasonably entertaining but just as important that it helps to get across the idea that originally inspired me.
The programme is called Agree to Differ and the first edition – on Radio 4 at 8.00 pm - is on the topic of fracking. The format involves me chairing a discussion between two people who hold strongly opposing views. Our job, working together as much as the protagonists are willing, is to try to agree what their disagreement is about. We divide the issue into three segments and see whether at the end of each we can find a form of words that the guests will accept adequately summarises the basis of their differences.
Recording the programmes it has been fascinating to see how the debate has unfolded. Tonight, as I had envisaged, the two rivals - George Monbiot against fracking and James Woudhuysen in favour - do indeed get under the surface of the issue, relegating some of the controversies that have received the most publicity and focussing on others which they both view as more significant.
Other programmes, however, have gone in a different direction. In one, the format led two high profile people who have been on opposite sides of a highly charged, sometimes even violently contested, issue ending up agreeing on almost everything. While in a third, despite me feeling there was quite a bit on which the protagonists might agree to differ, they found it very hard to get past their accumulated and mutual suspicion.
The inspiration for the programme was my frustration at the tendentious nature of most political and policy debates as they are reported or take place in the broadcast media. Put simply these are versions of ‘I believe in good sense and the public interest while my opponent is blinkered and self interested’ to which comes the reply ‘no, I believe in good sense and the public interest while it is my opponent who is blinkered and self interested’. The consequence is that very often the issue in question becomes more, not less, opaque to the average viewer or listener. ‘Imagine’ I thought ‘if we applied the kind of techniques used in mediation to shed much less heat and much more light?’ Vital to that method is requiring that the protagonists resist caricaturing each other’s position – something which immediately inflames debate – and focus instead on clarifying their own stance.
It’s a pretty simple idea but, as I hoped, it does cast new light on well-rehearsed arguments. From recording just three programmes I formed two conclusions.
The first is that we often fail to pay enough attention to the underlying structure of a debate; is it, for example, one in which matters of detail stand for much more fundamental differences of values, or one in which relatively small differences in starting points have somehow ballooned into what feels like a much more polarised debate than it needs to be?
Second, my original hunch has been confirmed: there is whole industry out there comprising most of party politics, large swathes of the media, lobbying and campaigning which is basically a disorganised, self serving conspiracy to convince the public that just about every issue is the site of deep and profound differences of opinion. About three quarters of the ground of every debate comprises the arid territory of one side’s distorted portrayal of the other side’s views.
Imagine a world where the organised effort of politics and communication was to make things clearer and, where possible, more consensual. Not only would we waste a lot less time and probably make wiser decisions, but we could focus our arguments on stuff that is genuinely important and on which we really do profoundly disagree.
I am incredibly grateful to the folks at Radio 4 for commissioning the first short run (and to its brilliant producer Phil Pegum). The BBC won’t look kindly on me hustling for a second series but if you do feel like listening and tweeting your approval I would be very grateful. And if you don’t like it, well maybe we can agree why not.
Sally Sheniman FRSA
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