onsdag 11 april 2018

The death of civilised debate

The Guardian has been steadily reducing the number of articles on which comments are allowed. On the newspaper’s web site, which used to appear under the slogan “Comment is Free”,  attributed to its famous editor C P Scott, comment is now restricted to the most trivial of topics. As for the commenting opportunities that still remain; where, formerly, comment was normally open for three days, it is usually closed after a few hundred responses.

There are many reasons why this has happened. The newspaper has been a staunch defender of immigration, looks down on criticism of Islam and regards Islamic immigration as unproblematic. This was a widely held view, before Isis and the series of sexual abuse cases came to public attention. These called forth responses ranging from reasonable criticism to xenophobia and outright racism. On the other side, the reasonable criticism was attacked as racist or Islamophobic.

Then came Brexit, an issue which has divided the British bitterly. This is reflected in press attitudes. Both The Guardian and the Financial Times took a line strongly defensive of the EU, to the point that criticism was almost off-limits. The Mail, predictably, took a populist and jingoistic stance, whilst the Telegraph adopted a similar position, though tailored to its better educated and older readers.

There is a reasonable case for Brexit which has rarely been presented, not least because, on the whole, Brexit supporters themselves do not understand the potential benefits; this extends even to academic supporters such as Minford. Although the “remain” case is largely based on mercantilist thinking which was refuted by the classical economists, remainers took the stance that the Brexiters were all old, stupid, xenophobic, and malevolent. Thus, public debate has largely been reduced to assertion and name-calling.

On top of that there is a decline in manners, possibly aggravated by the anonymity of the internet. Disagreement is widely expressed by starting a response with “rubbish”, “nonsense”, “piffle”, or obscenities.

On top of that again is the alleged use of spamming factories, with the Russians and Chinese being blamed. They might well be responsible, but if they are, they are not responsible for creating the fertile ground in which they can gain influence and credibility. The guilty ones are the politicians and media people who want to project a particular view of the world whilst pretending that issues which affect the public at a daily level simply do not exist.

And so the forum for public debate is shrinking and coming under increasing pressure. It does not augur well.

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