Wednesday, 23 September 2015

A Rather Comfortably Warm Seat

A Rather Comfortably Warm Seat

Voice for Children has recently criticised the BBC for its lack of balance with the “Hot Seat” programme:

“Every month the Chief Minister is invited on to the show supposedly to be challenged on his policies, actions, and in-actions, but the reality is, there is no challenge, and the programme is little more than a Party Political Broadcast for The Establishment Party”

“The Chief Minister is NOT joined on the show by any politician with alternative views or policies, he holds court, and listeners could be led to believe there are no alternatives to his policies including the Medium Term Financial Plan and the austerity measures being implemented by the government. How is this a balanced view for State Radio listeners? In the interest of fairness and balance the Chief Minister should be joined on the show by somebody/ANYBODY with an alternative view or a researched/challenging compare/host. Unfortunately the BBC looks to have adopted a policy where there can be no robust political debate and politicians/people with differing views cannot be live on-air together.”

Deputy Sam Mezec has called it “A propaganda hour.”   I would not go that far, but I have some sympathy with their views.

The programme is both an opportunity for questions to be asked, but also an opportunity for the Chief Minister to air the position and plans of the Council of Ministers. It cannot be otherwise: if people don’t phone in, or in between phone calls, how else is the empty space on the airwaves to be filled?

The idea is that people who are in positions of power are “in the hot seat”, and this works very well when you have non-political positions. The Managing Director of Condor Ferries, for example, would be a good example, if he feels brave enough to answer questions. It is both an opportunity – to explain and answer criticism – and also a chance for the public to have their say.

But once you enter the political arena, there is always a problem with balance. The BBC has got clear guidelines about Party Political Broadcasts in the UK:

“Party broadcasts are quite separate from our own journalism and their transmission does not imply BBC support for the views contained in them.”

And there is also a guideline in place:

“Any approach by a government department to relay official messages or information films which involve a degree of public policy or political controversy must be referred to Chief Adviser Politics”

The problem comes in Jersey where there is only one political party, there is not really any official “party politics”, and a forum like “In the Hot Seat” actually provides the Chief Minister an opportunity to explain his Council of Minister’s policies without airing contrary views by other members of the States.

Unlike a Party Political Broadcast, there is an opportunity for questions, but on the other hand, Ian Gorst is being given a golden opportunity for publicity for the Council of Ministers that other members of the States do not. And there is always the danger that supporters of the Council of Ministers can call in and ask “loaded questions”. It is not clear how that can be avoided. The BBC after all, must allow a variety of views.

Now Reform would like someone from their party as “the only opposition” to have a say, but equally it could be argued that Scrutiny does a good job of producing reports to hold the Council of Ministers to account. In a sense then, the Chairs of various Scrutiny panels could also be seen as “the opposition”.

In so far as Scrutiny provides a different viewpoint, but also an opportunity to talk about issues, or about reports they have published, and invite public questions, I think they should also be invited on to be “in the hot seat”.

That’s not to say that Reform could not also have a “bite of the cherry” with their own proposals, because some of the statements they make certainly get public comment in other forums, such as the JEP.

But Scrutiny provides an exceptionally important function. For instance, a recent report about vacant housing, and proposals for what to do about it, was produced by a Scrutiny committee. Surely it is right that the chairman of that committee should be “in the hot seat” answering questions about it, and saying why the Council of Ministers should take up proposals?

So I think more could be done to improve matters to provide a broader outline of political variation within the States of Jersey. It’s almost like a “right to reply”, and it would be an acknowledgement that a programme that puts a politician in “the hot seat” is also giving them free airtime and publicity.

Looking further afield, I came across an article “Political talk radio and democratic participation” by Karen Ross in “Media Culture Society” (2004). This posed the question: to what extent can programmes which engage directly with the public enhance the political process in ways that are more genuinely participative

In particular, it looked at a “hot seat” election call series of programmes, which were clearly a special case, but I think are still instructive. I think the motivations are probably similar:

“The reasons why members of the public decide to ring the Election Call hotline are numerous but the most frequently mentioned were: longstanding disquiet about a broad issue (76 percent); desire to speak to a particular politician and/or party spokesperson (54 percent); and anger over personal experience (10 percent).”

I’d say that range of callers probably is reflected very much in those calling the Jersey “Hot Seat” as well, although there may be the unwelcome caller who really wants their five minutes of fame, but you will always have that.

Call me a cynic, but I also think that politicians develop almost a reflex action to prevaricate, and not answer questions directly or simply. It is a defence mechanism, which is almost Pavlovian in its operation. I would suspect the following is true of callers’ perception of their calls:

“Of crucial importance in a phone-in programme that purports to enable dialogue between the public and the politicians is the extent to which callers feel that they (and their question) have been treated seriously. When asked, 41 percent of callers gave an unequivocal ‘yes’ to this question, a further 26 percent said that the politician had answered the question but only superficially or with some kind of spin, and 29 percent gave an unequivocal ‘no’ or said they had been ‘fobbed off’.”

The study concluded that: “What seemed to be consistently revealed in our study was the credibility gap that exists between the political rhetoric of democratic participation and respect ‘for the people’, and the lived experience of publics attempting an engagement with the political process”

It also noted that most politicians are highly skilled in the art of dissembling and that interviewers have a very hard time in pinning them down, which has been noted in other studies. And the report says that:

“The format of the programme does, to some extent, limit the likelihood of real dialogue, since callers are hurried through to make room for the next one waiting. Part of the reason for cutting callers short is doubtless to stop the boring caller and/or release the embarrassed politician, but partly it is also because the programme must sit within the ‘infotainment’ genre, which requires a pacy rhythm and a stream of different views, including hostile ones, to maintain audience interest.”

As a result, the “perceptions of most of those engagements are that they constitute little more than gentle probing with an instant withdrawal if the politician seems irritated by the line of questioning.”

Or as we might say with respect to Ian Gorst in “The Hot Seat”, it seems rather more like a rather comfortably warm seat!

1 comment:

Deputy Sam Mézec said...

The chairs of Scrutiny Panels would be the first people to say that they are absolutely not an opposition voice and strictly avoid acting in such a way. Scrutiny serves a completely different purpose.

Ian Gorst gets a monthly slot on the BBC for him to talk about what he wants to for an hour and receives no effective challenge, not least of all from the presenter.

No opposition voice gets an automatic slot like that on the same basis.

That's bias, pure and simple.

But worst of all, it's crap radio.