How should the Brexit debate be structured, and presented in the media? Two things I’ve seen today pose this question: Vote Leave’s anger at ITV inviting Nigel Farage to debate against David Cameron; and the letter from 196 economists in favour of Remain.
These raise two general issues, which I’m not sure the media handle well.
One is: what to do about counter-advocacy, the fact that some proponents of a case are so awful that they detract from what might be a strong argument?
Vote Leave’s unhappiness at their case being represented by Farage is, I think, justified. He is likely to put the case for Brexit as a means towards immigration controls rather than – as at least a few of its advocates hope – as a step towards the UK becoming an open free-trading nation. For me, this would detract from the Brexit argument.
This is by no means the only example of counter-advocacy. When I see the Brexit case put by Andrew Lilico or Gerard Lyons, I see good intelligent men making arguments that require thought. When I see it put by Boris Johnson, I see only a blustering buffoon. For me, the prominence of the latter over the former weakens the Brexit case. And seeing this disgraceful display of arrogant disingenousness from Dominic Cummings shifted my position from being mildly opposed to Brexit to strongly so.
Not that the counter-advocacy is all on one side: Cameron’s claim that Brexit would increase the risk of conflict in Europe seems to me to be silly hyperbole.
The second question, raised by Simon’s letter, is: how to tackle the imbalance of numbers? For example, a debate on the economics of Brexit between (say) John van Reenen and Patrick Minford would no doubt be intelligent and informed. But it would be horribly misleading to viewers insofar as it would omit a key point – that for every one economist who agrees with Patrick there are perhaps five or six who agree with John.
All this makes me wonder whether TV or radio debates are a good way to inform the public. On top of the problems of how to avoid counter-advocacy and how to represent imbalances of expert opinion there are two other problems.
One is that debates are a lousy way of presenting facts. A downright false claim – such as that the EU costs us £350m per week – can be met only with denial, leaving the undecided listener none the wiser as to what the truth is.
The other is that debates are naturally polarizing; partisans are expected to advocate that all benefits lie on their side. This disguises what might be crucial facts, that either position has costs. Reasonable people might believe any of the following: that a small loss of GDP is a price worth paying for increased national self-determination; that short-term uncertainty is the cost of what might be a shift to freer trade in the long-run; or that being tied into undemocratic and sclerotic institutions are the price we must pay for the benefits of access to the single market. Nuanced positions such as these tend to get ignored in simple pro- and anti- debates.
In saying all this, I’m not just making a point about Brexit. There’s a deeper question here, touched upon by Simon: do we have the institutions that best enable informed and rational political decision-making? I fear we don’t, and that the old media – even those parts of it that aspire to impartiality – are a big part of the problem.