Successful media performers usually combine instant availability ( don’t these people have lives to live, work to do, children to feed, elderly relatives to take care of????) with the ability to get their point across in a naturalistic way; neither too concise, nor too rambling. Too short an answer and you risk looking like Clement Atlee, the post war Labour leader, about whom one BBC producer said, ‘Feeding questions to Clem is like throwing a dog a biscuit.’
It’s a fine art, there’s no doubt about it, and much harder than it looks. From the odd discussion I have taken part in over the years, I have learned a few things, particularly the importance of deciding beforehand what broad points I want to make plus learning to answer at greater length than possibly feels natural.
Even so, I was quite shocked to discover, while watching myself take part in a recent pre recorded TV discussion, that, while I had made my points reasonably well and not too briefly, all the other (male) panellists spoke at three times the length. In short, they just kept….. talking and talking……..elaborating on their argument and were allowed to do so by the female presenter whereas each time I finished making my first main point, she immediately looked over to one of the men to gauge their response.That meant I had to interrupt her or one of them in order to get my fair share of time.
Put another way, a lot of these debates suit a certain kind of insensitive smug masculine thruster (and a few women fit this description); the person who is convinced his point is not just more important than everyone’s else’s but really, the only point worth making; a self starter who will happily answer his own questions, cut other people short and generally speak with a smooth authority that can come across as instrinsically demeaning to more impassioned or less confident speakers.
Body language comes into it too; there is a way of sitting rock still, without moving a muscle or turning-towards, a failure to engage with other participants that suggests outright dismissal of their contribution.
This is exactly what happened to Sarah Churchwell, the academic, on Newsnight last night , during a discussion on university tuition fees. Churchwell appeared with David Starkey and the historian and the MP Tristram Hunt, both of whom were given ample time to make their argument. Churchwell, confident and articulate and a TV regular, had barely started speaking when she was interrupted by David Starkey, who treated her contribution as a minor irritant and a diversion from the main stream of debate.
The worst of it was, Kirsty Wark, who heckles and hectors virtually every politician she interviews, let him get away with it. Starkey went on and on, including some absurdly snobbish and patronising comments in passing, on the relative merits of UEA versus Cambridge, and ‘cheapo, cheapo’ degrees while Churchwell understandably fumed and Wark allowed Starkey’s increasingly bombastic interventions.
Entertaining? Provocative? Not really. It was one of those moments when I thought; did feminism change the world? Well, yes it did, and no, it didn’t. My teenage daughters, fired up by the politics and protests, were instinctively disgusted.
It was particularly annoying as earlier there had been a courteous and interesting debate, chaired by Wark, between three students, who were excellent, and a very sober looking David Willetts. By allowing the students to speak, we learned something. It was encouraging to see young people talking fluently and seriously but with obvious passion about the tuition fees and what it means for them.
Churchwell was not so lucky.
So can I suggest to the Newsnight team that next time they host a panel debate of this kind, they simply knock up a cardboard cut out of a female contributor, put her in the chair next to the most arrogant man, usually a Newsnight regular, (whose views are familiar to us already, on a range of subjects) stamp her face with the words: TOKEN ARTICULATE ATTRACTIVE FEMALE… give us her website address so we can consider her views at our own leisure, and let the masculine thrusters get on with it.