Political Debate Actually

Watching last night’s Question Time was fascinating for many reasons but, for me, ultimately showed the bankruptcy of our current political discourse. Almost the entire programme was, quite rightly, taken up by the News of the World phone hacking scandal with Rupert Murdoch shutting down the title, laying off over two hundred staff, but failing to sack its editor at the time, and current CEO of News Corp, Rebekah Brooks. The political aspect of the story revolves around the arrest, again, of Andy Coulson, who resigned from the News of the World in 2007, and then went on to become the Conservative party’s press secretary. David Cameron is facing tough questions concerning his judgement in appointing Coulson, not to mention the closeness of his relationship with Brooks and Murdoch himself. Having failed to call for Brooks’ resignation when pressed by Ed Miliband at PMQs, the ambiguity and awkwardness of Cameron’s position was obvious. All of this is framed by News Corps’ attempt to fully take over BskyB and the leaking of information to News of the World journalists by the Metropolitan Police.

Discussing all of these issues on Question Time were three representatives of the main political parties: Chris Grayling (Conservative), Douglas Alexander (Labour) and Shirley Williams (Liberal Democrat). Joining them, and this provided the most intriguing part of the discussion, were right-wing shock-jock and former Sun columnist Jon Gaunt, and (not so) floppy-haired charmer (and former “Prime Minister” ) Hugh Grant. Grant’s inclusion on the panel derives from his public antipathy toward tabloid culture, he is an ardent supporter of injunctions against the press having had his own phone hacked. The first time I heard him speak on the issue however was on Radio 5 live when he came across as articulate, knowledgeable and, above all, direct. When I saw he was a guest on Question Time I wondered how he would fair against well-briefed and seasoned political debaters.

Whatever one thinks of Hugh Grant, or his films (and I can take or leave either) the clarity of his points from the outset cut to the heart of the matter and the audience seemed largely in agreement with what he was saying. Undoubtedly his demeanour and delivery demonstrated a person used to public speech and I think his arguments were aided by an extra dollop of charm and star performance. His persona contrasted greatly with that of Jon Gaunt whose blustering, shouty soap-boxing and cringe-worthy winks to David Dimbleby were, frankly, pretty annoying. However, Gaunt was also clear, decisive and reasoned with his opinions and the two of them agreed at times and clashed others but, in essence, provided a clear debate (apart from when Gaunt couldn’t resist a cheap shot at Grant for his arrest with Hollywood prostitute Devine Brown).

What struck me however was the ineptitude of the politicians at being able to articulate directly their points without mitigating clauses or deliberate obfuscation. When Chris Grayling was asked whether a judicial enquiry should be called he gave the classic political evasion. Hugh Grant then turned to the audience and summarised definitively (and with a hint of sarcasm) why Graying could not answer the question: his boss David Cameron doesn’t want to fully cut Murdoch loose. Grant’s statement: “it’s scary you can’t answer that” deconstructed the compromised link between the political elite and the corporate media. Douglas Alexander was not allowed to escape to the position of oppositional safety as both Grant and Gaunt repeatedly pointed to Labour’s wooing of the Murdoch press in the era of Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair. Indeed, the revelation that politicians of all stripes were quaffing champagne at a recent Murdoch party, and the fact that ministers have continually backed away from investigations into News Corp shows the how the government relates to Murdoch with an equal measure fear and awe.

There are huge issues concerning media influence and ownership, privacy laws and what constitutes public interest and the regulation of the press, and the police, that were touched on by the programme. However, it was the fact that Hugh Grant and Jon Gaunt provided the lion’s share of the discursive analysis and political debate that stood out for me. Maybe politicians feel that they cannot be straight, the machinery of government doesn’t allow them to be straight or the media sensationalises everything to the point where a clear and direct argument cannot be had. Maybe Grayling and Alexander were simply star struck. However, last night’s Question Time led me to wonder what has our democratic system become when it is a Hollywood actor and a radio DJ that articulate the ins and outs of an important political issue leaving the politicians stuck in ambivalent semantics. Following on twitter there were numerous lines suggesting “Hugh Grant for PM”. Sadly, I think the irony of this reflects the state of our current political debate and exemplifies the low regard in which our democratic representatives are held.