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Saturday, February 23, 2019

Recommended podcast #3 - The Briefing Room

David Aaronovitch, presenter of  BBC Radio 4's The Briefing Room
‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.  … Stick to Facts, sir!’
Mr Gradgrind, whose words open Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times, does not have good reputation in the education world. He is regularly wheeled out whenever exams are denounced for having too much emphasis on learning stuff and not enough on thinking for yourself. He’s not meant to be sympathetic; there’s a clue in his name.

And yet, he does have a point. Surely not? Not for debaters? Isn’t debating meant to be all about thinking for yourself, not just regurgitating stuff you’ve learnt? Isn’t that what you said in Why debate #1 - It teaches you how to think?

Well, yes. But you have to have something to base your thinking on. Having opinions without any facts to base them on is like trying to drive a car without any petrol in; no matter how skilfully you steer, you won’t get anywhere. Knowledge about the world and what is happening in it right now - sometimes known as current affairs - is absolutely vital for debaters.

Where to get those facts from? There is no shortage of information out there. Mainstream newspapers, radio, TV and even, for the long view, printed books, along with the vast uncharted forest of social media, are all available 24/7, and all promise to tell you what is going on. Navigating your way through them, though, is another matter. Each outlet will have its own bias, its own angle, its own agenda to advance; even if all the information is correct, some aspects will be played up and others played down. Detecting bias in the way information is presented is a vital skill not just for debating, but for life, and one we will cover in later posts.

For now, though, there is one place where you will find facts, lots of facts, about the issues most immediately in the news and most likely to come up in debates. BBC Radio 4’s The Briefing Room is an opinion-free zone, and all the better for it. Each week the presenter David Aaronovitch invites experts to inform us on the facts behind the issues. They speak clearly and informatively, and he asks the sort of questions we want asked. It is worth searching up, for example, the two episodes broadcast in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, one from a Leave voting area, one from Remain. Two and a half years on, they explain the issues behind Brexit better than anything I’ve read or heard recently. 


Aaronovitch’s concern is never to persuade, always to understand. A debater’s job is to persuade; but first, she needs to understand. Listening to The Briefing Room will help you to understand the world better, and will make you a better debater.

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