Finally, the British voters got what they had always wanted – a real debate between politicians on the merits and disadvantages of Britain’s continued EU membership. The political elite and main party leaders may have snubbed the debate and thumbed their noses at the concerns and sentiments of the people, but the discussion went ahead nonetheless, thus proving that important and thorny issues will be debated and tackled in Britain, even when it does not dovetail conveniently with the news strategies of the main political parties.
This blog offered a running, real-time commentary on the debate as it took place, on Twitter.
Nick Clegg, having been nominated to begin the debate, started with the risible and misleading suggestion so beloved of Europhiles that Britain’s trade with Europe and membership of the European Union are essentially one and the same thing – that to leave the political organisation that is the EU would be to build a wall and sever all trade ties with our continental European trading partners. Of course, in reality this is simply not the case, and Nigel Farage took the earliest opportunity to swat down this false argument.
Farage continued his strong start by cunningly reversing the question and asking if Britain were currently outside the EU, and given what we all now know about the costs and flaws and drawbacks of EU membership, whether the British electorate would likely vote to join. This simple shifting of the lens on the debate is clever, and moves focus away from distracting side-issues about the mechanics of secession, looking instead specifically at the merits.
The debate then moved on to whether a referendum on British membership of the EU is desirable at all. Here, Farage did a superb job of calling out the main political party leaders for repeatedly promising referenda in the run-up to elections and then back-peddling or stalling when the time came to deliver on the promises.
Here, Nick Clegg was firmly on the defensive, continually resorting to the official line that he might deign to grant the British people a say on future EU membership, but only in the event of some future treaty change. The justification for this particular stance, at one time used by all of the major political party leaders, has never been convincingly made. People in Britain are unhappy with the EU as it is now, not with how it might be after some as-yet unknown treaty modification. So why can the debate and the referendum not take place on Britain’s current status quo relationship with the EU? As this blog observed at the time, if you catch someone stealing from you, you don’t wait until the next theft before alerting the police, you would do so immediately. And so if Britain’s EU membership has been acting against our national interests, why should the British people have to wait until the next harm is caused to the country before seeking redress?
Of course, the topic of immigration was raised, thus exposing the major chink in UKIP’s armour – the perception that the party and its supporters are hostile to immigrants per se. The fact that the question was asked by an audience member of the ‘swivel-eyed lunatic’ type appearance and then heartily embraced by Farage did not help matters. A party that aims to abhor regulation and restrictions on business and the market really needs to ask itself if continued opposition to immigration is a sound policy in 21st century Britain.
Aside from this inevitable rocky point, Farage remained combative and humorous throughout, while Clegg – despite deploying his usual tricks of staring into the camera and repeating the names of audience members as many times as possible – seemed defensive and on the back foot. There was even time for an awkward Marco Rubio-style on-camera gulp of water from the Deputy Prime Minister.
Farage landed yet another blow on Clegg when he reminded viewers of the apocalyptic doomsday scenarios laid out by pro-Europeans in the 1990s, claiming that Britain’s economy would be dealt a mortal blow if we failed to sign up for the single European currency. “Thank God we didn’t listen,” thundered Farage, to loud applause.
This left Nick Clegg scrabbling around for any remaining mud to sling at Nigel Farage and the Eurosceptic movement. In the end, he resorted to a beloved bogeyman of British social discourse, paedophilia. Nick Clegg, in his desperation to score a final point against Nigel Farage, actually appeared to suggest that British secession from the EU would eradicate Britain’s ability to extradite and prosecute paedophiles – a ludicrous argument, and basically a reassertion of the false argument that Britain would leave the EU without drawing up replacement political, trading and justice treaties with the remaining member states.
And on that damp squib of a counter-argument, save only the closing statements, the debate was over. A solid victory for Nigel Farage, one might have thought, until one witnessed the commentary on television and the internet.
Several commentators rightly pointed out that the media showed several worrying signs of institutional bias. In the buildup to the televised debate, ably anchored by Kay Burley on Sky News, at one point a panel member – a visiting university student from America – was asked if she was ‘worried’ or ‘alarmed’ by the fact that Britain was debating the topic as she landed in the country. Never mind the fact that the poor girl clearly knew next to nothing about what the EU is or how it works, the question was so leading as to be risible. Rather than painting the in/out decision in more clinical terms and asking for a comment, it was suggested to the American student that the very idea of Britain leaving the European Union is alarming and scary. Naturally, the student – on live television – agreed with the questioner that it was indeed a scary prospect. So much for objective coverage.
Peter Oborne, writing in The Telegraph, also found significant institutional fault in the way that the mainstream media handled the coverage and the issue of Britain’s EU membership in general. Oborne saw a deliberate attempt to spin the results of the debate as a victory for Nick Clegg and the pro-European side, until the overwhelming results of the post-debate poll forced them to amend their stories:
Last night’s debate between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg was a very good example of this phenomenon. The lobby wanted a Clegg win and … collectively called victory for Clegg the moment that the debate was over.
It was only when the YouGov poll came through showing that Farage had won the debate hands-down with the public that lobby journalists were forced into an abrupt U-turn.
I am not going to embarrass reporters by naming names. However, it is fair to hold both Sky and the BBC to account.
Oborne concludes that the UKIP and Eurosceptic-leaning side not only have to win their argument in the court of public opinion, but also overcome a second opponent in the British press:
Farage is leading a political insurgency. Last night was a reminder that Ukip’s opponents are not just the other political parties, but also the mainstream British media.
The Spectator also picked up on the media’s U-turn upon realising that their preferred narrative was falling apart in the face of the YouGov poll:
Nick Clegg had been given the night off babysitting; but, after the poll verdict on tonight’s EU debate with Nigel Farage, he may wish he’d stayed at home with the kids. As the dust settled, the Deputy Prime Minister was bundled into a car and fled the field of battle. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage headed for a victory lap at the Reform Club, where his party donors had been watching.
Backstage, Westminster’s hack-pack was necking cheap vino and Pret sandwiches after carrying out a spectacular volte face. Initially ‘the spin room’ had called the duel for Clegg, on both style and substance. But, as news of the Sun/YouGov poll filtered through to the scribblers, headlines were rewritten and awkward tweets deleted. Soon, only the BBC was left flying the Clegg flag, with the help of Danny Alexander and Tim Farron.
And even now, in the cold light of a new day, the general consensus from the headlines appears to be that that it was an honours-even draw, and that there were ‘no knock-out blows’:
The question of the hour, should Britain stay in the European Union? But the question now being asked? Who won, Nick or Nigel?
Well, it might be disappointing but both men certainly remain standing after tonight’s event. Neither was knocked to the ground and both sides will be pleased with how their leaders performed.
Given the testy nature of the debate and the fact that Nick Clegg was on the back foot for nearly the entire duration, one wonders what would have had to happen – short of either man accidentally lighting his podium on fire – for the news media to declare an actual victory for either side.
And this typifies a problem that is becoming endemic in the news media, not only in Britain but also in the United States. All too often, there is such a tremendous pressure to appear nonbiased and objective that news organisations are terrified to report on anything of a partisan nature without giving equal balance to both arguments. The compulsion to treat both sides of an argument as equally valid and legitimate – even when one is clearly correct and the other one wrong – is paralysing the ability of many news outlets to correctly report the news, even when there is no deliberate attempt to give favourable editorial treatment to a particular side.
The only news outlet with a convincing explanation (i.e. one not based on bipartisan spinelessness) for why both UKIP and the Liberal Democrats seem happy with last night’s debate is The Spectator:
Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage may have looks straight into the same camera and appeared to be addressing the same audience, but they were aiming for different listeners. That’s why the Lib Dems were happy with the 36 per cent that they polled last night. It demonstrates to them that there is some kind of constituency that likes to hear a politician being honest that he likes Europe and that he is pessimistic about Britain’s chances outside the EU.
Last night’s result also demonstrates that even if you appear a bit ratty and sweaty at times, as Nigel Farage did to those who are not instinctively his supporters, you can still win the debate, because there is a bigger constituency of voters who do agree with what you are saying, even if you’re not as polished as Nick Clegg. Thus the first of the two debates went very well for both parties: both were shoring up their own bases and motivating them to vote in elections with typically very low turnout. The real mission for these party leaders is to get their voters to go to the polling booths, not bother about people who haven’t made up their minds.
This ‘one debate, two audiences’ explanation makes a good deal of sense.
Of course, there is one further debate to take place, this one hosted by the BBC on Wednesday 2 April. Again, the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have declined to participate. And once again, despite their resistance and the timidity of much of the British press, the public will continue to debate the issues in their absence.